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A Guide to the Catholic Liturgical Calendar

May 09, 2019 By Gretchen Filz | 1 Comments

Christianity isn't just lived; it's celebrated.

That's because our faith isn't merely about doctrine—it includes a plethora of saints, historical events, and divine mysteries that are uniquely honored throughout the year with appointed festivals (or feast days). This happens according to a set rhythm called the liturgical calendar.

Liturgy is simply "the work of God," that is, fulfilling the duties of praise and worship we owe to God as His human creatures. The liturgy is the work of divine worship the Church offers to God every hour of every day, the greatest of which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, followed by the Divine Office (or the Liturgy of the Hours). 

All of this work of praising and worshipping God happens according to a set order and time as delineated in the liturgical calendar. Just as the earth revolves around the sun according to a set pattern we call an orbit, so too the Church revolves around the Son of God, Jesus Christ, according to the pattern set by the liturgical calendar.

The liturgical calendar puts the universal Church, spread across the world, all on the same page so we can celebrate and worship God in unison as the one Body of Christ. It also places heaven and earth on the same clock, so to speak; it unites heaven (our eternal home) with earth (where we're now pilgrims and wayfarers). As we celebrate a feast day here on earth, be assured that the angels and saints in heaven are doing the same in tandem with us, only in a far more excellent way. 

The liturgical calendar isn't just for the Church in general; it should also regulate our individual lives in how we pray and worship, both publicly and privately.

In some countries and cultures certain feasts are celebrated with special pomp and fanfare. For example, there's nothing better than celebrating the feast of St. John the Baptist in Florence, Italy, or Holy Week in Spain, St. Patrick's day in Ireland, or Advent in the Philippines. Wherever we live, the liturgical calendar is something splendid that we're all meant to participate in with joy.

Holy Week Procession in Seville, Spain. Credit: Marcelo del Pozo/REUTERS.

Photo: Holy Week Procession in Seville, Spain. Credit: Marcelo del Pozo/REUTERS

The Benefit of Living Liturgically

If we want to know how to honor and worship God well today, in union with the Body of Christ in heaven and on earth at this moment, we can turn to the liturgical calendar.

What mystery of the Christian faith is heaven and earth celebrating today?

What event in salvation history are we reliving?

Which saint's triumphs are we honoring?

What Scripture passages are we reading, and what prayers are we reciting?

The liturgical calendar will tell us all of this. Each day and each season is something different, glorious, and joyful; it teaches us in both subtle and overt ways how to love God and live a good and holy life. 

Our primary duty in life is to worship God and to do all things for His glory. As the Baltimore Catechism teaches us, "To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world." Our training for heaven begins here and now.

The liturgical calendar helps us to order and structure our lives accordingly in a way that's pleasing to God—and will therefore bring His peace into our lives and souls. When we aren't living in harmony with our spiritual Body, life in general will feel more complicated, uncertain, and confusing.

When we live in harmony with the Body of Christ—our spiritual family as the children of God—we can know what God wants for us and do it, rather than being distracted and sidelined by the non-essential things of life that can never satisfy us, but only leave us feeling depleted. We must get our life, energy, and growth by revolving around the Son. What an incredible way to bring divine meaning and an exalted purpose into our daily lives! 

The Liturgical Seasons

Generally speaking, we can imagine the natural order as a reflection of the spiritual order, because both are revelations of the same God. Just as there are four seasons of the year that guide the life of nature, there are four major seasons that guide the life of the Church: Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The period outside these seasons is called "Ordinary Time"—that is, tempus per annum, or "time during the year." 

Advent is the period of penance and preparation before the celebration of Christ's birth at Christmas, while Lent is the period of penance and preparation before the celebration of Christ's Passion, Death, and Resurrection at Easter. (Technically, the three-day period encompassing Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday is its own liturgical season distinct from Lent, called the Triduum.)

Each new liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent and concludes on the feast of Christ the King (the final Sunday before Advent begins). This symbolizes the eternal truth that all things begin and end in Jesus Christ:

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).

Our guide to Advent: How to celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

Our guide to Lent: Lenten Season 101: A Guide for Everything You Need to Know

Solemnities of the Year

The feasts on the liturgical calendar have different rankings that determine their level of celebration, with solemnities being the highest rank. Below is a list of solemnities, that is, the most important feast days celebrated by the Church throughout the year. These are the feasts that we should regard with special honor and devotion, primarily by attending Mass if possible (adding to this list the patron saint feast days of your particular parish, diocese, city, country, etc.).

It's not that you have to do this (unless the solemnity is a Holy Day of Obligation), but you should want to celebrate and receive the unique graces that each liturgical celebration will bring into your life ... and who doesn't need more grace?

Fixed Solemnities (Determined by Date):

January 1st: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

January 6th: Epiphany of the Lord 

March 19th: St. Joseph, Husband of Mary

March 25th: The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary 

June 24th: Nativity of St. John the Baptist

June 29th: Sts. Peter & Paul

August 15th: Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven

November 1st: All Saints Day

December 9th: Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

December 25th: The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

Variable Solemnities (Determined by Season):

Easter Sunday - Divine Mercy Sunday (2nd Sunday of Easter)

Ascension of the Lord

Pentecost

Trinity Sunday

Corpus Christi 

Sacred Heart of Jesus

Christ the King

Holy Days of Obligation

Some solemnities are so essential to our understanding of our redemption in Jesus Christ, and the duties of worship and praise we're obliged to return to Him as a result, that they have been deemed as Holy Days of Obligation by the bishops. This means that the faithful are obliged to hear Mass on this day under pain of mortal sin—excepting those who have serious reason to be excused from this obligation, for example, in the case of illness. 

Each and every Sunday is a Holy Day of Obligation, along with the following solemnities for those who live in the United States (unless the bishop transfers the celebration to the nearest Sunday—check with the diocese where you live). 

  • January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven
  • August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven
  • November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Christmas)

How Can I Follow the Liturgical Calendar?

If you want to enrich your spiritual life, live and pray according to the Church's liturgical calendar! That's what it's there for. Each feast and season of the year offers a unique perspective to reflect and meditate on the Life of Christ, the glory of His saints, and the work of our salvation.

There are three main ways you can do this:

1. Catholic Calendars

Purchase a Catholic wall calendar that includes the feasts and seasons of each month, or use this one online from the USCCB: liturgical calendar for the dioceses of the United States of America.

You can also take a few minutes to load the solemnities listed at the above link into the digital calendar on your computer or phone. Be sure to also include the feast days of your favorite saints!

2. The Roman Missal 

Purchase a Roman Missal to follow the readings for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (available as a Sunday Mass Missal or a Daily Mass Missal).

Find our guide here: How to Use & Choose a Catholic Missal

You can also subscribe to the free daily Catholic devotional email, the Morning Offering, and find links to view the Mass readings online. 

3. The Breviary

Purchase a breviary to pray the Church's daily liturgical prayer outside of Mass, called the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. The recommended "hours" for the laity to pray are Lauds (Morning Prayer), Vespers (Evening Prayer), and/or Compline (Night Prayer). 

Find our guide here: How to Pray the Liturgy of the Hours

You can also subscribe to the free daily Catholic devotional email, the Morning Offering, and find links to pray the Divine Office online.

What other questions do you have about the liturgical calendar? Please comment below! 

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Commentary by

Gretchen Filz Gretchen Filz

Gretchen is a Lay Dominican with a passion for fostering an increase in Catholic faith and devotion. After receiving her M.A. in Christian Apologetics, she converted to the Catholic Faith in 2011. She lives and works in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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