Ecclesiastical Year for Catholic Schools - Andreas Petz

Holy Seasons

The Ecclesiastical Year in General

1. By Ecclesiastical Year we understand the yearly return of holy seasons, through which the redemption of mankind is renewed, continued and made available for the faithful, so that they may glorify God and sanctify themselves.

2. The Ecclesiastical Year differs from the Civil Year, not only in its divisions but also in its object. The Civil Year serves as a measure for the temporal wants of man; whereas, the Ecclesiastical Year pertains to his eternal interests.

3. The object of the Ecclesiastical Year is for us to renew the work of redemption, which God performed for sinful man, in order that we may offer to Him the homage which is His due, and obtain thereby abundant graces for the practice of virtue, to strengthen us in our faith.

4. The means which the Ecclesiastical Year offers for the attainment of this object are the following:

a)   The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with the Sacraments.
b)   The Holy Seasons which are set apart for the celebration of the sacred mysteries.
c)   Sacred customs such as ceremonies, blessings, devotions, etc., which show us the significance of the Holy Seasons and imbue us with their spirit.

5. The foundation, the central point, the very soul, in fact, of the Ecclesiastical Year, is the Sacrifice of the Mass. Christ completed the work of redemption by His sacrifice on the cross; this sacrifice is continued and renewed in the Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the sacrifice of the Son of God, ever ascending to the throne of God. No tongue can tell the depths of its mysteries. No angel can understand its meaning. It is the offering of the human race to the Godhead.

The festal seasons of the Ecclesiastical Year place before us in succession, all the mysteries of the redemption, continually renewed in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Sacraments are the channels through which the fruits of the Mass are conveyed to our souls.

On the other hand, however, the ceremonies, sacramentals, etc., replete with graces, as well as symbolic ornament, surround the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as well as the festivals of the year, and the sacraments themselves. Thus everything in the entire Ecclesiastical Year revolves around, and pertains to, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.


The central point of our redemption is Christ's sacrifice on the cross, which reached its consummation in His glorious resurrection. Easter, therefore, with Holy Week forms the middle point of the Ecclesiastical Year, because this Holy Season places before our eyes the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The prophetical teachings of the Old Testament and the life of Christ until the time of His Passion were only a preparation for the Sacrifice of the Cross. We celebrate this preparation by Advent and the Christmas season.

The coming of the Holy Ghost, and the spread of Christianity is a continuation and completion of the Sacrifice of the Cross. We celebrate this continuation and completion by the Season of Pentecost.

In the three principal parts of the Mass. we find again the three, parts of the Sacrifice of the Cross; the preparation of the sacrifice in the Offertory: the offering of the sacrifice in the Consecration; and the distribution of the fruits in the Communion.

Christ appears in the work of redemption with a threefold dignity; as Prophet, because He prepares His most sacred Sacrifice through the Old Testament and by His own life and labors; as High Priest, because He consummates His sacrifice on the Cross; and as King, because through the fruits of His sacrifice He establishes a kingdom which continually perpetuates and governs itself. The Ecclesiastical Year shows us this threefold dignity of Our Redeemer and therefore contains three divisions:

a)     The Christmas Season, which represents the prophetic dignity.
b)     The Easter Season, representing the High Priest's dignity.
c)     The Pentecost Season, which represents the Royal Dignity of Christ.

The Christian who conforms to the teachings of the Ecclesiastical Year is led into the three degrees of the spiritual life:—purification, inspiration and union. The festal circle begins anew every year, and, like a tree, yearly adds a new ring of perfection. These divisions are festal cycles, because each cycle has a principal feast as central point around which the days and feasts of the season revolve; they form a season of preparation and a subsequent commemoration according as they precede or follow the feast.

Vigil and Octave

1. The day preceding the feast is called the Vigil. This word comes from the Latin and means night watch. The early Christians spent the night, or a great part of the night preceding a feast, in prayer, fasting, and the singing of hymns and psalms. These night-watches were called vigils. Even in the time of the Apostles the first Christians kept these vigils in commemoration of the night-watches of our Lord. Later these vigils were restricted to the day immediately preceding a feast and for these special days retained the name vigil. The Midnight Mass on Christmas is still kept in remembrance of the original celebration of the vigils. Besides the three principal feasts, other feasts have vigils also, which are not so solemnly kept. The vigils admonish us to prepare, like the first Christians, for the approaching feast by penance and recollection.

