Commemorations in Lent

Date: March 26, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: The Ordo states that all memorials of saints are optional in the Lenten season. However, the General Calendar at the beginning of the Roman Missal has the commemoration of Saints Perpetua and Felicity as an obligatory memorial (the only one in the entire month of March). The prayers are unique as well, with proper antiphons, prayer over the offerings, and prayer after communion. I think the Ordo used to give red as the color of the vestments, but now it is violet. So, is this in fact the one exception? In which case, would red vestments be appropriate? -- M.W., San Francisco, California

Answer: Lent can begin on February 5 at the earliest or March 10 at the latest. Easter can fall between March 22 and April 25.

The reform of the Calendar following the Second Vatican Council privileged the celebration of the Lenten season over the celebration of the saints. This was achieved in two ways.

First, the traditional date of celebrating the memorials of certain saints was transferred out of Lent by seeking another suitable date; and second, by reducing all remaining obligatory and optional memorials to the special category of commemorations.

Examples of the first case are St. Matthias, Apostle, which was transferred from February 24 to May 14, and St. Thomas Aquinas, which moved from March 7 to January 28. This latter change allowed the memorial of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to be returned to its traditional date of March 7. It had been celebrated the previous day only since 1908.

In the second situation, the saints may be celebrated as commemorations. The applicable norms for Mass are found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 355:

"a. On the weekdays of Advent from 17 December to 24 December, on days within the Octave of Christmas, and on the weekdays of Lent, except Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week, the Mass for the current liturgical day is to be used; but the Collect may be taken from a memorial which happens to be listed in the General Calendar for that day, except on Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week. On weekdays of the Easter Season, memorials of Saints may rightly be celebrated fully.

"b. On the weekdays of Advent before 17 December, the weekdays of the Christmas Season from 2 January, and the weekdays of the Easter Season, it is possible to choose either the weekday Mass, or the Mass of the Saint, or the Mass of one of the Saints whose memorial is observed, or the Mass of any Saint listed in the Martyrology for that day."

Therefore, to commemorate Saints Perpetua and Felicity on March 7 during Lent, only the proper collect or opening prayer is used. All the rest is taken from the current weekday: the readings, prayer over the gifts, preface, prayer after communion, and proper antiphons. Violet vestments are used and not white or red as is usual with the saints.

If a saint has the category of solemnity or feast, for example, St. Joseph or St. Patrick in some countries, then it is celebrated as normal with vestments of the corresponding color, the recitation of the Glory and, on solemnities, the Creed. The readings and the Liturgy of the Hours are those proper to the feast.

On Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week and the Easter Octave, all celebrations of saints are excluded.

Regarding the Liturgy of the Hours, the General Introduction to the Divine Office says:

"Memorials During Privileged Seasons

"237. On Sundays, solemnities, and feasts, on Ash Wednesday, during Holy Week, and during the octave of Easter, memorials that happen to fall on these days are disregarded.

"238. On the weekdays from 17 to 24 December, during the octave of Christmas, and on the weekdays of Lent, no obligatory memorials are celebrated, even in particular calendars. When any happen to fall during Lent in a given year, they are treated as optional memorials.

"239. During privileged seasons, if it is desired to celebrate the office of a saint on a day assigned to his or her memorial:

"a. in the office of readings, after the patristic reading (with its responsory) from the Proper of Seasons, a proper reading about the saint (with its responsory) may follow, with the concluding prayer of the saint;

"b. at morning prayer and evening prayer, the ending of the concluding prayer may be omitted and the saint's antiphon (from the proper or common) and prayer may be added.”

The memorial of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, albeit rarely, on occasion falls outside of Lent. It happened in the year 2000 and 2011 and will again in 2038. On these days these great martyr saints retain their proper texts and red vestments are used. 

Likewise, these texts may be used in any Church dedicated to these saints and anywhere else that they are celebrated as feasts.

The fact that the Mass of the memorial has a full complement of texts does not affect its liturgical ranking. The celebration of the saints has undergone many changes over time, and the missal and Divine Office are not perfectly consistent on this point. Thus, some saints, such as Perpetua and Felicity, have a full complement of proper texts whereas most saints have only a proper collect. Although obligatory memorials are more likely to have all the Mass formulas, this is not always the case.

To take just a few random days in September, Saints Cornelius and Cyprian (16th), and the Korean Martyrs (20th) have the complete Mass prayers whereas saints Robert Bellarmine (17th), Januarius (19th), and Pius of Pietrelcina (23rd) have just a proper collect. 

There does not seem to be any hard and fast rule, and in some cases, it might have depended on the capacity to compose suitable texts by the congregation or group who carried forward the canonization process. 

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Follow-up: Lenten Prayer Over the People

An attentive reader from Denver, Colorado, pointed out an error in a previous column regarding the Prayer over the People:

“In it, you wrote that you believe that a Priest or Deacons should omit ‘Bow down for the blessing’ before the prayer. The Roman Missal though would say otherwise. I would point to the rubrics for the Prayers Over the People that is found at the end of the Order of Mass in the Roman Missal (after the Solemn Blessings). In those rubrics, the following is stated for the Prayer over the People:

“The Deacon or, in his absence, the Priest himself, says the invitation: Bow down for the Blessing. Then the Priest, with hands outstretched over the people, says the prayer, with all responding: Amen.”

Our reader is correct and this was an oversight on my part. It also serves to point out a rarely used possibility in the missal of using the formula of “Prayer over the people” outside of Lent and not just the solemn blessings.

I have requested that the original column in the archives be adjusted to reflect this new information.

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