Sunday’s shifting solemnities

VATICAN CITY – Consistories for new cardinals are usually held on major feasts, and the most recent one had a lesson for the liturgical life of parishes.

Blessed John Paul II held six of his nine consistories on Petrine feasts — three for Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), two for the Chair of Peter (Feb. 22) and one for his silver jubilee as Successor of Peter in October 2003. Benedict held his first consistory in 2006 on the Feast of the Annunciation, and his next two on Christ the King in 2007 and 2010. This year he chose the Chair of Peter, the feast which highlights the role of Peter and his successors in authoritatively teaching the deposit of the faith.

But there was a problem. The date of the feast, Feb. 22, was Ash Wednesday this year, and according to the order of precedence for liturgical feasts, Ash Wednesday trumps whatever else might fall on that day. So what to do? The solution was easy enough. When the Holy Father celebrated the Holy Mass with the new cardinals on Sunday, Feb. 19, they celebrated precisely the Feast of the Chair of Peter.

The lesson for parishes lies in the fact that this liturgical option was not one reserved to the Holy Father as a species of papal privilege, but was a correct application of universal liturgical norms. Major feasts — called “solemnities” in proper terminology — can in fact be transferred to Sundays in ordinary time. Pastors can and should exercise this option regularly.

Herewith what one finds in paragraph 58 of the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and for the Calendar, promulgated in 1969: “For the pastoral advantage of the people, it is permissible to observe on the Sundays in Ordinary Time those celebrations that fall during the week and have special appeal to the devotion of the faithful, provided the celebrations take precedence over these Sundays in the Table of Liturgical Days. The Mass for such celebrations may be used at all the Masses at which a congregation is present.”

In practice, it means the following feasts could be celebrated on a Sunday in ordinary time: Presentation of the Lord (Feb. 2), Sacred Heart of Jesus (Friday after the second Sunday after Pentecost), St. John the Baptist (June 24), Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), Transfiguration (Aug. 6), Assumption (Aug. 15), Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14), All Saints (Nov. 1) and Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (Nov. 9).

In addition, patronal feasts specific to a certain place can also be shifted to a Sunday in ordinary time. For example, in a parish, shrine or chapel dedicated to St. James, his feast would become what is called a “proper solemnity,” namely a solemnity “appropriate” to that place. So in that parish or chapel the feast of St. James (July 25) could be shifted to the Sunday and celebrated as a proper solemnity. That’s what happened in Rome on Feb. 19. In the Vatican basilica, the Chair of Peter is a proper solemnity, and so was eligible to be transferred from Feb. 22, a weekday, to the preceding Sunday.

Any pastor can do this in his own parish. It requires prudent judgment, of course, otherwise the regular Sunday cycle of readings could be too often disrupted by special feasts. Yet the careful selection of feasts moved to Sunday also gives parishioners a deeper experience of the Church’s rich liturgical calendar — especially the importance of their own patron saints.

In my own parish, I usually shift one of the June solemnities — Sacred Heart, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul — as well as either the Assumption or the Triumph of the Cross, to Sunday observance. (It would be better if the Assumption was a holy day of obligation, but that decision is above the pay grade of pastors of country parishes!) I find that it breaks up ordinary time, when the long months of green chasubles, green chalice veils and green frontals can become tedious.

A final note for pastors. The dedication day of the church itself is also a proper solemnity and so the dedication feast — not just the patronal feast — can be shifted to Sunday. It might be too much to do so every year, but it would surely be fitting on milestone anniversaries. Alas, many older parishes no longer have records regarding the date on which their churches were dedicated.

The Roman rite is a far richer and creative instrument than is commonly thought or commonly experienced. The recent consistory in Rome provided an example of how those riches might be more available to parish priests and the parishioners they serve.