2. The days immediately following the feast form the Octave, that is, an eight day celebration, or continuation of the feast.

Even in the Old Testament the principal feasts were celebrated with octaves; for instance, Easter, or the Feast of the Tabernacles; and the Christians even in the time of the Apostles, we celebrated the principal feasts with octaves. Later the Church appointed octaves for several other feasts, which were not however so solemnly kept. The object of these eight day celebrations is to enhance, as it were, the dignity of the feast, and thereby to impress the mysteries more deeply and permanently upon the hearts of the faithful.

3. The Sundays with their ferias, and also several other feasts form the preparation and subsequent commemoration of the three principal feasts.


1. The word Sunday comes from Heathendom: The first day of the week was dedicated to the Sun god, therefore called Sunday, or day of the sun (dies solis). We are reminded thereby of that Sun which appears to us in the person of Jesus Christ, warming and illuminating our souls, even here on this earth, and which one day will, in the great beyond, rejoice us by its eternal brilliancy.

In the language of the Church this day is called, at least since the time of Constantine, if not from the time of the Apostles, the day of the Lord (dies dominica).

2. Sunday is merely of ecclesiastical institution dating, however, from the time of the Apostles, God established the Sabbath as a perpetual reminder of the creation, in order to admonish mankind that they owe their Creator veneration and gratitude; at the same time providing necessary rest for man and beast. The Apostles appointed Sunday for this day because Christ, by his resurrection, completed the work of redemption, and sent the Holy Ghost on Sunday. Sunday, therefore, admonishes us more emphatically of the duty of gratitude, than the Sabbath of the Old Law; for our Heavenly Father began the work of creation, the Son of God completed the work of redemption, and the Holy Ghost commenced His work in the Church of Christ on the first day of the week. It places before us, therefore, the three greatest of God's gifts to man: the Creation, the Redemption, and the Sanctification. This day is dedicated, therefore, to the Most Holy Trinity. On Sunday the Christian should thank the Adorable Trinity for all graces received, especially for those of the past week; he should make atonement for faults committed and beg for grace and strength for the coming week.

3. The Sundays, then, are the guides of the entire Ecclesiastical Year; they either prepare for a coming high feast, or they explain the meaning of the feast. In the Epistles and Gospels of every Sunday the faithful are instructed in their duties for the entire year.

4. The Sundays are named and reckoned, either according to the time in which they occur, namely: the Sundays of Advent and of Lent, or according to the feasts to which they belong; the Sundays after Epiphany, after Easter, and after Pentecost. Names for certain special Sundays are obtained partly from the Introit of the Mass; for example, Oculi, Laetare, etc., partly from the special solemnity such as, Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, Low Sunday. The Sundays of Advent, Lent and after Easter, always remain the same in number. The Sundays after Epiphany and the Sundays after Pentecost are sometimes more, sometimes fewer in number. Those of the former vary between two and six, of the latter between twenty-four and twenty-eight. The movability of Easter is the cause of this variation.

5. By the Council of Nice in the year 325, it was decreed that the festival of Easter should be celebrated always on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. It cannot therefore, be celebrated before the 22nd of March, nor after the 25th of April, but always moves within this time.

The Sundays are regulated according to the time of Easter. If Easter occurs late, the six Sundays after Epiphany and the twenty-four Sundays after Pentecost are celebrated in their regular order.

The earlier Easter falls the more Sundays after Epiphany fall away, and these are then put in at the end of the Ecclesiastical Year, between the twenty-third and the last Sunday after Pentecost. The Sundays of Lent and the Sundays after Easter occur sometimes earlier, sometimes later, according to the time of Easter; only the Sundays of Advent, and the Sundays following until the second Sunday after Epiphany inclusive, remain always the same.

