St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ascension Sunday?

Did you go to Mass on Ascension Thursday?  Wait, was the Ascension even celebrated on Thursday?  

If you missed it, I wouldn't panic.  The Ascension might be transferred to the following Sunday in your area.  In the United States, the Ascension was transferred to Sunday, except in the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia. This may have led to some confusion; at least it did where I live.  In western Pennsylvania, the Ascension was celebrated on Thursday.  Drive a half-hour to a diocese in eastern Ohio or West Virginia, and the Mass would have been for the Thursday in the 6th Week of Easter since the Ascension is celebrated on Sunday.  This was the first year I've noticed that so few areas celebrated the Ascension of the Lord on it's usual place on the calendar- 40 days after Easter Sunday.   

So why the change up?  Transferring the Ascension to Sunday is actually not that new, and part of a larger trend to transfer holy days of obligation and other solemnities to the following Sunday.  Doing so allows greater exposure and more solemn celebration of the holy day among the faithful.  For the Ascension in the United States, this started on the west coast in the late 1990s and eventually spread.  Other parts of the world have also transferred this solemnity to Sunday including Australia, Canada, and some countries in Europe.  With the approval of the Holy See, the episcopal conference (the body of bishops in a country) can transfer solemnities and change some of the holy days of obligation (Canon 1246).  In the United States, each ecclesiastical province (the metropolitan archdiocese and its suffragan dioceses or territories) was permitted to decide whether to transfer the Ascension or not.

There are two additional solemnities that are usually transferred in the United States for the same reason.  The Epiphany is moved from January 6 (twelve days after Christmas) to the Sunday between January 2-8.  Corpus Christi is also moved from the Thursday after Trinity Sunday to the following Sunday. 

Are other days transferred?  Sometimes.  If a solemnity falls on a Sunday in Ordinary Time, then the solemnity replaces the Sunday.  An example would be the Assumption of Mary on August 15- if it falls on a Sunday, then the Assumption is celebrated.  However, Sundays during Lent, Advent, and Easter take precedent over any solemnity during the season.  Examples include the Immaculate Conception on December 8 which is transferred to the following Monday if it falls on a Sunday in Advent, and the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25) which is transferred to a following Monday if it falls on a Sunday in Lent, during Holy Week, or within the Easter Octave.  This isn't a local or regional thing, but done on the General Roman Calendar.

Confused yet?  Well, let's make it just a little bit worse and talk about the other holy days of obligation.

According to Canon 1246, there are 10 days (not including Sundays) that are holy days of obligation:
  • Mary the Mother of God (Jan 1)
  • the Epiphany (Jan 6)
  • St Joseph (Mar 19)
  • the Ascension (40 days after Easter)
  • Corpus Christi (Thurs after Trinity Sunday)
  • Sts Peter & Paul (Jun 29)
  • the Assumption of Mary (Aug 15)
  • All Saints (Nov 1)
  • the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec 8)
  • Christmas (Dec 25)
If this doesn't sound familiar, that's OK.  Each country has their own holy days of obligation set by the episcopal conference.  In the United States, the Immaculate Conception and Christmas are always holy days of obligation.  The additional three days, other than the Ascension, (Mary the Mother of God, the Assumption, and All Saints) are holy days of obligation unless they fall on Saturday or Monday, then the obligation is abrogated or dispensed.  (This also started in the 1990s.)

So why is the obligation sometimes abrogated?  The answers are both pastoral and practical.  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.  You can go to Mass anytime it's offered, even if we're not obligated.  Sundays and obligated days are just the essentials; there's plenty more that we can celebrate.

Canon Law says the following about holy days of obligation:
On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.  Moreover they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body. (Canon 1247)
I'm a big fan of the "suitable relaxation of mind and body" part, next to participating in Mass of course! 


  1. I cannot find Ascension Thursday in Virginia, DC, Baltimore......they have all been moved to Sunday.
    I am so sad to hear this.

  2. Re-name all special feasts as Days of Celebrating our Faith. Add a few words of teaching when they occur as if adult Catholics are encouraged to add a prayer on those days and make them special for each household. It is likely a waste to lay down a "legal" obligation anyway.


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