The bishops who did transfer the feast to Sunday were, I am sure, hoping to expose more people to the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord. Probably included in that calculation was also the notion that it is tooo haaard for people to go to Mass also on Thursday. “Mass twice in a week? Tooo haaard!” [...]
The celebration of Ascension on a particular Thursday is rooted in Scripture. Celebration on Thursday reflects the ancient practice of the Churches of the East and West alike. We read in Holy Scripture thatnine days, not six, intervened between the Lord’s physical ascent to the Father’s right hand and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. If Pentecost was the 50th day, seven weeks – as the ancients counted the starting day itself is included so you get 50 rather than 49), then Ascension Thursday was fixed at the 40th day after Easter.
I used to be one of those “Harrumph!” types when it came to the Ascension Thursday/Ascension Sunday debate. I even went to a daily Mass on what should have been Ascension Thursday once or twice out of a regrettable spirit of protest against the change. But now that I’ve lived for some time in states where you just don’t have Catholic churches every other block, and in actual mission territories, I’ve come to see the wisdom of transferring the feast to Sunday.
In the first place, priests who think that bishops decided it was “tooo haaard” (sic) for people to go to Mass twice a week may not be aware that it is no longer 1955 in the world. Lots of people are expected to be either commuting to/from or already at work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. on weekdays these days (and yet their pay is still based on a 40 hour work week, not a 60 or 70 hour work week). Lots of Catholic children must attend public schools in places where the diocesan Catholic schools start at five to seven thousand dollars per year per child, too--and if the only Holy Day of Obligation Mass in your parish is at noon, it’s pretty difficult to get the school kids there. I’ve mentioned before that our parish Holy Day Masses are at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.; this is too late in the morning for many workers and too early in the evening for others (especially if you have to drive half an hour or more in rush-hour traffic to reach the parish). There’s a reason the most reliable crowd at Holy Day of Obligation Masses are the retirees; they’re the only ones who aren’t trying to figure out impossible work and/or school obligations alongside equally impossible Mass obligations. If the Ascension Feast were not transferred to Sunday in our diocese, my two older daughters, both in college, would have been stuck trying to find a Mass somewhere that didn’t conflict with their final exams today (and good luck with that; the only ones I know of in our area would have involved an hour-plus drive each way, which would still have made getting back to school by exam time difficult to impossible).
Canon lawyers will often point out that we’re not asked to do the impossible. If you really can’t get to a Holy Day Mass, you are excused from the obligation. But on a feast as important as the Ascension, do we really want to create a situation where retirees can celebrate and pretty much everybody else is just plain out of luck? The obvious solution, to add more Masses at times when people who work and/or go to school can attend, does not appear to be possible for many pastors either--so what are we to do?
And that brings me to my second point: should the “perfect” of the calendar be the enemy of the “good,” if the “good” is “helping as many Catholics as possible to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension?” Clearly, the bishops think the calendar’s perfection is less important than making sure that most Catholics who are regular churchgoers can get to Mass on the Feast of the Ascension. Yes, the symbolism of having exactly the right number of days from Easter to the Ascension and then to Pentecost is not trivial. But then again, Easter is itself a moveable feast, and the likelihood that we are celebrating on the actual day Christ ascended into Heaven in any particular year is not huge--so is it really better to celebrate the Ascension on a day when many people simply will not be able to attend Mass, not because it is “toooo haaard” but because the one or two Masses offered in their parishes conflict with mandatory work or school obligations which they cannot shirk without serious consequences?
All of this brings me back to my perpetual rant: I really wish priests and pastors would sit down and talk to actual Catholic families in their parishes. Don’t tell us “Make a plan to get to Mass on a Holy Day!” and then schedule exactly two of those Masses during the work and school day; listen to us. Those of us who take the faith seriously enough to go to Mass on Sundays, those of us who abide by the Church’s teachings to the best of our ability, those of us taking on an increasingly hostile culture while we struggle to raise our children to share in this gift of the Catholic faith--we’re not sitting around crying that it’s “tooo haaard” to go to Mass twice in a week for trivial or selfish reasons.
And some of us appreciate Ascension Sunday, because it’s one less time in the year when we have to try to rearrange the work and school schedules and obligations of five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten etc. people in order to get everybody to the one Mass within an hour or so’s driving distance that doesn’t conflict impossibly with something someone has to do--has to, as in “will get fired or will flunk the class or will get reprimanded for not showing up and doing,” not “has to” as in “sort of should, but no big deal if he/she doesn’t.”