Fasting from the Saints During Lent

Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, life, Passion and Resurrection is the source and summit of everything we celebrate in our public worship and private devotion.

Fra Angelico, “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-24)
Fra Angelico, “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-24) (photo: Public Domain)

Except for St. Joseph’s, all of the feasts of the saints during the 40 days of Lent are demoted to Commemorations—even St. Patrick’s (outside of Ireland, where it is a Holyday of Obligation). St. Joseph is so special that his feast is a Solemnity, and since March 19 is the Third Sunday of Lent in 2017, his feast has been moved to Monday, March 20. Otherwise, the penitential season of Lent takes precedence over the feasts of the saints. We often refer to a saint’s “feast” day even though the Church has a hierarchy to honor the saints, Our Lady, and especially Our Lord, in different ways. We might be tempted to think that it doesn’t matter, but the Church has reasons for these distinctions.


Solemnities, Feasts, Memorials

Great events in the life of Our Lord rank highest and are celebrated as Solemnities, like the Annunciation of Our Lord on March 25. At the celebration of a Solemnity (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, etc.), we sing the Gloria and recite the Creed as at Sunday Mass. There are two readings before the Gospel and the Propers for the day include the Preface as well as the Introit, Collect, Offertory Prayer, Communion Antiphon, and Prayer after Communion. Note that we will sing or recite the Gloria on March 20 and 25, even though that song of praise is omitted every other day of Lent until Holy Week.

All Holydays of Obligation are Solemnities, but not all Solemnities are Holydays of Obligation. For example, neither the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus nor of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is a Holyday of Obligation. Some Solemnities that are Holydays of Obligation have been transferred by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to the nearest Sunday. Some Solemnities, if they fall on a Sunday, supersede the Sunday, but some Sundays, for example the Sundays of Lent are more important than the Solemnity; thus the transfer of St. Joseph’s Solemnity this year.

Feasts celebrate important saints in the history of the Church, the Apostles, and other events in the life of Jesus. At Mass on Feast days, we sing the Gloria and there often are readings mentioning the saint, like the Feast of St. James the Apostle, which includes the passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew about the mother of Zebedee’s sons asking for special privileges (Matt. 20:20-28. The Collect and other Propers, including the Preface, are written for the saint’s feast.

Other saints and some devotions to Our Lady are celebrated with memorials or optional memorials. The Propers for these Masses have a Collect and other prayers for the specific saint, but other readings and antiphons are usually taken from the “Commons” for categories of saints: martyrs, bishops, clergy, religious, teachers, etc., or from the Weekday Lectionary. These are the feasts we are fasting from during Lent.


Violet and White

The USCCB issues a liturgical calendar each year with notes about the adjustments made because of the date of Easter or just how dates fall on the Gregorian calendar vis-à-vis the Liturgical and Sanctoral calendars. When you look at the months of March and April this year until Palm Sunday, the liturgical color designated is Violet nearly every day, except for White on March 20 and March 25 (and the option of Rose on the Fourth Sunday of Lent). Looking at the calendar page in the March issue of Magnificat, you see the words Lenten Weekday predominating with the commemoration of the saints relegated to italics in the righthand column. During Mass for those Lenten Weekdays when there is a saint to be commemorated only the Collect for the saint will be used and the prayers and readings will be for the season.

This is the public liturgy of the Church and our personal devotion to a particular saint isn’t affected. If you venerate St. Cyril of Jerusalem on March 18 because he was the Bishop of Jerusalem and thus has great significance to both East and West, you could read some of his Catechetical Lectures, very appropriate Lenten reading since he gave them in the fourth century to those preparing to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil.


The Luck of the Irish

It’s probably the commemoration of St. Patrick, Bishop and Patron Saint of Ireland that gives us something to debate. His feast is on a Friday of Lent; will your local bishop dispense your obligation to abstain from meat so you can eat corned beef? If you’ve given up alcohol during Lent, will you adjust your regimen that day so you can drink green beer? If you are, at least enjoy a Guinness or Smithwick’s in honor of the Irish!

In Ireland, as noted above, St. Patrick’s Day is a Solemnity and a Holyday of Obligation. That brings up another point about the Calendar of the Church: it can vary from country to country. The General Roman Calendar is the basis for the national calendars which will honor certain saints in different ways. In the United States, for example, St. James the Apostle is honored with a Feast on July 25; in Spain, home of the great shrine of Compostella, his feast is a Solemnity and Holyday of Obligation. The various religious orders (from the Carmelites to the Jesuits, with the Dominicans and the Franciscans in between) have their own special calendars, honoring their founders or special events during the history of their orders.


Order and Hierarchy

This variety in unity is just another reminder of how the Church, which as G.K. Chesterton noted has lasted so long that we’ve thought about just about everything, has organized even our liturgical calendar according to both faith and reason. Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, life, Passion and Resurrection is the source and summit of everything we celebrate in our public worship and private devotion. Our Lady and the Saints have their roles in the Body of Christ, and we venerate them appropriately, according to the ways the Church has crystallized “commonsense, true traditions, and rational reforms” (from Chesterton’s The Well and the Shallows, “My Six Conversions, II. When the World Turned Back”) throughout the ages.