Question Box: Saints on the calendar


By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box

How is it determined which saints are observed on which calendar days? Why do some saints seem to get skipped some years?

Fr. Hennen

The feast days of saints are most often determined by their death date or “heavenly birth­day.” How­ever, this does not always work if someone died on an already established feast day or if it would occur in a season that was not ideal, for example during Lent or too close to Easter. In those cases, the feast might get bumped a day or two or put on another significant date in the life of the saint. A good example would be St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She died Sept. 30 (1897), which is the feast day of St. Jerome, who died on that date in 420. St. Thérèse’s feast day is, therefore, observed on Oct. 1.

Other reasons can be chosen for a feast day as well. Pope St. John Paul II’s feast day is Oct. 22, the date he was elected pope. Pope St. John XXIII’s feast day is, fittingly, Oct. 11, the opening date of the Second Vatican Council. In the new general calendar (1969), St. Thomas Aquinas’ feast day is observed not on his death date (March 7) but on Jan. 28, when his relics were transferred in 1369 to Toulouse, France.


I realize I’m using the term “feast day” as we often do to refer to the observance of any saint or special day on the Church calendar. Technically, though, there are three “classes” of celebrations. In ascending order of importance they are: memorials (optional or obligatory), feasts and solemnities. Which class of celebration a saint gets has to do with how influential or important that saint is in the story of our redemption or in the history of the Church. The major feasts of our Lord get “top billing,” of course (Christmas and Easter, but also Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart and Christ the King). Mary also gets a couple solemnities: the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) and the Assumption (Aug. 15), plus her birthday (Sept. 8) is a feast. St. John the Baptist (June 24), Ss. Peter and Paul (June 29), also get solemnities for their essential roles.

Liturgically, solemnities call for the singing/recitation of the Gloria and the Creed at Mass. For feasts we sing/recite the Gloria but not the Creed and for memorials we do not sing the Gloria or recite the Creed. For solemnities, feasts and obligatory memorials, the priest celebrant does not choose which Mass to use. For optional memorials, he might decide to use the prayers for the regular weekday Mass instead. Personally, I try to celebrate every saint I can, especially during the long stretches of Ordinary Time. I love reading and sharing about the lives of the saints, these real men and women who went before us. Plus, I figure I can use all the help that I can get! I know it does not work this way, but I sometimes imagine the saints whose feasts I skipped not “voting for me” to get into heaven when my time comes.

As to why it seems like we skip certain saints’ feasts in certain years, this has to do with their feast day falling on a Sunday. Some solemnities and even some feasts will trump a Sunday in Ordinary Time but even the 16th Sunday in Ordinary time would take precedence over the memorial of a saint. That’s just how important Sunday is to us as our weekly commemoration of the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and vicar general for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to

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