Yesterday, an interesting discussion arose on a social media thread about whether or not the observance of Ascension Day was being transferred for the Anglican Ordinariate in North America to the following Sunday, per the general practice of the USCCB.
As the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter’s 2016-2017 Ordo confirms, “Upon the recommendation of the Governing Council on 9 June 2016, Bishop Lopes has decreed that the following Solemnities will be observed as Holy Days of Obligation in the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter: …Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, Solemnity of the Ascension (kept on its traditional date forty days after Easter, nine days before Whitsunday)…” On Thursday, May 25th, it lists “ASCENSION OF THE LORD. Solemnity. HDO”, leaving Sunday the 28th as the Seventh Sunday as Easter.
Many Catholics of a more traditional formation deeply resent the common practice of episcopal conferences in routinely transferring certain fixed feast days to the nearest Sunday, seeing it as one of the Church’s more lamentable concessions to the secular world’s low prioritization of religious observance. It is becoming more widely recognized, however, that this is not only a function of our loss of faith but encourages it.
As a result, there are some dioceses and regions where these feast days are not transferred but are kept on their traditional, logical, Biblical dates. The Feast of the Ascension, for example, was not arbitrarily set for the Thursday in the sixth week of Easter by a committee of episcopal conference functionaries, but was determined two thousand years ago by the Ascension of our Lord forty days after His Resurrection.
As this debate plays out on social media forums amongst Catholics of various rite and jurisdiction, it is of the Anglican custom that we in the ordinariates are to be mindful. Anglicans have traditionally marked Ascension Day on its proper Thursday, and have not been accustomed to its bizarre and anachronistic celebration on a Sunday. One Anglican custom is the singing of motets to the rising sun at dawn on the rooftops of cathedrals and collegiate edifices (as seen in the photo above taken atop Wells Cathedral a few years ago on Ascension Day morning – photo credit to Iain MacLeod-Jones). The unmistakeable symbolism is undermined and downgraded by its being moved to a few days later.
The fundamental problem of transferring feast days is that such a move conveys a complete lack of belief in the importance of our own faith and religious tradition. Moving such a feast day to a date when hopefully a few more bodies will occasion to be in church is, to be frank, pathetic, and it is unconsciously seen as such by anyone who cares to notice. It holds us all to the lowest common denominator and challenges no one to do anything out of the ordinary to mark the great events of salvation history. Our faith is something only to be practiced on Sundays, this says, and some might even start to wonder why they even have to go then. If the Church were to mandate attendance on a day other than Sunday, why people might get the idea that something important was happening!
While the Holy See has delegated authority to episcopal conferences to make decisions on transferring feast days, to protect our own Anglican patrimony our leaders have to demonstrate a bit of their own courage and initiative. There are voices in the Church who argue against doing our own thing, saying that as Catholics we have to demonstrate our unity with our fellow Catholics. Yet we in the Anglican tradition know full well that this is a call to a false unity. Remember, we were welcomed into the Catholic Church on the understanding that our tradition would be “united, not absorbed”. Ironically, you’d think this would be particularly the case when our tradition is also the Roman and universal tradition!
Ascension, to take this one example, is not transferred in any of the Eastern rites that I’m aware of, nor in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite. Given one of the two principle forms of the Roman rite retains Ascension Day proper, why wouldn’t our Anglican liturgical form also do so? We are not second class members of the Catholic Church!
The supreme law of the Church, and canon law reflects this, is the salvation of souls. If a decision of an episcopal conference, whether on their own authority or on the delegated authority of the Holy See, scandalizes or under-serves Catholics of the Anglican tradition, our pastors should take steps to rectify the situation and defend and uphold our custom, whether it is Ascension Day or any other feast or worthy custom.
If there is a lacuna in canon law vis-à-vis our patrimony, then we need to take steps to address it. The real problem, however, seems to be an underlying bias towards treating the Anglican Use as a subset of the Ordinary Form, thus automatically subjecting our liturgy to any changes imposed on the Ordinary Form, without regard to their compatibility with our unique patrimony. This is not the way the equal dignity of liturgical rites is respected.
The idea that changes to the Ordinary Form should be blindly and automatically applied to our liturgy, a practice not done for any other Latin rite, is a very dangerous one for the preservation of the Anglican tradition in the Catholic Church. Catholics outside the ordinariates can’t be expected to exercise full diligence in conserving or cultivating our tradition. It is up to our bishop, our clergy, and our lay faithful to do so. It is we who have a unique responsibility for the preservation of our patrimony and customs.
The bishop of each diocese has a special and unique authority over the liturgy in his diocese: he is its first custodian. Our bishop has a particular responsibility, as the sole custodian for our patrimony on these shores. No one else in the USCCB or CCCB will give a moment’s thought to the impact their decisions will have on the Anglican heritage in the Catholic Church. It is up to our bishop, our clergy and our faithful to do what it takes to protect this treasure. If we don’t jealously guard and preserve our unique liturgical heritage and way of life, no one else will. Thankfully, Bishop Steven Lopes has shown much leadership in this regard, but all of us need to work together to this end.
Our three ordinaries, Mgr Newton, Mgr Entwhistle, and Bishop Lopes, ought to consult together regularly to find as many ways as possible to act in concert for the preservation of our patrimonial ways.
For this coming Ascension Day, however, don’t forget to give three cheers for Bishop Lopes! Hopefully in the future we’ll be able to move Corpus Christi and the Epiphany back to their proper dates too.