Save Sunday

The Second Vatican Council says:

“[T]he Lord’s day is the original feast day […]. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.”

I totally agree. The fact that it is Sunday is the most important reason to gather together for a Sunday liturgy. It does not need any other reason. The Sunday itself has a theological meaning – such as the Sabbath, although Christians today do not follow the Old Testament rules for the Sabbath anymore.

Nevertheless there are occasions when the Roman Catholic liturgy is celebrated on a Sunday, although it is not the Sunday which is celebrated. As the Council said: “Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday”.

The “ordinary Sunday” should be the clear framework of the liturgical year. Maybe the most important aspect of that framework – as we have it since 1969/70 – is the course reading of one Gospel per year step by step in a three-year cycle: Matthew, Mark, and Luke (while John is mainly read on other “celebrations of greatest importance”). If you know that and hear the Council’s words but do not know anything about the Roman Catholic calendar, you might think that about 45 or even more Sundays per year are “ordinary,” following this rule.

But that is not the case. The Roman calendar provides a ranking of 13 different degrees of feast days, among which the Sundays in ordinary time are no higher than on rank 6.

There are special Sundays in Lent (six Sundays) and Easter time (eight Sundays, both on rank 2). These Sundays should be no major problem: At least they are clearly directed to the mystery of Easter which is the very source of the Christian Sunday itself, even if they do not have the course reading of the Gospel. But there are also four Sundays in Advent (rank 2) which do not so clearly direct to the mystery of the Sunday but rather to Christmas. Let us accept this as a sign of importance of the Incarnation. With respect to Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter time, the Roman calendar does not count more than 34 ordinary weeks per year.

But there is more. Whenever a solemnity (rank 3 or 4) falls on a Sunday, we celebrate the liturgy of the solemnity, not of the Sunday: Biblical readings, collect, preface, even the color of the vestments is determined by the solemnity, not the Sunday. The community gathers on Sunday, but they do not celebrate the Sunday. Depending on your diocese or order, the number of solemnities with fixed calendar dates might vary a bit, but in every year there are probably around 2 solemnities falling on Sundays. So we are down to 32 ordinary Sundays.

But there is more. Two solemnities (rank 3/4) and one feast day of the Lord (rank 5) are always on Sundays: Baptism of the Lord (Sunday after January 6), Sunday of Trinity (Sunday after Pentecost), and Christ the King (34th Sunday of Ordinary Sunday). So we are down to 29.

But there is more (at least in certain regions of the world following precisely the liturgical law of the Roman or diocesan calendar). If Epiphany (January 6) is not a public holiday it is postponed or preponed to the nearest Sunday. Ascension of the Lord and Corpus Christi are postponed to the following Sunday (regularly on Thursday). Same for the patron saint of the diocese and the patron saints of the parishes. We are down to about 25 ordinary Sundays or less.

But there is more (at least here in Austria, maybe your experience in America is different). Pope and bishops have told us to dedicate certain Sundays to certain “themes”: God’s mercy, prayer for vocations, prayer for the missionaries, Thanksgiving. There is the Sunday for the First Communion, maybe a Sunday for Confirmation. Some parishes celebrate wedding anniversaries on a certain Sunday, etc. These occasions do not necessarily require a new collection of Biblical readings, collects, and so on, but at least they focus the community’s thoughts on other aspects than just the mystery of the Sunday. It is more than realistic to calculate that some parishes celebrate “pure Sundays” not more often than only 15 or 20 times a year.

There might be good and comprehensible reasons for every single of these mentioned cases. But on the whole this development is not helpful. It looks as if Sunday alone is not reason enough for Christians to gather for Eucharist. It looks as if we always need a special theme or a special event as a reason to go to church.

As a person with certain bureaucratic tendencies I often start to design new rules for the Roman calendar that seem more reasonable to me than the actual Roman calendar does. But after a while I start to believe that the problem does not lie with liturgical law. Somewhere deep in our hearts, in our proclamation of faith, and in our spiritual culture we have lost what the Jews have perpetuated in their experience of the Sabbath: that the Sabbath itself is a liturgy of freedom that gives order and meaning to the entire life. The Sabbath does not need to be exceeded or outperformed. It carries its overwhelming meaning in itself. The same should be true for the Christian Sunday, but it is not. Maybe it has not been for many centuries.