6. On Sunday, or the evening before, Holy Water is blessed. Before High Mass the Priest sprinkles the people with this water, while the Asperges is sung. Thereby the significance of Sunday is made known to us. The faithful come to church on Sunday in order to be cleansed in the blood of Christ, from the dust of sin, which has in the course of the week adhered to them, and to renew the grace of Baptism, of which they should be reminded by the sprinkling of the Holy Water.

Even in the Old Testament washing with water was repeatedly commanded, especially as a preparation before sacrifice, and oftentimes, when according to the Jewish law a person was considered unclean. The Jews attributed an atoning and purifying power to water. In the New Law this custom is more strictly adhered to, since Christ established the sacrament of Baptism, in which, through water and the Word of God, sins are washed away. The Church, therefore, even in the earliest times, blessed water, not only for use in Baptism, but also for general use. St. Basil ( 379) says that the blessing of water rests upon Apostolic tradition. The blessing of water has always been customary in the, Eastern, as well as in the Western Church. In the Greek Church this blessing takes place every month, in the Roman Church, every Sunday.

At the blessing of the water the salt is blessed first, then the water, then the salt is mixed with the water three times in the form of a cross, and finally, the mixture is again blessed. The blessing of the salt, as well as the water, begins with an exorcism, in order that not only the power of Satan shall be taken from the salt and water, but that the virtue of driving away the power of Satan, or at least diminishing it, shall also be imparted to the Holy Water. Salt is mixed with water to express the double power of Holy Water, that of healing and of purifying.

Water signifies purification; salt which preserves from corruption and gives a relish to food, is to denote that Holy Water preserves us from the corruption of sin, and is a. means of sanctifying our life, and of making us pleasing to God. The salt is sprinkled in the water three times in the form of a cross to denote that this blessing is performed in the name of the triune God, and by virtue of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The substance of the other prayers of this blessing is: May God through this water destroy all the influences of the evil spirit, ward off sickness and other evils, promote the welfare of body and soul, and sanctify everything with which it is sprinkled.

The efficacy of Holy Water is the following: The remission of venial sin,—imparting grace, by which contrition and devotion are increased,—a shield against evil spirits; it wards off diseases and other temporal evils. These effects, however, will only be experienced by those who use Holy Water with faith and a contrite heart.

The use of Holy Water is manifold. Before High Mass on Sunday the faithful are sprinkled by the priest to sanctify them for the Divine Service. about to begin, so that all present may partake intimately of the Holy Sacrifice without indifference or distraction. The priest says at the same time the penitential psalm "Miserere" and finally prays that God will send his angel to guard those who are present. The faithful should unite with the prayers of the priest, and in a collected and penitential spirit prepare for the sacred sacrifice.

On entering the church the faithful sprinkle themselves with Holy Water; for this purpose fonts are placed near the door of the churches. In early Christian times large wash basins, in which the people might wash face and hands before entering the church, stood in the vestibule. The Christian is thereby reminded that he should appear in the sanctuary of God with a pure heart and a recollected spirit. He blesses himself that he may more readily overcome temptations, thereby obtaining abundant graces. On leaving the church the faithful also bless themselves with Holy Water to retain the graces received, and to be able to continue the divine service at home, and thus always rejoice in the protection of God. They take Holy Water home with them for the same reason. Thus the sanctifying power of the Redeemer extends from the temple of God to all Christian homes. We should use Holy Water not only exteriorly and mechanically, but with a lively faith, a penitential spirit, confidence in God, and with interior devotion. We should use it on getting up and on going to bed, on coming in and on going out, in temptation, and often during the day, especially in time of danger.


1. The early Christians called the first day of the week the Lord's Day, and the last day the Sabbath, all the other days were called Ferials. This designation of the days of the week was confirmed by Pope Sylvester ( 335).

2. The word ferial comes from the Latin, and means holy day. The week days are so called to remind us that the Church celebrates a perpetual Divine Service, not only on Sundays and Holydays, but on every day of the week, so that the true Christian may also unite in a lifelong worship of God.

