We American Catholics are now in the post-Easter Season of the Bollixed Holy Days. One of them—occurring right around now—is the feast of Jesus’s Ascension into Heaven, which, according to the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, took place after He had spent “forty days” with His disciples following His resurrection from the dead, “being seen … and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” In longstanding Christian tradition, those forty days have meant, in both the Eastern and Western Christian churches, that the Feast of the Ascension is to be celebrated on the Thursday of the sixth week after Easter. So it has been in the Christian world since at least the late fourth century. Hence “Ascension Thursday,” the unofficial name for the day in English-speaking countries. And in the worldwide Latin church, Ascension Thursday is a “holy day of obligation,” meaning that Catholics must attend Mass on the day or risk grave sin.
Except that, well, they don’t really have to anymore in most Catholic dioceses in America. In 1991, the U.S. Catholic bishops, following the lead of Catholic bishops in other Protestant-majority countries where the holy days have little if any official government recognition, voted to release American Catholics from having to observe virtually any holy days of obligation whatsoever. (There are six such days in the U.S. Catholic Church, all representing major Catholic and universal Christian feast days.) The idea was that, since Mass attendance on those days was already relatively poor among America’s fast-secularizing Catholics, it might be best to kind of forget about obliging Mass attendance at all. As a Los Angeles Times report at the time put it, “Church officials in favor of a change contend that pressures of modern life have made it increasingly hard for people to keep up with religious obligations during the week.” Ah, the pressures of modern life. So out of the six existing holy days of obligation, the bishops made weekday Mass attendance absolutely mandatory on only two: Christmas (whew!) and December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (since Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the official Catholic saint-patroness of the United States). As for most of the rest of the holy days, if they happen to fall on a Saturday or a Monday, Mass attendance would be no longer be required, because, after all, it would be too cruel to force people to go to Mass two days in a row.
And as for Ascension Thursday, local bishops would have the option of turning it into “Ascension Thursday Sunday,” so to speak, by moving it to the Sunday immediately following the date of its traditional observance. That would presumably serve the purpose of at least getting a few more Catholics into church for this ancient festal celebration, since they’re required to attend Mass on Sunday anyway. And most U.S. bishops went for the change. Only in a handful of U.S. dioceses, mostly in the Northeast, does Ascension Day still fall on its proper Thursday.
The American bishops—as well as others, mostly in the English-speaking world—had a precedent for this. Starting in the late 1960s, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus—traditionally January 6, “Twelfth Night,” in the Western church—was moved to the Sunday immediately following New Year’s Day. This has meant that the season of Christmastide itself, which traditionally speaking isn’t supposed to end until the eleven pipers pipe and the twelve drummers drum, has regularly been terminated in parish churches as early as January 2. Further gumming up the works is the fact that many Spanish-speaking Catholics in the United States haven’t bought into the bishops’ switch to Sunday and continue to celebrate El Día de los Reyes—a much more important feast for them than for Anglophones—on whatever day of the week January 6 happens to fall.
Postponing Ascension Day—giving Jesus three extra days on earth before being “taken up” until a “cloud received Him”—means compressing the time between the Ascension and Pentecost (the ancient Jewish Feast of Weeks marking the seventh sabbath after Passover and always celebrated by Christians on a Sunday) from ten days to a mere seven. You might say that God now has to send down the Holy Spirit to the Church (the event that the Christian feast of Pentecost commemorates) by express instead of standard delivery. Not only does this change maul the Scriptures (the Acts of the Apostles is very clear about the time period between Ascension Day and Pentecost), but the once-widespread Catholic custom of a nine-day novena between the two feast days—with the Easter candle in the sanctuary extinguished on the intervening Sunday as a symbol of Christ’s absence—is now just a memory in most U.S. dioceses.
And in a further flattening of the post-Easter liturgical calendar, the American bishops (along with bishops in many other Western countries) moved the uniquely Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, which since the Middle Ages has been celebrated on the Thursday ten days after Pentecost. Again, the bishops decided that going to Mass or viewing a procession on a weekday was too much to ask of American Catholics, so Corpus Christi was shuffled off to Sunday as well. So now we’re left with a blurry procession of late-spring Sundays: Ascension Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, Trinity Sunday (a week after Pentecost), and Corpus Christi Sunday. Many Catholics probably have trouble figuring out which one is which.
As for the bishops’ goal of encouraging Mass attendance on major feasts by moving around their days of observance, quite the opposite has happened instead. Fewer Catholics than ever go to church on Sundays these days, even though such convenient scheduling arrangements as evening and vigil Masses have made it easier than ever in history for them to fulfill their weekly worship obligations. A Gallup poll released in April 2018 showed that Sunday Mass attendance, which had stabilized at around 45 percent about a decade ago, has recently resumed a precipitous post-Vatican II decline, down to 39 percent in 2017 from its height of 75 percent during the 1950s. And as the rules about holy-day worship have relaxed, the complaints from Catholics obliged to abide by the few restrictions left have grown. In December 2017, when Christmas fell on a Monday, many Catholics were disappointed to learn that the bishops wouldn’t let them pull a “two-fer” via a Mass on Sunday, December 24, that would cover both days.
It has finally dawned on some people that when you ease up on practices that cement a distinctive Catholic identity, such as celebrating religious feasts on weekdays, people forget that they have any Catholic identity at all. Or that faiths that make demands upon their adherents are more successful in attracting and retaining adherents than those that don’t. (See mainline Protestantism for a textbook example.) In September 2017, the bishops of England and Wales, who had, like the U.S. bishops, transferred Ascension Day and Epiphany to adjacent Sundays, voted to move them back to their original days. (Corpus Christi will remain on a Sunday in England, at least for the time being.) Perhaps the U.S. bishops will similarly realize that Catholics might cope better with the pressures of modern life if their church stood more distinctly and powerfully for something that transcends modern life.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
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