Ascension Sunday?

A moved feast gives the entire Ascension/Pentecost event a manufactured aura

It is that time of the liturgical year when we must face the question: Is Ascension Thursday a Holy Day of Obligation?  The answer is in the affirmative as the Code of Canon Law (1246), in addition to all Sundays of the year, includes the Solemnity of the Ascension among the ten additional Holy Days of Obligation.  This seems rather clear, except that it’s not.  Because in the United States, the bishops’ conference exercised their prerogative to abolish four of those Holy Days and to move one of them to the following Sunday.  The one that was moved was the one in which the day of the week actually mattered: Ascension Thursday.  It is now Ascension Sunday, except in certain dioceses where it is still celebrated on Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter as a Holy Day of Obligation.  Clear?  If not, “check your local listings” for celebrating the Solemnity of the Ascension.  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that many of the rank and file are confused.

The Feast of the Ascension is given to the Church as a means by which we liturgically participate in the Apostles’ experience of Our Lord’s departure from the Mount of Olivet.  But the confusion surrounding its celebration represents something more than that: the death of Catholic culture.  At the heart of culture, both literally and figuratively, is cult.  Catholics, even in the U.S., always stood out from the rest of the prevailing culture because of their external religious practices like meatless Fridays and Sabbatical Sundays.  These practices created a Catholic “identity” not in and of themselves but because they rested upon a vibrant liturgical life.  Catholics came together regularly for Communion, the Sacrament that united each of them with Jesus, and in turn united them to each other.  They then were united in going out into the world and witnessing to the truth of Christ.  In short, Catholic culture was built not through natural means but by Catholics partaking of the supernatural means of unity.  By removing a Holy Day of Obligation or moving it to the nearest Sunday, this unifying encounter happens less.

There might be “pastoral” reasons for doing such a thing.  The Church can loose as well as bind.  She may choose the former to keep people from the grave sin of missing Mass when Mass attendance is declining.  But this can easily backfire because it sends the opposite message: “If obligations in the past weren’t really obligations, then why should I respect these other obligations?”  It ends up being an attack by the Church on her own credibility.

The average person does not make the distinction between disciplines and doctrine so that a change in discipline often signals, at least in most people’s minds, a change in doctrine.  One of the things that people find appealing about Islam, especially men, is its rigidity.  It asks a lot of its adherents and binds them to some rigorous practices.  Likewise, the Communists always asked a lot of their young people and were countered with a generous response.  The Church then, when confronted with cultural decline, should bind rather than loose — increase the obligations rather than reduce them.  Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will give actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely.  There are always those who go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.

This centering of Catholic culture on liturgy must be instilled in the young.  Most Catholic schools give their students a holiday on Memorial Day but not on All Saints Day.  This sends a mixed message, to be given time off to celebrate a secular honoring of the dead but to demand the students work on the holy day when we celebrate all those “who from their labor rest.”

Recall that the day of the week actually matters for the Ascension.  Pentecost is not just a one-time event but one that unfolds throughout time.  The liturgy on that day puts us in touch with that event and makes it present in our own time.  God has providentially decreed that, in order to prepare well for Pentecost, we should spend nine days in prayer with the Apostles and Our Lady.  To limit that novena to seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how God planned it.  A change gives the entire Ascension/Pentecost event an aura of manufacture (a work of man) rather than liturgy (a work of God).  The bishops should restore the Feast of the Ascension to its rightful place.


Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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