The 40th day of Easter is Ascension Thursday, the day on which (the Bible tells us) Jesus Christ, having risen from the dead on Easter Sunday, ascended into Heaven.
Historically, the Ascension of Our Lord has been a Holy Day of Obligation--and it still is. However, in most parts of the United States today, Catholics will not attend Mass on Ascension Thursday--and they won't be violating the Precepts of the Church, which say that we have to assist at Mass on Holy Days, under pain of mortal sin. How can that be?
The answer is simple but confusing. The bishops of the United States, recognizing that attendance at Ascension Thursday Masses had dropped dramatically for years, petitioned the Vatican to allow them to transfer the celebration of Ascension to the following Sunday (the 43rd day of Easter). The Vatican agreed, but the decision was left up to each ecclesiastical province in the United States.
Several provinces continue to celebrate Ascension on Ascension Thursday, and you can find a list of them in Is Ascension a Holy Day of Obligation? Most provinces, however, transferred the celebration to the following Sunday, where it is still a Holy Day of Obligation. Since it coincides, however, with our Sunday Duty to assist at Mass, many people don't realize that they are, in fact, also fulfilling their duty to attend Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation.
(A stained-glass window of the Ascension of Our Lord in Saint Mary's Church, Painesville, OH. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on the Ascension and Holy Days of Obligation:
A reader writes:
Why is Ascension Thursday a Holy Day of Obligation in some areas [of the United States] and not others?
This is a very good question. The simple, but confusing, answer is that Ascension is a Holy Day of Obligation everywhere in the United States. (See Holy Days of Obligation in the United States for the complete list.) It's just that, in most dioceses, the celebration is transferred from Thursday (40 days after Easter) to the following Sunday. Since Catholics are already obligated to attend Mass on Sunday, most people don't realize that Ascension is a Holy Day of Obligation--they think they're in church just for Sunday Mass.
The reader continues:
I know it is up to the diocese but WHY would it be a choice at all? I have many friends from other states, and I am the only one who is obligated to attend Mass on Thursday.
Now, we're getting to the heart of the matter. The reader is not quite correct: The decision is not left up to each diocese; rather, each ecclesiastical province in the United States is allowed to decide whether to transfer the celebration of the feast. (An ecclesiastical province is basically one large archdiocese and the dioceses that are historically associated with it. Generally, in the United States, there's one ecclesiastical province per state, with a few exceptions for historical reasons.) All of the ecclesiastical provinces in the United States have chosen to transfer the celebration except for Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and the state of Nebraska. With the exception of Nebraska, each of these is one of the oldest Catholic provinces in the United States, which may explain why they've chosen to stick with tradition.
But why is it a choice at all? The answer, whether we like it or not, is a combination of convenience and pastoral considerations. Attendance at Ascension Thursday Masses had been falling for years before the bishops of the United States, in accordance with canon law, petitioned the Vatican to allow the celebration to be transferred to the following Sunday. That meant that a lot of priests were celebrating extra Masses, while a lot of Catholics were violating a precept of the Church by not celebrating a Holy Day of Obligation.
Which takes us to the reader's final remark:
My feeling is that this is just one more reason for the Catholic Church failing in numbers. People have decided that if these rules can be changed they must not be important, and they ignore the other rules as well.
More on the Ascension:
In May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a Letter to Chinese Catholics, in which he asked that May 24 each year be celebrated as a World Day of Prayer for the Church in China. He chose May 24 because it is the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, who is venerated at the Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.
In honor of the first celebration of the World Day of Prayer for China, in 2008, Pope Benedict composed a prayer to Our Lady of Sheshan and asked that Christians throughout the world recite it on May 24.
Let us follow the example of Pope Benedict and join our Catholic brothers and sisters in China, many of whom still suffer persecution, in approaching Our Lady Help of Christians in prayer. "Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever!"
During peacetime, it is perhaps not surprising that Americans lose sight of the meaning of Memorial Day. We treat it as if it is simply the start of summer or, at best, as a day to honor the veterans of foreign wars. But the true purpose of Memorial Day is to celebrate not those who survived, but those who fell. Veterans march in parades not in their own honor but in honor of their fellow soldiers, sailors, aviators, and Marines who never returned.
In the wake of the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, our thoughts turn properly this Memorial Day weekend to all those who have given their lives in the service of their country. The Church teaches us that we should pray for the dead, so that their souls may find rest. Over this weekend, we can resolve to pray the Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday Prayers for the Dead, and consider making the Weekly Prayers for the Faithful Departed a part of our daily prayer.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
(Memorial Day 2008 Parade in Rockford, Illinois. Photo by Scott P. Richert)
Weekly Prayers for the Dead:
May 31 is the Feast of the Visitation, when the Blessed Virgin Mary, pregnant with the Son of God, went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with Saint John the Baptist. As Elizabeth cries out in greeting, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!" Saint John the Baptist leaps in her womb, and the Mother of God responds with a canticle, a biblical hymn.
