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. (So, in 2013, Ascension Thursday will be May 9, but Ascension will be celebrated in most dioceses on Sunday, May 12.) 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.
What do you think? Does transferring the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension to the following Sunday downplay its importance? Does it inadvertently undermine the authority of the Church on other matters? Click on the "Comments" link below to join in the discussion!