ASK FATHER: Friday penance on 6 January where Epiphany is transferred

The Unwise Men, heading off to Sunday.

From a reader…


Hi Father Z,

I’m confused about this Friday and the obligation to do penance this Friday. Our Bishops’ Conference (Canada) transferred the Feast of Epiphany to the Sunday, but we who follow the 1962 Calendar observe it on the Friday. Does that mean we still have to do penance on Friday, since the Bishops officially moved the Feast Day to Sunday, or are we exempt because we’re celebrating Epiphany on the Friday? I’m confused. Please help.

If the Canadian bishops where you are (Canadia) have determined – contrary to tradition – to anoint the intentional euthanizing of Epiphany and it to Sunday (which is already a day of obligation), then Friday is no longer a “Solemnity”.

Only a Solemnity ranks high enough to suppress the obligation for penance. Therefore, you are obliged on Friday to do penance, even though it is traditional Epiphany.

Even if you attend an Extraordinary Form Mass (or perhaps some Eastern Rite Divine Worship) celebrating the Epiphany on Friday, then 6 January is not a Solemnity in these USA or in Canadia … unless your parish is dedicated to St. Andre Bessette… no, wait, St. Andre Bessette in Canada is, I think, on 7 January… too bad.

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  1. Nan says:

    In fact, in the Ruthenian Church, Wed. and Fri are generally fasting days but the vigil of Epiphany (Theophany) is also a fasting day. The Church follows the old tradition of meatless and dairy free fasts.

  2. APX says:

    Just wondering, for Latin Mass Communities/Parishes who observe Epiphany on its proper day, could one’s pastor put in a request to the bishop to transfer the obligation for Friday penance for that community/parish, perhaps for the preceding Thursday in keeping with the tradition of doing penance the day before a Solemnity?


  3. jlduskey says:

    If you want to follow the 1962 discipline on Friday abstinence, note that abstinence was required on all the Fridays of the year, plus Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, and on the Vigil of Christmas, however, abstinence from meat is dispensed on Holy Days of Obligation (information as given in the FSSP ordo). In these United States, in 1962, the Epiphany was a first class feast, but not a Holy Day of Obligation, and therefore abstinence was not dispensed.

    [It is interesting to compare the calendars. We’ve gotten soft. However, as far as these things are concerned we of the Latin Church need to follow the present law.]

  4. Titus says:

    In these United States, in 1962, the Epiphany was a first class feast, but not a Holy Day of Obligation, and therefore abstinence was not dispensed.

    This strikes me as quite wrong. 1917 CIC c. 1252 § 4 dispensed the obligation of abstinence on “festis de praecepto,” not days on which any particular person was obliged to hear Mass. 1917 CIC c. 1247 § 1 contained a list of universal days of precept, among which was listed the Epiphany. Until Dr. Peters or someone of his ilk comes along and says otherwise, I maintain—based on the plain reading of those two canons—that a Friday on which the feast of the Epiphany fell was not a day of abstinence under the 1917 Code.

    Also, I am not—wholly, at least initially—persuaded by Father’s conclusion about the obligation of abstinence on the Epiphany when transferred. 1983 CIC c. 1246 says “…the conference of bishops can suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday.” Now, in the U.S., Peter & Paul is not a day of obligation. Nor is St. Joseph, or just about anything else. They have been, in the language of canon 1246, “suppressed.” But what has been suppressed? The obligation, not the feast itself.

    Of course, that analysis becomes rather muddled, because Canon 1251 uses a concept that the Code of Canon law does itself define—“solemnity”—to specify when the law of penance applies.

    But wait, it gets worse (or better?). The Epiphany is a special case. If we look at the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, at Paragraph 7, we find that the Epiphany has not been simply transferred by the Episcopal Conference under Canon 1246. It is actually defined, by universal law, as falling on “the Sunday that falls between 2 January and 8 January” in places “[w]here … not observed as [a] Holyday[] of Obligation.” So it would seem that we can skip the whole “transferred what?” inquiry, because under the 1970 Calendar—and thus by reference Canon 1251—defines the feast of the Epiphany in places where it isn’t a day of obligation as being, intrinsically, not merely by transfer, on Sunday.

  5. Nan says:

    APX, one’s pastor could request that the parish do penance on the eve of the feast in keeping with tradition. In a traditional parish he’s likely to get a lot of takers. In fact, there’s nothing stopping you from doing penance on the eve of the feast on your own.

    Our old bishop asked all to join him in fasting from meat on Fridays with the intention of fostering vocations. There was no mandate. Many joined. There are 64 men in formation for the diocese, including at least 2 who were out for awhile and returned. I was very excited about one o the seminarians; he always seemed so happy in seminary and the few occasions on which we crossed paths, he was unhappy. My Christmas gift last year was learning of his return. This year? A phone call from a seminarian and a compliment from a priest who said he’d want me around when he was dying.

