Movable Feasts


Some strange things have been happening with some of the saints’ days and other special celebrations this year. We had the feasts of St Patrick and St Joseph on 14th and 15th March instead of the 17th and 19th respectively, and the Annunciation of the Lord on 25th March is shown in the calendar as being on 31st March.

The arrangement for celebrating the liturgical year is governed by the general calendar used by the universal church, and particular calendars for regions or families of religious. While the dates of liturgical seasons are greatly influenced by the date of Easter and hence change year by year, the dates of the sanctoral cycle (celebrations of the saints) are fixed.

The “Proper of Saints” as found in current liturgical books is not just a list of saints’ days; there are also fixed celebrations of the Lord, of Mary, of church dedication anniversaries and even of devotions or ideas. The church’s liturgical calendar varies from year to year because of the interplay between the fluctuating dates of the liturgical seasons and the fixed dates of saints’ celebrations.

Within a family, the anniversary dates of its members are accorded varying degrees of importance. Birthdays of young children, for example, generally rank higher than those of parents and the wedding anniversary of a couple above that of their first date. As families grow older, as children move away from the family and new members are added, ritual customs and their levels of importance change.

Similarly, the church has a ranking system for its universal and local celebrations. The Church’s calendar ranks celebrations of saints’ days as “solemnities”, “feasts”, “ordinary memorials” and “optional memorials”. These various levels of saints’ days as well as celebrations belonging to the seasons (Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc) are listed according to their order of precedence in the Table of Liturgical Days.

There is a fairly straightforward principle for deciding which takes precedence when two observances happen to fall on the same day: the one ranked higher is celebrated while the other is omitted that year. For example, St Peter and Paul will be celebrated instead of 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time on 29th June this year because this feast is classed as a solemnity and “outranks” a Sunday in Ordinary Time, while the feast of St Andrew does not appear in the liturgical calendar this year because 30th November is the first Sunday of Advent which has a higher rank.

The one exception to this rule is that feasts ranked as solemnities which are “trumped” by a solemnity or season with higher precedence are not omitted for the year but are transferred to a nearby day. That is why the Annunciation of the Lord, which falls in the week after Easter this year, will not be celebrated on 25th March. The octave of Easter (the eight days from Easter Sunday to the second Sunday of Easter) ranks more highly than a solemnity, so the first “free” day when the Annunciation can be celebrated is Monday 31st March.

While it is helpful to know how the calendar works, priests, liturgy planners, sacristans, etc, don’t need to spend hours laboriously calculating what to celebrate when. The yearly Ordo, published by The Liturgical Commission, does it all for you!

Elizabeth Harrington