Detailed knowledge of our liturgical rites is sometimes derided as arcane or obscure. It’s true that sometimes liturgical matters are arcane and obscure.
But in the liturgy lie lessons which teach us about important matters which are neither obscure nor arcane. Thus it is good to know the ins and outs of such matters.
There were a lot of ins and outs in the final week of June, when four “solemnities” fell in the same week: Corpus Christi (June 23), Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24), Sacred Heart of Jesus (June 28) and Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29).
“Solemnity” is the highest rank of feast day in our liturgical calendar. I think “solemn feast” sounds better in English, but “solemnity” is a more literal translation of the Latin “sollemnitas.”
These solemnities include the Most Holy Trinity and Pentecost, the great feasts of the Lord Jesus (Annunciation, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart, Christ the King), the Blessed Mother (Immaculate Conception, Assumption) and the saints (All Saints, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist and Sts. Peter and Paul).
What sets solemnities apart is that they must be celebrated, even if transferred to another date. For example, if the Annunciation falls during Holy Week, it is observed after Divine Mercy Sunday. The lessons that the solemn feasts are intended to teach us cannot be missed.
Which brings us to a liturgical puzzle that arose on June 29, this year a Saturday. Relatively few parishes have Saturday morning Masses; nearly all have anticipated Sunday Masses on Saturday evening. Clearly a Saturday morning Mass would have observed the solemnity of Peter and Paul. But in the evening?
Most parishes likely opted for the Sunday Mass of the next day, the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. But there is something strange about that. If Peter and Paul had fallen upon a Sunday, it would have replaced that Sunday altogether because it has a higher rank than a Sunday in Ordinary Time in the official table which governs the calendar. We can miss a Sunday in Ordinary Time; we can’t miss a solemnity.
So how can it be that a lower-ranking Sunday would bump Peter and Paul on June 29, a Saturday evening? A higher feast does not give way to a lower one.
Many people think that the “Sunday obligation” means attending the Mass of that particular Sunday. But that is incorrect. The Sunday Mass obligation requires Catholics to attend Mass — any Mass at all — on Sunday.
The local bishop will decide the time on Saturday afternoon after which Mass attendance counts for the Sunday obligation. Any Mass celebrated after that time counts for the Sunday obligation. There is an obligation to go to any Mass on Sunday, not to go to the particular Mass for that Sunday.
For example, a wedding or funeral Mass offered on Saturday evening would count for the Sunday obligation. (Usually, wedding and funeral Masses are not celebrated at that time.) Or if the bishop came for Confirmation and celebrated the ritual Mass for Confirmation, those in attendance would clearly not be expected to attend another Sunday Mass to fulfill their Sunday obligation.
So on Saturday evening, June 29, it would have been better to observe the solemnity of Peter and Paul. It’s more important than the 13th Sunday. The Church does not want us to miss the importance of Peter and Paul — the apostolic office — in God’s plan of salvation.
An objection is immediately raised: What if people expect the Sunday Mass? It’s easy enough to explain what is going on, namely that a more solemn feast is replacing a lesser one. And the Sunday obligation is being fulfilled.
What about the readings in the pew missals? Perhaps on this occasion a supplementary sheet will have to be produced with the readings for Peter and Paul.
What about the music and the homily? Will the beleaguered homilist and music director have to double up, preparing for both Peter and Paul on Saturday and then for the 13th Sunday? It turns out Holy Mother Church has a solution for this vexatious burden.
The Church permits any solemnity in Ordinary Time to be shifted to Sunday. So in fact either the Sacred Heart of Jesus or Sts. Peter and Paul could have been celebrated on Sunday, June 30. The former would have been an odd choice, given that the Sacred Heart of Jesus has an association with Friday.
The best solution would have been to observe Peter and Paul on Sunday, June 30, which would have meant all Masses, including the Saturday evening Mass, would have been Peter and Paul. The 13th Sunday would have been omitted, as is foreseen and encouraged in the liturgical books in this situation.
Does it matter? It certainly does. The liturgical calendar puts before us the principal mysteries of the faith. We don’t so much learn the faith in order to live it, as much as we live the faith in order to learn it. And the liturgy is the primary place where we live the faith, as we are embraced by God’s holy word and sacraments.