  6. Andrew_81 says:


    In your opinion, would it be enough of a “substitute” penance this Friday for us ossified manualists, to refrain from the natural and oh-so-easy snide remarks against the USCCB (for moving a feast which is not even of obligation for us in the US to a Sunday!), [Yes… that’s enough in itself.] and instead celebrate the real (but not legal) Epiphany of Our Lord silencing our tongues with a hearty flank steak and decent Shiraz? [First, celebration of Epiphany on 6 January with the Extraordinary Form is “legal”. And you can substitute some other penance… like refraining from remarks about the USCCB. A heavy penance. Enjoy your steak… but … Shiraz? Perhaps you are from “down under”.]

    For this poor old fogey, it would be a much harder penance — the patience and silence, that is.

  7. Nan says:

    Well that was incomplete! On the few occasions I encountered the seminarian while he was out he was unhappy. He returned last spring and the other returned in the fall. They’re both lovely young men.

  8. spock says:

    My goodness, if your unsure if you have to do Penance because of your perceived ambiguities in Church law or whatever, JUST DO THE PENANCE. Is it really that big of a deal ? Are you wearing hair shirts and “leg shirts” and “feet shirts” all at the same time on Fridays ? This seems a little silly to me.

  9. Sword40 says:

    I believe our FSSP pastor has referred to the Epiphany this year as the external celebration. Perhaps I ‘m wrong on this but it seems to me that this has happened a couple of times this year at our parish.

    But we will celebrate this Friday with Mass, Adoration and Benediction.

  10. APX says:

    APX, one’s pastor could request that the parish do penance on the eve of the feast in keeping with tradition. In a traditional parish he’s likely to get a lot of takers. In fact, there’s nothing stopping you from doing penance on the eve of the feast on your own.

    We don’t have our own parish. We share with the English Mass community. Maybe in another 25 years when we celebrate our 50th Anniversary we’ll be gifted with our own parish…

  11. Geoffrey says:

    As a layman who prays the Liturgy of the Hours, I always observe the Epiphany and the Ascension on their proper / traditional days, as in Rome. I know this doesn’t apply to the penance / solemnity discussion, but I thought I would mention it…

  12. JonPatrick says:

    We are also fortunate in our parish to have a traditional Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany this Friday. What my family will probably do is observe the penance during the day then maybe let up after Mass which is in the evening and have a little celebration.

  13. Precentrix says:

    When in doubt, scallops followed by lobster thermidore seems to cut the mustard, as once observed on a friend’s birthday – my nameday – Michaelmas – Friday. Though actually, come to think of it, that was before our bishop restored the mandate to abstain from meat.


  15. wolfeken says:

    Titus wrote, of the analysis of the discipline in place in 1962: “This strikes me as quite wrong. 1917 CIC c. 1252 § 4 dispensed the obligation of abstinence on ‘festis de praecepto,’ not days on which any particular person was obliged to hear Mass. 1917 CIC c. 1247 § 1 contained a list of universal days of precept, among which was listed the Epiphany.”

    There were/are ten days of precept — that is, ten universal holy days of obligation — but bishops’ conferences are free to choose from amongst them with respect to their obligation. The U.S. has always had six, which has never included Epiphany. Therefore, Epiphany remains a universal holy day of obligation, but not one in the United States, and thus its accompanying privileges and disciplines follow. We aren’t required to abstain from servile work and unnecessary purchases on that day in the U.S., just as we aren’t permitted to waive Friday abstinence on that day. The same logic follows.

    The discipline of the days of precept indeed correspond with the holy days of obligation determined by the respective country’s bishops.

  16. wolfeken says:

    To clarify my last line, above, that refers to the 1962 discipline (technically no longer in force, but encouraged by Ecclesia Dei priestly societies). The current/novus ordo discipline links Friday abstinence to so-called solemnities, of which includes some days that are not universally obligatory.

  17. Fr. Kelly says:

    Titus and Wolfeken have each given us much to think about. It seems this matter of meat abstinence on the solemnity of the epiphany when it falls on a Friday (as it does this year) is not entirely clear.

    Canon 1251 gives this exception: “… unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” “… nisi cum aliquo die inter sollemnitates recensito occurrant.”
    The Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar has these:
    7. Where the Solemnities of the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ are not observed as Holydays of Obligation, they should be assigned to a Sunday as their proper day in this manner:
    the Epiphany is assigned to the Sunday that falls between 2 January and 8 January;
    the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter;
    the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.

    37. The Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on 6 January, unless, where it is not observed as a Holyday of Obligation, it has been assigned to the Sunday occurring between 2 and 8 January (see no. 7).

    Finally, the Proper Calendar for the United States as approved by the USCCB has:
    8. In 2017, since the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on January 8, the
    Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is transferred to the following Monday, January 9,with only one reading before the Gospel.

