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.