3. The ferials follow the preceding Sunday, and form its octave; they should lead the thoughts of Sunday into the actions of daily life. The Christian, therefore, should practice during the week what was preached to him on Sunday.

4. Since the time of the Apostles, Wednesday and Friday were designated as ferials of penance and fast, and the faithful were even obliged to attend Divine Service on these days; because Christ was sold on Wednesday and crucified on Friday. In oriental countries, however, Saturday soon took the place of Wednesday.

5. Among the ferials are the so-called greater ferials, which are more solemnly celebrated in the office of the day, as well as in the Mass. To these belong the ferials of Advent, Lent, Ember Days. etc.

Ember Days

1. Ember Days are the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of the Quarter Tenses, so called because they occur four times a year,—in Advent, Lent, Pentecost week, and after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, in September.

2. Pope Leo I. the Great ( 461) says that the custom of these fasts was introduced by the Apostles.

The object of Ember Days is:

a)   To dedicate the four seasons of the year to God by prayer, fasting and good works.
b)   To thank God for all the graces received during the past season, to do penance for our sins, to implore the blessing of heaven, and to make good resolutions for the approaching season.
c)   To implore God to grant us worthy priests for His holy Church; for it is a rule of the Church that priests be ordained at Embertide.


1. Besides the three principal feasts of the Ecclesiastical year, there are a great number of other feasts, which like the Sundays, are attached to the principal feasts. They form not only the ornament of the Ecclesiastical Year, but also place before us the fruits of holiness which have ripened on the living tree of the Church.

2. The feasts have all been regulated by the Church. some of them are even of Apostolic origin: the most of them, however, are of a later date. In the first centuries feasts were not commanded to be kept, but the faithful, of their own free will celebrated the anniversaries of the most important events in the life of Christ and His saints. Later the celebration of these feasts was commanded by the Church.

3. In the course of time, the number of feasts increased, and when the Church saw that the faithful instead of deriving benefit from their celebration, rather desecrated them, she abolished certain feasts or transferred their celebration to the following Sunday; in so doing she respected the capabilities and wants of the faithful.

4. Besides the feasts of obligation, the Church has a great many others, which are celebrated only in the Breviary and in the Mass. Nearly every day in the year the feast of some saint is celebrated, to remind us that we also are called to sanctity, and that we should labor every day to attain that end.

5. Feasts may be divided into four classes, according to their meaning:

a)   Feasts of Our Lord,
b)   Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
c)   Feasts of the Angels, Apostles and Evangelists, and
d)   Feasts of the other Saints.

The feasts of Our Lord place before us mysteries intimately connected with the work of Redemption. The feasts of the Blessed Virgin show us Mary's part in the Redemption, by becoming the Mother of God, and thus the Mother of mankind, thereby aiding man in obtaining his salvation.

After Mary, the Angels, Apostles, and Evangelists, who first announced and spread the Gospel, must be considered the chief participators in the work of Redemption. In these, as well as in the other Saints, we see the fruits of the Redemption, namely the virtues.

6. There are movable and immovable feasts in the Ecclesiastical Year. The movable feasts are those which are regulated according to the time of Easter, and are celebrated, therefore, sometimes earlier, sometimes later in the year,—such as Ascension. Pentecost and others. Immovable feasts are those that are always celebrated on the same day of the year, and their number is by far the greater.

7. As the object of the entire Ecclesiastical Year is to place before the faithful the work of the Redemption, so each day of the year has its special office to perform in this regard. In the Divine Office, and in the formulas of the Mass, each day's share is clearly outlined. It is the duty of every Christian to participate, not only outwardly in this daily celebration of feasts, but to live accordingly, and thus live the life of our Holy Church. Those who cannot participate in the Divine Service, should the more diligently seek to learn from the Epistles and Gospels of the Sundays and Holy days, what each Holy Season prescribes for us to believe and practice.

Holy Days of Obligation

January 1st The Circumcision of our Lord—New Year's Day.
Easter + 40 days Ascension Thursday.
August 15th Assumption the Virgin Mary.
November 1st All Saints' Day.
December 8th Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
December 25th Christmas Day.