The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is one of only two Catholic Holy Days of Obligation that is not abrogated when it falls on a Monday or Saturday as it did this year, the other being Christmas. The same thing occurred as recently as five years ago, but I do not remember confusion arising then as it did this year. The Church is generally clear in describing our obligations to us. After all, deliberately missing Mass on a Holy Day can be a mortal sin, so this is serious business.
In our parish, the problem began on the previous Sunday when our pastor announced that the 4:30 PM Saturday evening Mass on December 8 would be for the Immaculate Conception. The bulletin emphatically stated in all caps, “THERE WILL BE NO VIGIL MASS FOR SUNDAY.” The implication was that attending Mass on Saturday evening would not fulfill the Sunday obligation. Even with my limited knowledge of Canon Law, I had an understanding that Mass readings had no bearing in determining whether one’s obligation was satisfied. An article by Canon Lawyer, Dr. Edward Peters, confirmed my belief, and also reaffirmed the fact that one must attend two Masses that weekend. The Saturday evening Mass could satisfy either obligation, but not both. I later found that disagreement existed, even among Catholic clergy, about whether the Saturday evening Mass could fulfill two obligations at once, but the general consensus sided with Dr. Peters.
My wife is the organist at the Saturday evening Mass, so we prepared music for the Immaculate Conception, and a different collection of hymns for Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent. I decided to attend the Friday evening vigil Mass for the Immaculate Conception in addition to the weekend Masses. Our priest approached me before Mass asking if we were having music that evening. I said no. We would be having music for the Immaculate Conception on Saturday evening. He then stated there had been a change in plans. His “ordo had arrived this week” and the Saturday evening Mass would use the Second Sunday of Advent liturgy. Fine, I thought. That is the way it should be, but the confusion resulted in us not having a sung Mass for this very important Holy Day.
With no advance warning, some parishioners arrived at Saturday evening Mass expecting to celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. At the end of Mass, Father explained that those who had not previously fulfilled their Holy Day obligation had now done so, but would need to return on Sunday. By strict interpretation of Canon Law 1248, they could also follow him to our sister parish six miles away and attend their 6 PM Vigil Mass, hear the same liturgy and homily, and satisfy their Sunday obligation. Here is where the Church needs to fine-tune the rules in my opinion.
I understand why the actual readings proclaimed at Mass should not determine whether one’s obligation has been satisfied. If the wrong Gospel is read by mistake at a Sunday Mass, surely Catholics could not be obligated to attend another Mass with the correctly prescribed reading. Yet, it seems to me that an exception should be made in the case where a day of obligation falls on a Saturday or Monday. The argument could be made for attending two Masses if the liturgical content (i.e. readings and homily) were required relevance for the Mass to count. If the readings do not matter as far as fulfilling the obligation, then it seems one Mass should be sufficient. When a Catholic feels he must be present at two Masses with the same readings and the same homily in order to avoid committing a mortal sin, the whole purpose of Mass attendance becomes misdirected.
We are often accused of being a religion of rules and regulations. Encouraging Mass attendance for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and also the 2nd Sunday of Advent one day apart is perfectly sensible, but allowing acceptance of the requirement by attending two identical Masses an hour apart places a technicality aura around the Mass that diminishes the true meaning of the celebration. While it may fulfill the letter of the law, it certainly seems to diminish the purpose of the dual observation and adds fodder for those who call us a legalistic religion.
Six years from now, the same situation will occur again. I hope by then, the Church will provide clarity by tweaking Canon Law 1248 to distinguish separately the time periods for observance when two Holy Days of Obligation are consecutive.