In recent years, several national bishops conferences (including Australia's) have transferred Holy Days of Obligation - days in addition to Sundays on which Catholics are required to attend Mass - from the dates on which they have traditionally been celebrated to the nearest Sunday, or have eliminated the requirement altogether. The calendar for the universal Church includes ten of these days. But their observance varies widely from country to country.
British journalist Joanna Bogle comments on the recent calendar change in the Church in England and Wales. Her article, here shortened, first appeared in 'The Adoremus Bulletin'.
This summer, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, announced a major change concerning Holy Days of Obligation. The Church allows national bishops' conferences to arrange about the celebration of these days, with prior approval of the Holy See.
The announcement came almost without warning - and a good many Catholics in Britain think it is a deeply regrettable move. The change in the Church calendar for England and Wales will take effect from the First Sunday of Advent.
It is a sort of compromise, as it only affects "feasts of the Lord", which will be moved to Sundays. Other feasts, such as the Assumption of Mary on 15 August, will remain as they are. But no one seems happy. "It's a sort of Anglican solution, isn't it?" sighed one parish priest, a former Anglican minister. "Not the sort of thing to inspire anyone, and it will only add to the confusion". Indeed - how does moving an important Church feast to a Sunday rather than giving it a day of its own make it more important?
One thing that has emerged from this situation has been a general discussion about Holy Days of Obligation and why they matter in the first place, which is not a bad thing. The debate over observance of Holy Days began with a simple recognition that numbers attending Mass on such days are small - often between a half and a quarter of those attending on a Sunday. But is the solution simply to abolish the idea of a Holy Day?
Of greater significance are all the positive arguments in favour of having Holy Days during the week: attending Mass midweek to observe a specific feast gives us an identity, marks us as members of the Church, brings God into the reality of our lives and gives Him priority, offers an opportunity to share the Faith with a friend or someone who has lapsed and may be waiting for some encouragement.
Attending Mass on a Holy Day unites us with other Catholics around the world - it gives us a brief vision of a Church that is global and stretches down through history. Many of our Feast Days have glorious, interesting, amusing or touching traditions associated with them, which are worth discovering. There is material here for minds that can feed on history, for families seeking a reason to celebrate, for children with inquiring questions.
A Holy Day at school was an opportunity to teach about the particular aspect of the Faith that was being commemorated - no small matter in a culture where most pupils at Catholic secondary schools come from families that are non-practising and where Sunday Mass simply isn't on the household agenda. Religious education in Catholic schools may be poor - indeed it is often deplorable - and abolishing Holy Days removes one good opportunity for a priest to light some small sparks in receptive young minds.
In today's culture, having some mark of religious identity is positively useful. Here in England we are beginning to see a faint but worrying trend of conversion to Islam - and all those I have so far met who have followed this path have been ex- Catholics. They seek in Islam what they have not found in their own nominally Christian homes - a clear set of beliefs and an associated culture.
Those who advised our bishops on this matter misjudged the mood of their flock. Challenge and sacrifice are always a more creative way forward for Christians than a slide into the easier path.
Today, a new generation of young Catholics is emerging: it is not as numerous as it should be, but it is making its presence felt. These are the young people who are part of prayer groups, and/or have attended a World Youth Day, or belong to some pro-life organisation, or have found their own way into the Church despite everything.
They include, too, those who have found in Christ a real and living consolation for damage done by a broken home, or through drugs or casual sex. There are also those who come from happy and flourishing Catholic families and rather enjoy a sense of being counter-cultural while finding joy in establishing a Catholic family of their own.
The celebration of the common feasts of the Church can be a uniting and genuinely inspiring aspect of the Faith for this "JPII generation". They are hungry for identification with a living Faith: something tangible, something that exists in time and place. They are a people drawn together in commitment to the communal worship of the Church.
They are not saints, and there are plenty of tensions among them. But they are the raw material for a Church that can certainly flourish into the new Millennium and grow well, if it is nurtured and encouraged. They - and we, who grew up in the 1960s and 70s when just about every once-central Catholic belief and tradition seemed to be up for questioning - need our Holy Days.