So I do not have a precise plan (except creating better rules that no one would follow…), but I see an urgent concern in the Catholic Church: Save Sunday.

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25 comments

  1. Perhaps it would help to reverse the perspective: what the table of liturgical precedence illustrates is that every Sunday *at least* “ranks” as a feast of the Lord. It’s just that sometimes it can be even more. But do we celebrate Sundays as feasts, or instead just like a weekday with fewer people having to go to remunerative work after Mass? That’s seems to be the more serious nub.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Thanks for your remark! A spontaneous thought: Does it make any sense to give the Sunday any rank among other feasts – especially based on SC 106 which I quoted at the beginning of my post? I think the system of “Sunday vs. Weekday” is different from the system of “Solemnity vs. Feast vs. Memorial”. In my eyes, the Sunday does not belong into any ranking of feasts. I don’t know what practical consequences that might have, but I remember e.g. the calendar of the Book of Jubilees which guarantees that no feast day can ever collide with a Sabbath. I find that very inspiring. (And another question is in what sense the Jewish Sabbath is a model for the Christian Sunday.)

  2. Excellent choice of topic and discussion in the post! I too have thought that Sundays shouldn’t be overshadowed by solemnities of the Saints, such as the Assumption, Saints Peter & Paul, etc. (Saint Patrick often trumps or partially trumps a Lenten Sunday in Ireland! But that’s due to belief in an indult that has never existed :-)).

    But perhaps one aspect not mentioned is how Sunday is expressed in the liturgy, specially in the Roman Mass. Unless you’re very sensitive to liturgical texts, you don’t notice what marks out Sunday and why. Perhaps this is something to be part of a future reform of the Roman Rite.

    Finally, do most Catholics know why we have Mass on Sunday? Why specifically Mass?

    Finally, attending a youth conference for Byzantine Orthodox in Belgium many years ago, I was struck by the greeting of a French Orthodox girl on Sunday morning after the Orthodox Divine Liturgy: “Happy feastday!”. It took me a while to understand what she meant.

    1. @Fergus Ryan:
      Thank you! Yes, I agree that one cannot identify anything sunday-ish about the Roman Sunday liturgy (except from very small parts of the Eucharistic prayer). I see the source of this problem in the fact that Romans started to celebrate Eucharist daily in the second half of the first millenium (and then created different ways of simplifying the rite for less important occasions).

      The Eastern custom makes more sense to me: Eucharist is a complex and solemn liturgy – and as it is so complex, solemn and valuable, it is NOT celebrated on every occasion (such as on every weekday and even multiple times in the same church by the same priest), but only on Sundays (and some very important other occasions). So the “sunday-ish” aspect is experienced in the celebration itself which takes place more or less exclusively on Sundays and more or less exclusively in a very solemn and complex order.

      1. @Liborius Lumma:
        I guess I fail to see how the concept would effectively promote what it seeks to promote. I think, rather, the problem is not properly framed. It’s not that we are diluting the concept of Sunday by having varying observances (what evidence do we really have to support that?), but that we’ve allowed our culture to consume Sunday into the rest of the week. I suspect that your idea would ultimately merely feed that process further.

      2. @Liborius Lumma:
        Unless you speak Spanish!

        The Mexican Roman Missal has a “why Sunday is important” preface, and a “why Sunday is important” embolism in Eucharistic Prayer II, that’s inserted every Sunday.

        The 1998 never-approved-by-Rome English Sacramentary had both of these features.

        Here’s the Preface for Sunday X (to be proclaimed on Sundays):
        It is truly right and just…holy Father, almighty and external God.
        From sunrise to sunset this day is holy,
        for Christ has risen upon us today
        and scattered the darkness of death
        with light and life that will not fade.
        This day the risen Lord assembles us,
        unfolds for us your word,
        and breaks for us the bread of life.
        And though the night will bring this Sunday to a close,
        you call us to live in endless light,
        the never ending Day of the Lord.
        And so we join….

