On Rome’s Push for a ‘Common’ Date for Easter

Getting the Orthodox to jettison the Julian calendar raises all sorts of problems


Faith The Papacy

Pope Francis has on several occasions voiced support for an idea, percolating among the Vatican’s professional ecumenical and liturgical classes, to establish a “common” date for Easter between Catholics and Orthodox. The current driver seems to be wanting to “do something” to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicea in 2025, when both churches will also celebrate Easter on the same date (April 20). Kristi McCabe at “Where Peter Is” enthusiastically welcomes the idea [here]; I had previously criticized it severely [here].

An “appendix” attached to the end of Sacrosanctum Concilium is being invoked to justify this effort and to pretend that it’s another dormant fruit of Vatican II blossoming in our times. That’s false.

The “appendix” speaks not of a “common” but a “fixed” (stabiliendo) date of Easter. A “common” date of Easter would have Catholics and Orthodox celebrating on the same day within the variable window within which Easter now moves. A “fixed” date would narrow that movability to a given Sunday, the second or third Sundays of April being the usual candidates. Let’s not confuse terms that are not synonyms.

McCabe argues that the reason for Catholic/Orthodox divergence is that the latter maintain that Easter should occur on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring after Passover is completed. Catholics observe Easter on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring, irrespective of whether Passover is over.

I confess to not being an expert in the byzantine vagaries of Orthodox thinking, but I am not convinced the problem is just an issue of when Passover ends. In Israel, Passover lasts seven days. It seems, then, that according to the Biblical chronology, even Jesus Himself didn’t wait until the end of Passover to rise. And while those in search of a Nicea anniversary deliverable in 2025 point out that Nicea I set a common date for Easter, the Council’s quest for commonality was something different. It decided against the Quatrodecimans, who wanted Easter on the first full moon of spring irrespective of the day of the week on which it fell, versus those who celebrated Easter on the following Sunday. (I do not know whether that Nicean Sunday was during or after Passover). Furthermore, by settling on the Paschal moon—an astronomical fact—as determinative of Easter, Nicea freed the Solemnity from the vagaries of the Jewish calendar which, in the Council’s day, was very localized and, in any event, frequently needs intercalary adjustment because it is a lunar, not a solar calendar.

McCabe says nothing of the calendar issue, yet I suspect the Julian versus Gregorian calendars also play a major role in this controversy.

Vatican II spoke of a possible set date for Easter in terms of a fixed “particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar…” As noted, the usual candidates for that fixed Sunday are the second or third Sundays of April. The second Sunday of April can be as early as April 8, whereas the last day of Passover can fall even on April 29 (as it will be in 2027). So anchoring Easter to a fixed Sunday—especially the Sundays most often discussed—would abandon the Orthodox end-of-Passover nexus.

The Council speaks of a “particular Sunday of the Gregorian calendar.” Most Orthodox do not use the Gregorian calendar for liturgical purposes. So “the second Sunday of April” means a different thing in the Gregorian and the Julian calendars, inasmuch as “April” is a calendrical, not an astronomical fact. So will this be the next “adaptation” of Vatican II: that the Council really didn’t mean “Gregorian” when it wrote “Gregorian”? (I guess that’s the “living constitution” of the Council’s “spirit.”)

Will Orthodox churches adopt the Gregorian calendar for liturgical purposes? Orthodox countries were among the last to adopt the Gregorian calendar civilly, around the end of World War I, over a century and a half after Protestant lands like Britain and America did. Protestants did so over a century and a half after Gregory reformed the calendar. In the Catholic case, it reflected Catholic acceptance of faith and reason: the Julian calendar was one-third of a month out of alignment with the sun in 1582, a misalignment that has only grown through the years. The vernal equinox had occurred even if the wall calendar claimed it was winter. In Protestant and Orthodox countries, fideism over reason was paired with a version of ecclesiastical McCarthyism: if Rome produced the calendar, it had to be bad.

Why isn’t the Roman professional ecumenical class pushing for Orthodox adoption of the Gregorian calendar for liturgical purposes? They claim to want to advance “Christian witness” by a common Easter. Adopting the Gregorian calendar would magnify their “witness,” because Christmas is a fixed date—December 25—and a common calendar would yield a common celebration of the Nativity.

But that’s not what’s happening.

To get the Orthodox to jettison the Julian calendar raises all sorts of problems. It will elicit likely rebellion by considerable segments of Orthodoxy (especially Russian Orthodoxy and those who prefer the orbit of the “Russian world” — Русский мир — to the earth’s), violating the appendix of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s stipulation about “brethren who are not in communion with the Holy See [giving]… assent.” It will expose the lack of a pan-Orthodoxy decision-making mechanism (which spotlights the elephant in the room, the need for a point of unity like the Petrine Office), which hitherto has been largely a symbolic debate (what if the Patriarch of Constantinople says “yea” and the Patriarch of Moscow “nay”?) but is now one rife with potential for violence in ecclesiastically split, war-torn Ukraine. It will pose the question: Is this the next instance of Catholics being asked to abandon their millennial tradition to accommodate an Orthodoxy that won’t? In other words, are we doing this to produce a “unity” for which there is practically nothing to show on the ground, from where no demand signal seems to be coming from either the Catholic or Orthodox sides two years out from so momentous a change? Or is that not on Rome’s “listening agenda”?

Is this the next “reform” to be shoved down Catholics’ throats irrespective of their wishes and/or catechetical preparation? And what happens if/when autocephalous Orthodox churches don’t swallow it?

I welcome someone explaining to me how, even if the Orthodox abandon their post-Passover fixation on when to celebrate Easter, they will set “the first full moon of spring” without in practice if not in theory looking up from their calendars at the sky to see when the vernal equinox occurred, i.e., adopting the Gregorian calendar?

McCabe concludes her article by also noting Protestant interest in a common Easter. I am even less persuaded by that argument, given that significant swaths of mainline Protestantism have so imbibed modernist Biblical criticism that Jesus’ “resurrection” is reduced to a spiritual event in “the hearts and minds of His disciples” that would make “finding His bones” irrelevant. Why celebrate a common date that marks no common faith in what happened on the first Easter, the foundational truth of Christianity (see I Cor 15)?


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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