    The General Roman Calendar indicates that in the case of these United States, The Epiphany ought to be assigned to a Sunday as its proper day. This seems to be what has happened here, since the US Calendar says the Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on the 8th of January, while it says that the Baptism is transferred to the Monday.

    It seems beyond doubt that this coming Sunday is in fact here to be celebrated as the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. What then of Friday January 6th? Here the USCCB has assigned St. Andre Bessette as an optional memorial on that day. However, as I read it, all the above notwithstanding, The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord is still January 6, even if it is assigned to the nearby Sunday. The norms affect the celebrations but not the days themselves.

    As evidence of this, let me cite the decree issued last year by the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments changing the Discipline of the Holy Thursday Mandatum on Pope Francis’ Authority.

    It closes with this signature:
    From the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, January 6, 2016, Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
    Robert Card. Sarah
    Arthur Roche
    Archbishop Secretary

    Hagan Lio!

  18. Titus says:

    Fr. Kelly’s thoughtful comment illustrates the muddle. In effect, it seems we’re turned all of the U.N. Par. 7 feasts into the equivalent of local-calendar celebrations, such that when the feast occurs depends on where one is. Thus, in Rome, January 6 is the Epiphany. But in the U.S., it isn’t, unless January 6 is a Sunday, or one belongs to a community not bound by the 1970 Calendar.

    I think this is the better view, as opposed to the interpretation advanced by Fr. Kelly (i.e., that only the celebration of those feasts has been moved, a la an external solemnity). Paragraph 7 doesn’t say that you can (or even must) celebrate the feasts on the Sunday, it says ” they should be assigned” there, in the part of the document defining when those feasts occur. We’re not celebrating feasts on days when they don’t fall, we’re having feasts on different days.

    The consequent muddle about what liturgical day it is has to be one of the great unintended consequences of the 1970 Calendar reform. (Unless paragraph 7 is mistranslated in the document we’re using.) Who ever would have thought that some of the greatest feasts in the life of the Church would happen on different days in different places, for members of the same Rite? It’s bizarre. It’s also the sort of thing that never would have happened—or never would have endured—if there had remained within the Church any pervading sense of (a) sacred time or, more critically, (b) the necessity and gravity of weekly penance. If everyone were still having to abstain on Fridays, it would have taken no time for it to occur to everyone that “these celebrate-it-on-Sunday rules are terribly confusing, and add extra days of penance back in.”

    So a pox upon the whole affair. A pox upon the 1983 Code for using a term defined by the liturgical laws to govern penitential days, a pox upon the 1970 Calendar and its Universal Norms for moving feasts around in the way it does, and a pox upon the bishops for not bothering to have us go to Mass on a few extra days.

    On wolfeken’s comment: the issue on those old canons is simply a matter of what “festis de praecepto” meant in 1252. Did it mean the same as in canon 1247, or did it mean “festis cum praecepto where you’re at”? The legal tradition in which I generally interpret texts would say you don’t assign different meanings to a single term used in the same legislative context; thus my preference for the first meaning. Then again, that legal tradition is not “canon law”; thus my willingness to concede to a proper canonist.

  19. MrsMacD says:

    Considering that we’re very much into preserving the good traditions of the church and that we willingly do penance and mortifications on days that it is not obligatory, and concidering that there is no *sin* attached to disobeying this law of abstaining on Fridays, wouldn’t it be okay to just ignore the current muddle and do what used to be done for the sake of common sence, and since we’re celebrating ‘little Christmas’ anyway…

  20. Tony Phillips says:

    I’m with Mrs MacD here. This is clearly a place for mercy and for the internal forum. As my 7th grade teacher, Sister Maureen, said, ‘Why should it be OK for a rich man to eat a lobster on Friday but it’s a sin for a poor man to eat a hot dog?’ (She didn’t wear a habit, either.) Surely man-made pharisaical laws shouldn’t pre-empt the traditional Epiphany feast of roast badger stuffed with hedgehog?

  21. KateD says:

    Regardless, I’m sure there will plenty of Rosca de Reyes consumed today in America in honor of Tres Reyes. US Bishops should rethink this in consideration of Hispanic Catholics.

    In such difficult instances, my children argue that dusk is “Jewish tomorrow”…We just wait till after dark if there’s a question about a Friday.

    Andrew_81-Syrah, Shiraz-potato, potahtoz. Penfold’s Grange by any other name….

    So, not to go horribly off on a tangent from the way out of my league discussion of cannons and laws and rules (oh my!) but I’m curious…Is really superior wine like that ever used for the consecration? It seems fitting.

  22. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Where there is doubt, isn’t the rule that diversity is tolerated?

  23. KateD says:

    Can you imagine the flak you’d get if you told your kids, “Sorry, Chrismas is on a Friday this year…Santa’s not comin’ till Sunday.


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