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Okay, So What’s the Deal with Ascension Thursday, or Sunday, or Whatever?

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 05/02/16

Here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, we do it the old fashioned way, and have kept Ascension Thursday on Thursday. Other places, I know, have moved the feast to this Sunday.

What’s up with that?

Some internet digging revealed these nuggets. First, here’s an interesting time capsule from Ed Peters in the National Catholic Register in 1998, when a formal move was under discussion:

Over the last 10 years, however, proposals to transfer the feast of the Ascension to the Sunday after the traditional Thursday observance have enjoyed increasing support among a majority of U.S. bishops, but until this year, the measure failed to win the two-thirds plurality necessary for approval. Throughout these years, moreover, the debate on retention vs. transfer of the Ascension observance has been drawn almost entirely along East-West lines.

Bishops from the Eastern United States have tended to favor retention of the Ascension Thursday tradition. They point to the strong Scriptural arguments for placing the Ascension exactly 40 days after Easter, and to the significance of Pentecost falling exactly 10 days after the Ascension. Noting the Mass attendance on that day in many of their territories approaches that of Sundays, they feel the inconvenience put on priests who must offer the additional Masses midweek is not excessive.

Most Western bishops have disagreed with the demographic arguments. Noting that there is no secular counterpart to Ascension Thursday as there is, say, with the Solemnity of Mary falling on New Year’s Day, Mass attendance on Ascension Thursday in western dioceses, they say, is markedly lower than on Sundays.

Moreover, Western bishops reply that the higher concentration of priests on the East Coast allowed the clerical burdens consequent to a midweek holy day of obligation to be more spread out in the East than in the West. They also pointed to confusion among the high numbers of immigrant Catholics living in Western states, most of whom come from countries, such as Mexico, where the Ascension is already observed on a Sunday.

James Akin, a senior apologist at Catholic Answers Inc., in San Diego, expressed the concern of many observers by noting that, without adequate preparation for a transfer of the Ascension Thursday observance, the change could come across as “a piecemeal capitulation to modern standards of convenience.”

More recently, one blogger framed the situation this way: 

It’s no secret that Mass attendance is low in many places on a holy day of obligation.  Also, there are areas where the availability of priests is very low.  There are rural areas where the parish boundaries cover hundreds of miles- the Saturday vigil Mass may be over 100 miles away from where the Sunday Mass may be the following morning.  If you’re the priest, that’s hard to do; twice as hard if there’s a holy day of obligation during the week.  For the priests that struggle to make it happen, they end up offering extra Masses for the people who aren’t attending.
Here’s my opinion on the matter.  I’m not a big fan of transferring the solemnity to Sunday.  Doing so does expose the occasion more to the faithful, but I think it also takes away from the universality of the Church, especially in modern times where more people are able to travel greater distances and have greater access to information via the internet.  Instead, I’d rather promote the solemnity and encourage its celebration.  Too many people think the that the Church calendar only runs on Sundays, not realizing that there are so many feasts and memorials during the week.  Maybe people can’t make it to Mass that day, but they can celebrate a solemnity in other ways.
As for abrogating the obligation on certain holy days, I can understand this.  This may be especially necessary in areas where there is limited access to sacraments for social, economic, or vocational reasons.  If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to understand how getting to Mass may be difficult for either the priest and/or the faithful.
Also, it’s important to say that we shouldn’t participate in Mass just because the Church obligates us to do so…
Photo: Pixabay
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