        And from EP 2:
        Lord, you are holy indeed, you the are the fountain of all holiness.
        By the resurrection of your Son
        you have renewed creation and made holy this day.
        Through water and the Holy Spirit
        you have called us to the glory that has made us a holy people,
        moving our hearts to proclaim your praise.

    2. @Fergus Ryan:
      I cannot recollect any occasion when St Patrick has trumped (even partially) a Lenten Sunday in liturgy in Ireland – I do recall the feast being postponed to the following Monday, or even, I’m pretty sure, to after Easter when 17 March was in Holy Week. The secular events (parades etc.) for St Patrick still take place on the Sunday.
      While the Feast of the Transfiguration is a favourite of mine (it was the gospel reading at ordination on Ember Saturday in Lent!), I’m sorry it displaces the second reading from the end of Romans 8 this year.

      1. @Padraig McCarthy:

        If I recall correctly, the Irish Bishops in the very early 1970s deliberately converted St Patrick into a solemnity so that it could never be trumped by anything except the Easter Triduum or a Sunday in Lent.

  3. I am not sure I entirely agree with the premise that the Assumption or 2nd Sunday of Advent or Mission Sunday somehow detracts from the “Sunday-ness” of the Sunday mass. On all Sundays, the Lord’s death and resurrection is celebrated. Sometimes that is done by reference to the Incarnation. Sometimes that is done by reference to other mighty words and deeds of Jesus, as for example the “Kingdom of Heaven” parables we heard last week and this coming week. But on all Sundays, we gather as God’s people, the word is proclaimed, the bread is broken, and we’re sent forth to announce the Good News.

    The calendar’s table of precedence simply guides which readings, prayers, colors and so on are used for the Sunday celebration. But because the ministers are vested in purple rather than green, or the readings are proclaimed from different pages in the Lectionary, it’s no less a Sunday celebration. Or so it seems to me.

  4. What specifically about a Sunday Mass in ordinary time, makes it a “Sunday Mass?” And why cannot for example, the feast of the Transfiguration when it falls on a Sunday, like this year, not still be considered a Sunday?

    Do non-liturgical Protestant communities celebrate Sunday any better because they don’t replace any Sunday with another celebration, perhaps with the exception of the Resurrection? Then again, they may only have their communion service once a month or four times a year. And they may not use a set lectionary of readings.

  5. Consider also our modern instinct of liturgical “all-or-nothingism” as regards the kalendar. Pre-1955, before most First Vespers and commemorations were suppressed, different feasts on the sanctoral kalendar, as well as privileged days on the temporal, would interact in a more nuanced way — “meet,” as it were — in the complex system of occurrences and concurrences. Lesser-ranking days would be commemorated after the main propers of the day, both at Mass and in the Office. One could have 2-3+ sets of collects, secrets, postcommunions, and even a proper Last Gospel from a displaced feast. While admittedly more complicated to keep up with, the loss of this aspect to me seems like a real loss of the subtle interplay between the temporal and the sanctoral (already hard to properly balance as it is), and even between different members of the communion of saints. I have personally found, in occasionally praying the St Pius X breviary in its splendid “Anglican Breviary” recension, that (say) on a feast of a counterreformation saint, the additional commemoration of an early martyr from a thousand years prior really drives home for me the oneness of the Church across space and time.

    Even in a post-1970 context, on a Solemnity that would outrank an ordinary Sunday, why _shouldn’t_ the Sunday be at least commemorated? And why couldn’t we restore more proper First Vespers (as the Ordinariate ordo has notably done, by the way, for anything ranked Feast and above!), while still commemorating the “outgoing” saint of the calendar day?

    Just my $0.02.