That canticle is known as the Magnificat, and it has become an integral part of the Church's daily prayer, recited each night at Vespers (evening prayer).
This week, in honor of the upcoming Feast of the Visitation, I've substituted the Magnificat for our novena of the week. If you aren't in the habit of praying evening prayer, reciting the Magnificat after supper is a good way to start.
(A stained-glass window of the Visitation in Saint Mary's Church, Painesville, OH. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on the Visitation:
In most parishes, springtime (after Easter) is the time of year for First Communion. In years past, children making their First Communion were required to memorize questions and answers from the Baltimore Catechism, as well as a significant number of basic prayers. Even if your parish no longer has such requirements, children can still benefit from using part of their time preparing for First Communion to memorize some of the traditional prayers of the Church. While it's good eventually to learn how to pray in our own words, an active prayer life starts with committing some prayers to memory. And a good place to start is with these Ten Prayers Every Catholic Child Should Know.
(Rose Richert receives her First Communion at Saint Mary's Oratory, a Traditional Latin Mass community in Rockford, Illinois. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on Prayer:
On May 13, 1917, on a hillside outside Fatima, Portugal, three shepherd children saw a lady "brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun." For the next six months, on the 13th day of each month, Our Lady of Fatima appeared to Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto.
The final apparition, on October 13, 1917, was accompanied by the "Miracle of the Sun." As many as 70,000 people saw the sun dance in the sky, then plunge toward the earth. The sheer number of witnesses weighed strongly in the decision to proclaim the apparitions at Fatima "worthy of belief" in 1930.
Sixty-four years after the first apparition, on May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square. Despite massive blood loss, the Holy Father survived, an event he credited to Our Lady of Fatima: "For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet."
There is no better way to celebrate the anniversary of Fatima than to pray the rosary, which the Blessed Virgin asked the children to recite every day. In fact, most Catholics incorporate into the rosary a prayer known as the Fatima Prayer, which was revealed by Our Lady to the children on July 13, 1917. Recited at the end of each ten Hail Marys, it is also known as the Decade Prayer.
As we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima in the month of May, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, may Our Lady of Fatima intercede for us!
More About the Rosary:
When you go to Mass, do you ever consider the sacrifice that your priest made in order to serve the Church and the faithful? The Fourth Sunday of Easter is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and, sadly vocations to the priesthood and the religious life have been declining for decades. In some parts of the United States, parishes struggle along without a pastor, and church schools formerly run by nuns have been forced to close.
If you are single, have you ever considered that you might have a vocation? Have you supported friends and relatives as they tried to discern whether they are called to the priesthood or religious life? If you are married and have children, do you discuss the idea of a vocation with your children? Do you, at a minimum, pray for an increase in vocations?
If not, why not?
(A Catholic priest holds a Bible and rosary in prayer. Photo © Tom Le Goff/Getty Images)
Prayers for Vocations:
In 1964, Pope Paul VI declared the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. This Sunday, May 11, 2014, marks the 51st Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and so this week's novena is an obvious choice. The Prayer for Vocations to the Priestly and Religious Life reminds us both of the sacrifice that men make in order to become priests and the need for such men to conform their lives to Christ.
While, worldwide, vocations are near their highest point in decades, the Church still needs a few good men. With that in mind, after this novena has ended, please continue to pray this prayer as part of your daily prayers.
(A Catholic priest holds a Bible and rosary in prayer. Photo © Tom Le Goff/Getty Images)
Participating in the Sacrament of Holy Communion is the way that we show our faith as Christians and express our unity with the Church, the Body of Christ. The Church, therefore, requires us to receive the Eucharist at least once per year.
While this is known as our "Easter Duty," we can perform it any time between Ash Wednesday and Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. Of course, before fulfilling our Easter Duty, it is a good idea go to Confession, too. Most parishes in the United States offer Confession on Saturday afternoons, making it convenient for parishioners to go to Confession before going to Mass on Sunday. While we are only required to go to Confession before Communion if we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin, frequent Confession, even of venial sins, is a very good practice. (And, at a minimum, the second of the Precepts of the Church requires us to go to Confession once per year, whether we have committed a mortal sin or not.)
(Pope Benedict XVI gives Polish President Lech Kaczynski (kneeling) Holy Communion during the Holy Mass at Pilsudski Square May 26, 2006, in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)