Solemnity, Feast, Memorial, Optional Memorial, Oh My!

A parishioner recently asked me to explain what the Catholic Church means by solemnity, feast, memorial, optional memorial, and what exactly does it mean to be a Holy Day of Obligation?

The topic can be quite tricky.

It also can sound a bit convoluted, but I will try my best. With everyone’s favorite Holy Day of “non-Obligation,” or Ash Wednesday, coming up in about a week and a half, now is as good of time as any to tackle the subject.


A solemnity is the highest ranking of a feast day. A solemnity commemorates an event in the life of Jesus or the Blessed Mother. It can also celebrate a canonized Saint that is important to the whole Church or the local community. The Gloria and Credo (Creed) are recited, there are reading and antiphons specific to the day, and incense is typically used. The word solemnity comes from the Latin word sollemnitas, which, means festival or celebration.

Examples of solemnities include Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, and All Saints. Here at St. Anthony of Padua, we celebrate June 13 as a solemnity since St. Anthony is our patron. If you went up the road to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on June 13, they would celebrate it as a feast. In the Archdiocese of Las Vegas, we have three patrons: (1) the Holy Family, (2) Sts. Peter and Paul (3) the Guardian Angels. These can all be celebrated as solemnities in any archdiocesan parish.


Feasts are the next highest celebration. Feasts include lesser events in the life of Jesus, Mary, an Apostle, or other major saints. The Gloria is sung, but the Credo is not recited. Feasts falling on Sundays in Ordinary Time replace the Sunday Liturgy and would have the Credo recited. (People often wonder, “How come its the XYZ Week in Ordinary Time, but we skipped around?”)

Memorial/Optional Memorial

A memorial is the lowest-ranking feast day. It honors a saint, a dedication of a church, or a mystery of the religion. Memorials that coincide with a higher ranking solemnity, feast, Sunday, Holy Week, Ash Wednesday, or the Octave of Easter are supplanted.

Wouldn’t the Church know that there was going to be a conflict and schedule the memorial accordingly?


Remember back to Epiphany weekend in January. After the Gospel, the cantor chanted the “The Announcement of Easter and Moveable Feasts.” Easter moves around. Christmas does not. Pentecost moves around. All Saints does not.

So, for example, the Memorial for Saint Peter Canisius is December 21. Because this falls into the week immediately preceeding Christmas, his feast day is never obligatory. It’s optional; however, the rector of the chapel at my alma mater in Buffalo, Canisius University, could choose to celebrate it as a solemnity.

See where this gets confusing and complicated?

Holy Days of Obligation

Remember back to middle school geometry when you were taught that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares? I still don’t understand it. (And, sorry, Math Teacher, I am yet to use about 97% of anything you ever taught me!) Well, the same thing applies here.

All Holy Days of Obligation are solemnities. Not all solemnities are Holy Days of Obligation.

Christmas is always a Holy Day of Obligation no matter what. It’s why you had to come to Mass two days in a row this past Christmas (once for 4th Sunday of Advent and once for Christmas). The Nativity of St. John the Baptist in June is a solemnity, but it is not obligatory.

Sometimes, a Holy Day of Obligation is transferred.

Sometimes, a solemnity might be a Holy Day of Obligation one year, but not the next. I’m not very qualified to provide an answer to the “why” you are perhaps asking. Canon 1246, §2 allows conferences of bishops (in the US, we have the US Catholic Conference of Bishops) will petition Rome to do things differently than another part of the world. The Pope himself must approve of the request.

Christ’s Ascension into heaven is a great example of this. In most of the United States, the holy day is

transferred to the nearest Sunday. This came about in the 1990s because of the priest shortages in the west and the inability to travel between parishes. Even within our own archdiocese, once you are out of the valley, the drive between parishes often served by one or two priests can exceed three hours.

2024 Holy Days of Obligation in Vegas

  • Thursday, August 15 – Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Friday, November 1 – All Saints
  • Wednesday, December 25 – Christmas

What about Ash Wednesday?

Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation. You are not obligated to attend (or obligated to go to Confession for missing Mass before receiving the Blessed Sacrament); however, just because one isn’t required doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the better idea to skip out.

We invite you to join us at any of our Ash Wednesday liturgies as we all begin our Lenten journey together.