Ascension Thursday: Not At Mass (Again)

In theory, I am obligated to go to mass today to mark one of the most important feasts of the Church year.  In practice, as I am a member of an Archdiocese which values personal convenience over self-sacrifice, I am not so obligated. Once again, those of us in Washington and in many other dioceses around the country are having to obey bishops who have a low opinion of our ability to devotedly follow the rules of the Church.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension, a holy day of obligation for Catholics to mark when Christ returned to His Father in Heaven 40 days after Easter. St. Luke tells us:

Then He led them as far as Bethany, raised His hands, and blessed them. As He blessed them He parted from them and was taken up to heaven.They did Him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.

St. Luke 24: 50-53

Normally Ascension Thursday is a holy day of obligation for Catholics to attend mass.  However, the American bishops in their continued poor judgement have allowed individual dioceses (if they wish) to transfer this Feast to the following Sunday.  Thus, here in the Archdiocese of Washington, today is not a holy day of obligation, whereas it remains a holy day of obligation in the Archdiocese of New York.

Regular readers know that I have complained about this inconsistency before, in the context of other holy days.  To date, I have yet to see a single bishop give a reasonable justification for this policy, particularly in a diocese such as mine where there are plenty of parishes, priests, and means of transportation. Is it so much more difficult a prospect to require the faithful to attend mass in D.C. on a Thursday than it is in Manhattan?

Back home at the church connected with my old primary school, there is a gigantic 19th century Gothic Revival stained-glass window from Innsbruck, depicting the Ascension of Christ into Heaven.  The image, which features the Apostles and the Blessed Mother with various expressions of astonishment, shows Jesus dressed in white, and sporting a spectacular halo composed of rays of light as He rises into the clouds.  It had and continues to have a profound and lasting impact on my own mental image of the event when I reflect on it, such as when praying the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary.

However, a somewhat unusual image by the great Flemish painter Hans Memling (1440-1494) may be the more all-too-appropriately symbolic of the attitude of the present crop of American bishops to the question of holy days of obligation such as this.  In his late “Triptych of the Resurrection” of c. 1485-1490 now in the Louvre, the central panel shows the Resurrection of Jesus, the left panel the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, and the right panel depicts the Ascension of Christ.  In this latter image, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles are gathered around in a compact group, due to the narrowness of the side panel, and watch in awe as Jesus ascends into Heaven.

Unlike the stained glass window at my old school however, Jesus is shown as almost already vanished.  All we can see are His feet, and the lower part of the dark robe He is wearing.  In film language, he is almost out of frame.

Similarly, with all apologies to Memling, moving the Feast of the Ascension to a Sunday – when Catholics must go to mass anyway – takes the focus off of Christ and fixates on material, human considerations. The First Precept of the Church is for the faithful to attend mass on all Sundays and Holy Days.  By moving a Holy Day to a Sunday for the sake of convenience or low mass attendance figures,  the bishops effectively divide the community of the Church into two camps: those willing and able to make the effort to get to mass, and those who are not. This is worse than low mass attendance, for people who cannot attend mass on a holy day or Sunday due to circumstances beyond their control and despite their desire to get to mass, are excused from their obligation.

All of that being said, in the end one must obediently follow the rule of one’s bishop.  And of course I will do so, and mark the Ascension this coming Sunday along with the rest of the Archdiocese – when, in fact, I will be serving as a lector at mass.  That does not mean I will refrain from complaining about this logical inconsistency on the part of the bishops’ conference. I will simply have to take the long view and wait until priests presently in their 30s and 40s become bishops, take over the USCCB, and adopt reason once again with respect to the issue of the celebration of Christ’s Ascension.

Detail from “The Ascension” by Hans Memling (c. 1485-1490)
Musée du Louvre, Paris


8 thoughts on “Ascension Thursday: Not At Mass (Again)

  1. If you feel so strongly about the ruling not to observe Ascension Thursday
    on the actual day, why not attend mass today and again on Sunday, as usual?


    • So I can celebrate Thursday of the 6th Week of Easter, rather than the Ascension of Our Lord? Because that is what the mass is for today, for those of us in dioceses that have moved the Ascension to Sunday. Today’s prayers, readings, homily and hymns will have nothing whatsoever to do with the Ascension, which will be celebrated on Sunday.

      I refer you to a piece written by Joanna Bogle of EWTN several years ago, which sums up this situation better than I could hope to do.


      • You can always attend mass in the extraordinary form, where the days of obligation are never transferred. I know there are several offered in the DC area.


  2. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the Church of the New Order where up is down and 40=43! When you begin utterly disregarding your own holy tradition (as we Romans have since St. Pius X’s 1911 Divino Afflatu) Romans have for over 100 years, you wind up with outrageous spectacles like Forty Days becoming Forty-Three or a Pope celebrating a Palm Sunday Mass in red flanked by deacons in dalmatics, horribile dictu!


  3. Well, there’s a way to mark the days between traditional Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday; with a novena. Strange that I know of a bunch of other novenas, but just learned about the Novena to the Holy Spirit, and that it’s the only novena officially prescribed by the Church.

    Print this out now: the novena starts Friday!

    But I agree that the USCCB must think of the parishioners as stupid oafs (or would the plural be oaves?) who can’t be trusted to learn a few new responses with a New Translation, or bother to at least be aware that the Ascension was a set number of days away from the Resurrection and Pentecost in the grand order of things. Even if many cannot make the Obligation due to work, still, we can at least acknowledge that it remains a Really Big Thing. The Eastern Churches have a big obstacle with the Latin Rite, and it is our tendency to “innovation.” In a lot of things I have to ask, “Are you really moaning about that?” but when I see Ascension (and Epiphany) moved around willy nilly, I see they have a point. This is amazing, considering how they trust stupid old us to handle the Eucharist, the most glorious gift, in our grubby hands, when before they had patents under our chins so not even a speck could escape to the floor in desecration, and I grew up totally with the New Mass where that was still done.

    My quandary is: how do we maintain that words, gestures, art, the calendar, all these things MEAN important things in our Faith (everything was put there with a thought-out, and oftentimes well explained, reason), without becoming the Pharisees that Jesus decried in the Gospel?


  4. Just go to any Eastern Orthodox Christian Church and it is celebrated as it should be (the Orthodox correct teaching way). Orthodoxy…the same yesterday, today and tomorrow…


  5. Bill – change is the only constant and the Church has made dramatic changes over the years and even more changes coming soon with the Missal change. Personally, I always preferred the Latin mass, but changed. Reality – HDOO such as AT have been sparsely observed for many years so moving it to Sunday makes sense. If you prefer the told school – fine – but your implication that the majority of RCs who did not observe AT in the past were NOT as good a RC as yourself – well that is just wrong – the holider than thou speak is so over the top. GBY


    • I made no such implication. I am not nor do I consider myself to be somehow better than others, for my fallen nature convicts me every day. I simply pointed out that low mass attendance numbers for Holy Days which fall during the week was not, in my view, a legitimate justification for upsetting the celebration of a major Feast of the Church – such as the Ascension – and moving it to another day.

      There are numerous, legitimate reasons why people are unable to get to mass on a Holy Day. Illness of themselves or someone they care for, an inflexible work schedule, travel, the lack of an available parish, etc. Those who want to go to mass but are prevented from doing so are in a completely different frame of mind from those who could go mass on a holy day, but simply cannot be bothered to inconvenience themselves. If we are unwilling to make sacrifices to practice our faith, then what kind of faith do we have?


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