These past two years, Catholics in England haven’t celebrated Ascension Day. This has meant the breaking of a tradition stretching back more than a thousand years. Even during penal times, when the Faith was persecuted, this 40th day after Easter was marked as a holy day, and all who could manage it went to Mass, albeit secretly.
But this year, while the BBC broadcast special music to mark the feast, and it was marked in all Anglican churches, and noted in all commercial diaries and calendars, it wasn’t formally marked by Catholics.
Oh, it doesn’t mean that Catholics in England weren’t supposed to note this all-important feast. Christ’s ascension into heaven at the close of His earthly ministry is a central fact noted in the New Testament, and certainly a reality for all Catholics. No, the question was whether it should be marked with a special feast day of its own.
The Bishops of England and Wales have decreed that the ascension — along with certain other feast days “of the Lord” — should be marked, not on their traditional days, but on the nearest Sunday. Thus, Ascension Thursday disappears, and its Mass is transferred to the weekend. This also happens to Corpus Christi.
Now, among the many problems associated with this is the fact that, for most people, this simply translates as, “The Bishops have abolished Ascension Day.” No use saying, “Ah, but they haven’t — look, it is to be celebrated on Sunday!” That isn’t the way people think. If you want a feast to be special, you have a feast day. If you abandon that feast day, it sends a message.
And because the “abolition” — which I know it isn’t, really — only applies to feasts “of the Lord,” we are left with other feasts that are still celebrated on their proper days. These include the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29th, and that of the Assumption on August 15th. Thus, in the public mind, these are seen to be more important. Which is about as unhelpful as it could possibly be, because it makes it appear that we believe that Peter as the first pope, or Our Lady as Christ’s mother, are more important than Christ Himself, thus confirming all the worries and even prejudices of those brought up to believe that “Catholics put the pope before God” and “Catholics worship the Virgin Mary.”
Oh dear. How could our bishops have got it so wrong? Of course they did it with all the right intentions. They seem to have reasoned: “People simply don’t go to Mass on Ascension Day in any large numbers,” or “People ought not to neglect such an important feast — so we must make it easier for them.” And so on.
But it doesn’t work like that. Take Catholic schools, for example, which are extremely popular in Britain and heavily over-subscribed. Many children in them come from families where Sunday Mass attendance is not as regular as it should be. Feast days such as Ascension Day will see them at Mass; Sunday won’t. Ascension Day, along with other feasts, has long been an opportunity for a celebratory Mass attended by the whole school, complete with trimmings such as a special effort by the school choir, and/or some further feast-day activities by way of treats or a half-holiday or whatever. All gone now, and with it an excellent catechetical opportunity, a chance for the children to connect with the local priest, an occasion for parents and friends to attend a school Mass, and more.
Now take busy working Catholics — like me, for example. A mid-week feast day means a must-do that reminds me of the centrality of my faith. A packed lunchtime Mass at a busy city church, an after-work Mass with music at a cathedral, an evening Mass in the suburbs — all are options, and each has its own way of emphasising that today is different, today we remember that we are children of God.
As a (very) busy working woman, I have never found a holy day to be a ghastly imposition; on the contrary, it has often meant a chance meeting with an old friend, or a sudden useful opportunity to discover a new church in a strange city, or some other small but agreeable blessing. We need things like that.
How many people have discovered something special through a holy day? For every rushed and grudging arrival at a lunchtime Mass, there must have been as many good and holy encounters with God. Several people have admitted that seeing people heading for a Catholic church on a weekday was what first intrigued them and led them to the Faith, or drew them back after a time of lapsing. How many people have found, when dropping into a necessary Mass on a holy day, that it was an opportunity to go to confession, too? How many have been consoled in a time of grief, or lightened in a time of worry, by the timely God-sent arrival of a mid-week feast day?
Unity with our ancestors is important, too — and not just something reserved for those who happen to like the Extraordinary Form of Mass and believe that heritage and traditions belong only to that. No — it should be for everyone, an Ordinary Mass for Ordinary Catholics following the Ordinary Calendar. Because in ordinary life, weekdays matter just as much as Sundays, and an occasional feast day celebrates that.
And that is a useful note on which to end, with a plea to our bishops. How often we have heard the exhortation in a sermon: “Don’t just be a Sunday Catholic! Remember your faith should be something for the whole of your life, and should spread out into the community.”
Just so. Give us back our feast days, and allow us to bring God into our weekdays, into our work, our schools, our offices — our everyday, ordinary lives. Please, dear bishops, give us back our feast days.