Question: I notice in my Missal that some feast days are referred to as Solemnities, others as Feasts, and others Memorials. Can you please explain the difference between these?
By Fr John Flader
In ordinary speech we often refer to any liturgical celebration as a “feast” or a “feast day”, and so we might speak of the feast of St Catherine of Siena, the feast of the Sacred Heart, etc. There is nothing wrong with this, but here we are using the word “feast” in a general, non-liturgical sense.
In the liturgical sense, the word “feast” has a very particular meaning.
With the revision of the liturgical calendar after the Second Vatican Council, the former designation of liturgical celebrations, with its numerous classifications, was simplified so that at present there are only four types of celebrations. These are Solemnities, Feasts, Memorials and Optional Memorials.
The highest level of celebration is that of Solemnity. This is reserved for the most important celebrations, such as those of the Blessed Trinity, Our Lord, Our Lady and some of the saints. Among them, by way of example, are Christmas, the Epiphany, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Blessed Trinity, the Annunciation, the Assumption, All Saints, the Immaculate Conception, Saints Peter and Paul and the birth of St John the Baptist.
On Solemnities the liturgy includes all the elements used on Sundays. Thus the Gloria and Creed are always said and there are three readings. All the prayers of the Mass, including the Entrance Antiphon and the Communion Antiphon, are proper to the celebration. Often there is a proper Preface as well.
A Solemnity takes the place of the Sunday liturgy if it falls on a Sunday of Ordinary Time or Christmastide, but is usually transferred to the following Monday if it falls on a Sunday of Advent, Lent or Easter, or during Holy Week or the octave of Easter.
The second rank of celebrations is that of Feasts. Feasts celebrate mysteries of Our Lord, Our Lady, the Archangels, the Apostles and Evangelists, and other saints of special importance, such as St Stephen, St Lawrence, etc. Among the Feasts of Our Lord are the Presentation, the Baptism, the Transfiguration and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. A Feast of Our Lady is the celebration of her Birth.
On liturgical Feasts there are usually some proper prayers and the Gloria is always said. The Creed is not said and there are only two readings.
Feasts of Our Lord, such as the Transfiguration and Exaltation of the Holy Cross are celebrated even when they fall on a Sunday. In that case they have three readings, the Gloria and the Creed.
The third category is that of Memorials. These can be celebrations of lesser mysteries of Our Lady, such as her Immaculate Heart, Queenship, Presentation and Our Lady of the Rosary, or of saints. On these days, unless they coincide with a Sunday, the Mass and Divine Office of the Memorial are to be used.
The fourth rank is that of Optional Memorials. As their name indicates, on these days the priest is free to celebrate them or not. These celebrations are usually those of saints of lesser importance in the universal Church.
In recent years, new saints have been included in the calendar to reflect the universality of the Church, and many of these are Optional Memorials.
If the priest does not celebrate the Optional Memorial, he can choose the liturgy of the day, for example, Wednesday of the 7th week of the year, or of the preceding Sunday or one of the many votive Masses, such as the Mass of Thanksgiving or of the Eucharist.
Memorials and Optional Memorials have at least a proper Opening Prayer. The readings can be those of the saint or preferably those of the continuous cycle of daily readings.
When the saint is specifically mentioned in the readings, such as on the feast of Saints Martha, Mary Magdalene, Titus, Barnabas, etc, the proper readings should be used.