From the Pastor: Ascension Thursday is an Important Feast!
This Thursday is Ascension Thursday. It is the 40th Day after Easter Sunday, the Resurrection of Our Lord. According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, “It is one of the Ecumenical feasts ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter and of Pentecost among the most solemn in the calendar, has a vigil and, since the fifteenth century, an octave which is set apart for a novena of preparation for Pentecost, in accordance with the directions of Leo XIII.” Now stop to think about that just a bit. It is one of the most important feasts on the Church calendar, ranking alongside Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost. Did you know that? (Notice that it seems to be of even of higher rank than our own beloved feast of Epiphany!) How many people make every effort to come to Easter Sunday Mass yet think nothing of Pentecost Sunday (50 days later)? How many people (much, much fewer in number, to be sure, than the Easter crowd) make almost heroic efforts to attend Good Friday services at 3:00 pm but never even think about attending Mass in the middle of the week on Ascension Thursday?
Some time back our illustrious bishops were grappling with those questions and trying to figure out the way to increase at least the attendance at Ascension Thursday Masses. Was their solution greater education of the priests regarding the solemnity of the feast so that they would then do more to encourage lay participation in this Holy Day of Obligation? No. Was their solution the encouragement of more abundant Masses or Mass times before and after “working hours”? No. Was their solution to remove the “Obligation” part of the Holy Day and make it optional? No again. It was to remove the importance of the “40 days after Easter” aspect of this feast and move it to the following Sunday. There it kept its Obligation by making it a twofer, allowing the people to make no extra effort to attend an Ascension Mass, as they were supposedly obliged to be at Sunday Mass already. This was, of course, already preceded by the earlier removal of the “octave” (and almost all other octaves) during the “reform” of the liturgical calendar, which, as a practical matter, had basically destroyed any thought of a novena leading up to Pentecost. The new change, by shortening the time period between the Ascension and Pentecost, did away with any remnants of remaining piety regarding that novena.
Has this change accomplished the goal of restoring this feast to its former (since apostolic times) glory? I think not. What the day change said, in essence, is that for centuries this has been seen as such an important feast day that people would willingly give up a day’s salary if that is what it took to attend Mass. But, as with all “traditional” things, the Church was wrong. She was just making a mountain out of a molehill and, now that we are more enlightened, we know how silly all that was. So go about your normal Thursday business. The apostles and the Blessed Mother had spent nine days in the upper room praying for the coming of the Holy Ghost, which Our Lord had promised to send after he returned to Our Father in Heaven. They had set for us the example of a true novena but they didn’t understand as well as we now do that too much prayer is not good for us. So let’s chuck the whole thing, laugh about how foolish our ancestors in the Faith had been, and go about doing more important things like sleep in, or make money, or watch reruns of Wheel of Fortune rather than attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on a Thursday.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Just because I am pointing out the failure of the new, hip, easy liturgical calendar to emphasize the importance of this feast, that doesn’t mean that the questions asked in the first paragraph are properly answered simply by reverting to the older form of the “new” calendar or even by reverting to the 1962 calendar which most of us follow here at Epiphany. Far from it. I still need a greater understanding of this solemn celebration and I need to find good ways to pass on that education to you. Once traditions have been lost for even a relatively short time, it is very difficult to bring them back to their original glory. But no tradition can be restored by downplaying its importance or by ignoring the symbolic significance (40 days has great symbolism throughout all of scripture). So, unlike those priests bound to the new calendar, I have the opportunity to bring you this feast on its proper day, Thursday. This coming Thursday, May 25. You will have (as will anyone else, even those Catholics who don’t normally attend the Traditional Latin Mass) three Masses available. The first is at 6:30 am, the second at 8:00 am, and the third at 7:00 pm. The Bishops have removed the Obligation of attending on Thursday, but coming out of devotion is even more meritorious.
With prayers for your holiness,
Fr. Edwin Palka