Thursday, May 14 was the Solemnity of the Ascension in the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, Newark, New York, Omaha, and Philadelphia. In the rest of the United States, the Solemnity of the Ascension was marked on Sunday, May 17, which suppressed the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
Church discipline in the United States allows for certain holydays of obligation to be moved for pastoral reasons to the nearest Sunday, provided all the dioceses of a given ecclesiastical province follow the same discipline. In 1990, a variety of proposals were floated in the then United States Catholic Conference – National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the name of pastoral adaptation, to eliminate various holydays of obligation or transfer them to a nearby Sunday. In the end, as of 1991, the Solemnities of Mary, Mother of God, the Assumption, or All Saints fall on a Saturday or Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is abrogated and, as of 1999, the Solemnity of the Ascension could be moved by individual ecclesiastical provinces to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
Pastoral adaptation in practice meant adaptation to secularization and the supposed hardship of attending Mass during the week (exacerbated by the decline in the number of parish priests). Since transferring December 25 to a nearby Sunday would be risible and in general there should be a Marian feast among the holydays of obligation, Christmas and Immaculate Conception—the patronal feast of the United States—were left alone (although, if December 8 falls on a Sunday, Immaculate Conception is transferred to Monday, December 9 with no obligation to attend Mass). As I understand it, these “adaptations” were also something of a compromise, because some key bishops balked at further eroding distinctive Catholic traditions.
I think the state of American discipline on this question is wrongheaded.
The current tradition further erodes distinctive Catholic tradition and identity. Let’s take an example. Friday abstinence had a theological meaning—penance—but it had a sociological one, too: it fostered a sense of communal identity and solidarity in praxis. Occasionally attending Mass on a weekday, as our six holydays provided, was another such sociologico-theological act. But, in the name of pastoral adaptation, our utilitarianism has so eroded Catholic identity that going to Mass every Sunday is now regarded in some quarters as a mark of particular fervor and zeal.
In the area of Friday abstinence, the decision to tell Catholics that they would forego a habitual discipline in favor of some personally chosen “penitential practice” probably assumed a greater measure of spiritual maturity than the average Catholic really had. There is no general “penitential practice” strikingly evident among American Catholics on Fridays. American Catholics by and large simply decided to order steaks and forego Stations. (The same might be said about the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline against cremation: people heard the “what we can now do,” the “what we really shouldn’t do” not so much.
Transfer of the Ascension (and other holydays) to neighboring Sundays arguably has achieved a similar effect. The level of religious knowledge among Catholics is not that deep that they palpably experience anything different whether May 17 is the Seventh Sunday of Easter or the Ascension. In fact, I’d suggest we could even call it “Assumption” or “All Saints” or maybe even “Epiphany” and most people wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Given the general state of catechesis and homiletics, I dare say the average Catholic could not really explain much, if anything, about the four solemnities we “celebrate” at the end of Eastertide: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi. Perhaps they might be able to summarize the event in a sentence or two, or even parrot a line often recycled in homilies, like “it’s a great mystery” from the usual Trinity Sunday sermon. But explain the meaning of the feast and articulate what it has to do with them as Catholic Christians is probably a bridge too far. What Karl Rahner once wrote about the general Catholic understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity could be applied, congruo congruis referendo, to all these feasts: if it disappeared, most Catholics probably wouldn’t notice.
Our concession to secularization was … to secularize, to desacralize time even further. Someone once noted that although peasants in the Middle Ages worked hard, they in fact enjoyed more relaxed time because of the numerous feasts and festivals of medieval Christendom. Today’s 24/7/365 world, in the name of “freeing” man from religion (or “pastorally adapting” to that “liberation”) has instead put him on an eternal work wheel, running more frenetically than a hamster.
Transfer of holydays is also destructive of a sense of history. Take the shift of the Ascension as an example. For the New Testament, Jesus’ visible post-Resurrection appearances spanned forty days, i.e., to Ascension Thursday. For the New Testament, Easter closes on the fiftieth day, with Pentecost. The Catholic tradition of “novena,” nine days in preparation for a particular feast or in prayer for a particular intention, originated with the Ascension, as the Apostles returned to the Upper Room to await the coming of the Spirit. Just as Holy Thursday to Easter gave us the liturgical notion of “triduum,” so Ascension Thursday to Pentecost gave us the liturgical notion of “novena.”
But transferring the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter destroys this notion, because the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost is reduced to a week. Is it any surprise that the decline of popular devotions—which often included novenas—has practically disappeared? How many parishes in the United States today have any novena devotions even over nine weeks? Suggesting an actual nine day novena might even elicit calls for hardship pay!
The erosion of the historical sense of our tradition finds a parallel in American secular practice. When Congress adopted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (PL 90-363) in Monday Holiday Bill in 1968, it transferred four holidays from their historical dates to fixed Mondays: Washington’s Birthday, for example, moved from February 22 to anytime between February 14-21 (but never February 22), given the annual shift of the calendar. Of course, since real people have fixed birthdays, not ranges of birthdays, Washington’s Birthday became President’s Day. In my childhood, we made silhouettes of Washington and learned about the man and his character (à la Parson Weems). Today, do kids learn anything about generic “Presidents” or attribute anything to this “holiday” but a chance to sleep in and then shop? Just as our Catholic identity got diluted, have we not diluted our American identity as well?
If the Holy Spirit is the gift with which we are sealed (see the Rite of Confirmation), then understanding and preparing for the annual celebration of that gift requires time, attention, and prayer. In the ancient Church, Pentecost was, after all, the second most important feast of the liturgical year after Easter. (Christmas was a relative latecomer). But any honest observer has to admit that there is a chasm between our liturgical theology of the Solemnity of Pentecost and the way it is actually celebrated virtually everywhere (another Sunday, this one in red before a lot in green). Recovering the significance of Pentecost is vital because the Spirit is the principle of our sanctification—and that might begin by recovering the Pentecostal preparation period, which means … putting the Ascension back in its place.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Ascension” painted by Benjamin West in 1801.