  6. I remember my shock, not long after my arrival in Japan in 1976, at seeing all the stores open on Sunday. Banks and government, national and local, offices do close on Sunday, with a skeleton staff providing emergency cover behind closed doors, but otherwise the idea of taking Saturday and Sunday off has still to take root. Japan only began to name days of the week in the second half of the 19th cent, previously the month was divided into three blocks of approximately ten days. Extra-curricular events at schools, both sporting and cultural, are regularly scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Fathers who spend time with their families at the weekend call it “family service” time; otherwise they are out on the golf-course with colleagues or for the purpose of corporate entertainment of clients. Saving Sunday – first, even in the West, we may need to incull or reclaim the value of “a sabbath/sabbatical” for physical, emotional and spiritual health.

  7. My inclination is in the opposite direction, to ensure that Sundayness is not lost when other themes are celebrated. Sunday as the first day of a new creation provides a way to celebrate the Incarnation, or the Assumption. Even St Patrick can be celebrated as the one who brought the new creation to Ireland.

    I suppose that it depends on what you think Sunday is and what needs to be remembered.

    Btw, arent the Sndays in Lent already outside of Lent precisely because they are Sundays? That has always seemed the most plausible explanation for the 40 days lasting for almost seven weeks.

    1. @Jim McKay:
      “Btw, arent the Sndays in Lent already outside of Lent precisely because they are Sundays? That has always seemed the most plausible explanation for the 40 days lasting for almost seven weeks.”

      That’s more of a folk custom (and hardly universal) than something embraced officially.

    2. @Jim McKay:
      With the 1969 reform of the Roman rite Calendar, Lent encompasses 44 days (Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday). Sundays are included in the counting.

      The original Lent of 40 days was from the First Sunday of Lent through Holy Thursday (again the Sundays were counted).

      Once Ash Wednesday and the three days before the First Sunday of Lent were added, to get to “40” days, Lent was reckoned to end on Holy Saturday, and the six Sundays were not included in the counting.

  8. A 40 day period that is a calendrical shadow of Lent that is nearly entirely forgotten: the forty days before what is now the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (the date of which arose in association with the dedication feast of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre) – that period begins (inclusively reckoned and including Sundays) with the Feast of the Transfiguration.

  9. I seem to recall reading somewhere that in 1909 only one ‘green’ Sunday was celebrated in the Basilica of St John Lateran. All the rest were pre-empted by other observances. The revised calendar may not be perfect, but it’s certainly an improvement over what came before. And the rubrics are simpler.

  10. Same for the patron saint of the diocese — not sure this is right. According to Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, Sundays in Ordinary Time take precedence over the feast of the principal patron of the diocese. (They’re respectively 5 and 8a in the order of precedence.)

    1. @Martin Barry:
      You are correct. Many (understandably) confuse the Feast of the principal patron of the diocese with the higher ranked Solemnity of the principal patron of the place, city or state or the Solemnity of the titular saint of a particular church – it’s the solemnities that have higher precedence than Sundays of Ordinary Time, not the Feast, which ranks lower.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Yet in common parlance, feast or feastday is reckoned a high (or highest) day in most peoples minds, whereas solemnity means nothing in regards to a day itself. It’s just a new buzz-word that will never catch on in lay circles.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Correct. And the anniversary of the dedication of a cathedral is observed as a proper solemnity in the cathedral parish and a feast in the rest of the diocese.

        The anniversary of the dedication of my cathedral is June 28th. Its patronal feast is June 29th, (St Peter & St Paul), a solemnity in the General Calendar. We observe the anniversary on the Sunday between June 22nd and 28th, unless that Sunday is a Solemnity in the General Calendar (Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, St John the Baptist).

  11. So, are Sundays in Ordinary Time solemnities? Surely not, as Feasts of the Lord take precedence. Perhaps the core issue brought up in the post is that Sundays don’t rank highly enough. Or rather, that may itself be a symptom?

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      No, as I noted above, they are equivalent to feasts of the Lord (though lower ranking than other, specific, feasts of the Lord, and lower ranking than solemnities and the odd day that it All Souls). Every Sunday is *at least* a feast.

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