Solemnities, Feasts and Memorials
The liturgical celebrations of solemnities, feasts, and memorials enhance the richness of the Church’s calendar as the Church attempts to live out the mystery of Christ and salvation history within the year. Additionally the Church commemorates the lives of the Saints by designating certain days of the year to remember them. These days are both an act of remembrance, as well as a way to instruct the faithful by making the calendar reflect the life of Christ.
From our common understanding of liturgical feasts, we know that there are three kinds of celebrations possible in the Catholic Church: solemnities, feasts and memorials. The difference between the three categories resides in their importance, which in turn is reflected in the presence or absence of different liturgical elements.
A solemnity is the highest rank of celebration in the Church calendar and is usually reserved for the most important mysteries of faith which include Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Holy Trinity, Corpus Christi, Assumption, Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Mary Mother of God, Epiphany and the Annunciation; also, the principal titles of Our Lord, such as Christ the King and Sacred Heart; and celebrations that honour All Saints (Nov 1) and some saints of particular importance in salvation history, such as St. Joseph, Sts. Peter and Paul, and St. John the Baptist on his day of birth.
Solemnities are like Sundays having the same basic elements of celebration: three readings, prayer of the faithful, the Gloria and Creed which are recited even when the solemnity occurs during Advent or Lent. It also has proper prayer formulas exclusive to the day: Entrance antiphon, Opening prayer, Prayer over the gifts, Communion antiphon, and Prayer after Communion. In most cases it also has a particular preface. Solemnities begin with evening prayer (Vespers) the night before, unlike other liturgical days, which begin at midnight.
Some solemnities are holy days of obligation, but these vary from country to country. Some solemnities have a fixed date on which they are celebrated, such as Christmas. Other solemnities are moveable, such as Easter. A solemnity is celebrated if it falls on a Sunday of Ordinary Time or Christmastide, but it is usually transferred to the following Monday if it falls on a Sunday of Advent, Lent or Easter, or during Holy Week or the Easter octave.
There are also special solemnities, which are observed in particular places, regions, or in particular religious orders. For instance, when a parish celebrates the feast or memorial of its patron or titular Saint (such as the Solemnity of Our Lady of Arabia on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time in our Vicariate), it is treated as a solemnity.
Feasts are celebrations next in rank. A feast honors a mystery or title of the Lord, of Our Lady, or of Saints of particular importance such as the Apostles, Evangelists and the Archangels. Feasts have only two readings and the Gloria, but not the Creed. All feasts, except that of the Holy Family (Sunday after Christmas), are fixed in date. The “feasts of the Lord” take precedence over Sundays of Christmas and Ordinary Time, but the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary do not. All feasts take precedence over all weekdays except Ash Wednesday, weekdays of Holy Week (including the Triduum) and days within the octave of Easter.
A memorial is a feast day of relatively low importance. A memorial is usually a commemoration of a Saint, but may also celebrate some aspect of the Lord or of Mary, such as the optional memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus or the obligatory memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Gloria is not said on these days. Memorials have only two readings and some “proper” prayers for the individual Saint or the occasion. Some Saints do not have specific prayers. There are generic prayers written for each category of Saint being honored in a memorial. These generic prayers are known as the “common” for the occasion. Such Saints will usually fall into the category of pope, bishop, priest, religious, virgin or martyr.
All memorials are fixed in date. Memorials can be either obligatory or optional. Obligatory memorials must be observed. Optional memorials may be observed but such observation is not required. An optional memorial is the lowest in rank of celebration. The priest is permitted to celebrate a feast day that does not appear in his local calendar out of personal devotion to the Saint, as long as no feast of higher rank is anticipated for that day.