The first words of the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, drawn from the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, summarize the profound meaning of the liturgical celebrations of the Church and their organization:
Holy Church celebrates the saving work of Christ on prescribed days in the course of the year with sacred remembrance. Each week, on the day called the Lord’s Day, she commemorates the Resurrection of the Lord, which she also celebrates once a year in the great Paschal Solemnity, together with his blessed Passion. In fact, throughout the course of the year the Church unfolds the entire mystery of Christ and observes the birthdays of the Saints. (no. 1)
The liturgical year consists of a seasonal cycle and a sanctoral cycle, called the Proper of Time and the Proper of Saints, respectively. Both are organized and published in a liturgical calendar, which is also enriched by observances proper to local Churches, whether national, diocesan, parish-level, or religious community. The Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ—his suffering, death, and resurrection—is continuously proclaimed and renewed through celebrating the events of his life and in the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
The liturgical year is made up of six seasons:
- Advent – four weeks of preparation before the celebration of Jesus’ birth
- Christmas – recalling the Nativity of Jesus Christ and his manifestation to the peoples of the world
- Lent – a six-week period of penance before Easter
- Sacred Paschal Triduum – the holiest “Three Days” of the Church’s year, where the Christian people recall the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus
- Easter – 50 days of joyful celebration of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit
- Ordinary Time – divided into two sections (one span of 4-8 weeks after Christmas Time and another lasting about six months after Easter Time), wherein the faithful consider the fullness of Jesus’ teachings and works among his people
The mystery of Christ, unfolded through the cycle of the year, calls us to live his mystery in our own lives. This call is best illustrated in the lives of Mary and the saints, celebrated by the Church throughout the year. There is no tension between the mystery of Christ and the celebration of the saints, but rather a marvelous harmony. The Blessed Virgin Mary is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son, and the feasts of all the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in his servants and offer the faithful fitting examples for their imitation.
Each liturgical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent during the preceding calendar year (i.e., the First Sunday of Advent in 2019 began the 2020 liturgical year).
The organization of each liturgical year is governed by the Church and ultimately integrated into a liturgical calendar.
The Second Vatican Council brought renewed emphasis to Sunday as a unique liturgical category: “the Lord’s day is the original feast day” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 106), and it “must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation” (Code of Canon Law, canon 1246 §1). Thus, only a limited number of feasts of the Lord or the saints may take the place of the scheduled Sunday celebration.
Saints and other celebrations are distinguished in accordance with the importance assigned to each one: each is a Solemnity, Feast, or Memorial. Sundays and Solemnities begin their celebration on the evening before, Feasts and Memorials are celebrated over the course of one day, and Memorials are either Obligatory or Optional.
Holy days of obligation (also known as feasts of precept) are days when the faithful are obliged to participate at Mass and abstain from unnecessary work or other activities which hinder the suitable relaxation of mind and body. Each Sunday is a holy day of obligation, and six Solemnities are also observed as feasts of precept in the United States.
Finally, there are other days of prayer and special observances throughout the year that are promoted by the Holy See or the USCCB. For the most part, they are not part of the Church’s liturgical calendar, but they can help focus the prayers of the Church toward the particular needs of the human family.
Holy Days of Obligation Days of Prayer and Special Observances
General Roman Calendar and Recent Additions/Changes
The General Roman Calendar includes “both the entire cycle of celebrations of the mystery of salvation in the Proper of Time, and that of those Saints who have universal significance and therefore are obligatorily celebrated by everyone, and of other Saints who demonstrate the universality and continuity of sainthood within the People of God” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, no. 49).
After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the General Roman Calendar was first promulgated in 1969 by Pope Saint Paul VI, and has subsequently been amended over the years by the Holy See with new celebrations. The last major revision was in 2002, but since the publication of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, the following celebrations have been added to the General Roman Calendar or otherwise changed:
- February 27 – Optional Memorial of Saint Gregory of Narek
- May 10 – Optional Memorial of Saint John of Avila
- May 29 – Optional Memorial of Saint Paul VI
- Monday after Pentecost – Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church
- July 22 – Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene (Preface)
- July 29 – Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus
- September 17 – Optional Memorial of Saint Hildegard of Bingen
- October 5 – Optional Memorial of Saint Faustina Kowalska
- October 11 – Optional Memorial of Saint John XXIII
- October 22 – Optional Memorial of Saint John Paul II
- December 10 – Optional Memorial of Our Lady of Loreto
U.S. Proper Calendar and Recent Additions
The calendar for the universal Church is complemented in this country by the Proper Calendar for the Dioceses of the United States of America, most recently approved in 2010. Two Optional Memorials have been added to the U.S. Proper Calendar since the 2011 implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition:
- January 23 – Optional Memorial of Saint Marianne Cope
- October 5 – Optional Memorial of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos