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Celebrating the Ascension on a Sunday is a sad sign of creeping secularisation in the Church

We are witnessing the disappearance of the concept of sacred time

By on Monday, 21 May 2012

The Ascension depicted at St Peter and Paul church in Mauren, Liechtenstein (CNS)

The Ascension depicted at St Peter and Paul church in Mauren, Liechtenstein (CNS)

I hope all readers had a happy feast of the Ascension. For most people in this country it was Ascension Sunday that you celebrated; but for me and a small minority it was Ascension Thursday.

I have been away on retreat, staying in a strictly enclosed Benedictine monastery. On arrival I asked what was happening on the Thursday, and this is what I was told: “Here we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, by special permission. Celebrating it on Sunday would mean that the novena between Ascension and Pentecost would make no sense.”

Funnily enough, this aspect of the great question had never occurred to me. Given that Ascension is on a Thursday and the feast of Pentecost the Sunday after next, that means that there is a nine day gap between the two, and this nine day gap, traditionally the time when the Church waits in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the reason we keep novenas. This is the original ur-Novena.

It says in the Acts of the Apostles, 1:12-14:

Then [ after the Ascension] they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

Not only was this the first ever novena in the history of the Church, and the pattern of all future novenas, it was also the most distinguished one in Church history, consisting of the eleven apostles, the holy women, and the Mother of God Herself.

Despite this, I have the distinct feeling that novenas are going out of fashion. It is time they were revived, and the same goes for Octaves too, the custom of marking the eighth day after a feast and the period in between. The Easter Octave is still with us, but the Octave of the Assumption, which ends with the feast of the Queenship of Mary is one celebration that I have never witnessed. As a child, I do remember making a novena before the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

I suppose what we are witnessing here is the disappearance of the concept of sacred time; this is a huge pity, for a tradition once lost can only with great difficulty be restored. We can hardly complain about Christmas concerts and Christmas parties in the first weeks of December when we ourselves go along with this creeping secularisation. I asked last year about the restoration of the Ascension to the Thursday, and there was some talk of putting it back in its original place. 

Is it worth asking again?

  • Apostolic

    It certainly is worth asking, Father. It is ironic that it was celebrated as a public holiday in Calvinist South Africa, while the Catholic Church abandoned it. In a world in which people move globally more than ever, and within a universal church, it seems so retrograde to introduce these national differences, largely it would appear for the sake of convenience.

  • P. Ellisbrown

    Yes,definitely! I wish all the Feast days were back in their right place.The Feast of the Epiphany is another that needs to be celebrated on the correct day,too. At our church the Novena before Pentecost has been started on Friday 18th May.

  • Jen

    This is a great site for encouraging novenas:

  • am-s

    Bring back ALL the shifted feast days to their proper days!

  • teigitur

    Indeed Father.This is at the behest of the Bishops. One could be forgiven for thinking they wanted the Church to be more Protestant!?

  • LocutusOP

    The most frightening bit of what you wrote was ” we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, by special permission.”….Now we need special permission to do the right thing!

    Fortunately, where I live, we celebrate all their feasts on their proper days….Unfortunately, not many show up.

  • teigitur

    Thats probably because there has been so much tinkering with feast days over the years people have just given up.

  • signum_magnum

    It will be interesting to see how many (outside the Oratory’s and the Wirral and, it goes without saying those blessed brethren on Papa Stronsay)) celebrate the forthcoming feast of Corpus Christi on the Thursday it has, since time immemorial been celebrated; that was until our lunatic Bishop’s decided otherwise.

  • Peter

    Well. it’s no longer a public holiday here but it is still celebrated on the Thursday and is still a Day of Obligation.  I just wish they would put Epiphany back to the 6th January!

  • Alan

    But the Protestant/Anglican churches celebrate the Ascension on the correct day, Thursday!  This change to Sunday was brought in a few years ago because it was assumed (probably correctly) that people were more likely to attend on Sunday.  But this is no reason to move to the wrong day!  It should be moved back to the correct day (aligning us with the Anglicans) and consideration should be given to removing it as a Holy Day of Obligation. 

  • teigitur

    There are few Angilcans where I live, mostly Calvinists, who do not celebrate feasts.It should certainly be retained as a Holyday Of Obligation. Its one of the aspects that makes us Roman Catholics.

  • ancientconvert

    How I agree am-s.  Surely there was talk last year from the Bishops of England & Wales of bringing at least some of them back.  And I remember going to Mass in London while visiting family where the Priest mentioned this and, having loaded the question in favour of no change, asked for a show of hands which not surprisingly produced that result. 

  • Twosirius

    I agree that it should be kept on Thursday. We still celebrate that way here in Farmimgton, Maine.

  • Pattif

    Sadly, the decision to transfer the Holy Days was taken by those of a generation, many of  whom have come to think of novenas as superstition; neither do they give the appearance of a sense of joy in celebrating the highlights of the liturgical calendar.

    Many of us remember the announcement last year that the bishops were going to return to their dioceses after their Low Week meeting, to consult on the possibility of returning the Holy Days to their proper days.  Is anyone aware of any such consultation taking place?  Following this year’s meeting, their Lordships were surprisingly silent on the subject.  If only there were some way of making them aware of how sorely people feel this loss.

  • Cestius

    I agree – it feels all wrong on Sunday and of course it breaks the tradition that Ascension Day is 40 days after the Resurrection (Easter Sunday). I feel the bishops should return it to Thursday and should stop messing with other feasts such as the Epiphany.

  • Dbarchard

    You are absolutely right on this one. How could it have happened? Why has it persisted?

  • John Jackson

    Father, while I do not necessarily disagree with you, and often wish that the feasts would be celebrated on the day that they occur, and that members would set aside the time and come to those services, while I was at mass last evening and listening to a brilliant sermon that included some of Pope Leo’s words about Ascension, I couldn’t help but think, perhaps this feast might best be celebrated on the Sunday just prior to Pentecost.  Its sort of like preparation for a birthday and in this case, the Church’s birthday.  Without the Ascension there would be no Pentecost, so one following on from the other, perhaps, might make sense.  But, for other feasts, it would be great to have them on the day they are supposed to be celebrated and lovely if more people would be present for the celebration.

  • ecclesiastes

    Quite right, it’s ridiculous. On my blog I have an interview with Vincent Nichols, struggling to explain why he celebrates Ascension 3 days later than the Pope does.

  • LocutusOP


    I’ll add that it is a Holy Day of Obligation here, in line with the international calendar.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    At least Archbishop Nichols celebrates the feast on the same day as his diocese. I wonder if the Pope would find it easy to explain why he celebrates the Ascension three days earlier than the rest of the diocese of Rome?

  • Pattif

    You are partly correct:  the Ascension should be seen as the necessary precursor of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but, as the Holy Father said yesterday, it is far more than that:

    “The Ascension of the Lord marks the fulfilment of the salvation which began with the Incarnation. Having instructed His disciples for the last time, Jesus ascended into heaven. Nevertheless, He ‘did not separate Himself from our condition’ because, in His humanity, he drew mankind into intimacy with the Father and thus revealed the final destination of our earthly pilgrimage. Just as, for us, He descended from heaven and suffered death on the cross, so too, for us, He arose and returned to God, Who is thus no longer distant, but is ‘our God’, ‘our Father’. The Ascension is the last act of our liberation from the yoke of sin”.

    Nevertheless, even seen as a preparation for the “Birthday of the Church”, the transfer of the Feast to Sunday still represents a diminution.  Scripture tells us clearly that the Ascension took place 40 days after the Resurrection; Pentecost followed 10 days later.  We .are further told that the disciples and our lady spent the nine day interval in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  We, who are called to imitate their example, no longer have the nine day interval in which to pray the proto-Novena.  I find it difficult to see the benefit in this change.

  • JabbaPapa

    This is a purely pastoral matter, defined at the National level — naturally, in Vatican City, Vatican rules apply ; in Rome, Italian ones.

    Here, it was on the Thursday – which I would have naturally attended, if my health had permitted.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Whether religious feasts are celebrated on Thursdays or Sundays is determined by the conference of bishops who may ask permission of the Holy See to change the day. It has nothing to do with civic authorities. For Italy, the Pope as Bishop of Rome appoints the chairman of the bishops’ conference. It is therefore unthinkable that the he does not approve which day the Catholics in Rome celebrate the Ascension.

  • chiaramonti

    There have been three Sundays in May so far, traditionally the month devoted to Our Lady. I asked why in three weeks, we had not had a single hymn to the BVM. Response, “they” want to reduce Marian devotion. Who, I wonder, are they?

  • Honeybadger

    I also wish these Holy Days of Obligation would be brought back to where they should be – we all need to celebrate FEAST DAYS by going to Holy Mass. It adds something extra special as well as holy to the week.

    The week just seems empty without them and, for me, out of synch.

    Let’s pray to the Holy Spirit to enlighten our Hierarchy’s minds on this matter.

  • teigitur

    You know precious little about the Church if you think thats unthinkable.

  • Honeybadger

     ‘Reduce Marian devotion?’ At a time when we NEED Our Blessed Lady by our side, in this day and age?


    If you ask me, chiaramonti, the mysterious “they” should be given a flaming good talking to – and that is putting it mildly! Tell them that they are stuck in the past/outdated/faded and that devotion to Mary is crucial! Don’t be afraid to argue the toss with them! Give your PP a copy of ‘The Secret of the Rosary’ by Saint Louis Mary Grignon de Montfort! You can buy it for a couple of quid from Roman Catholic online shops – and even Amazon sells it.

    Once they’ve read it, they’ll change their minds!

    If all these things fail and that they are obstinate, do what I did and vote with your feet and find a parish that genuinely loves the Holy Mass and Our Lady! You’ll find that they have more bums on seats.

    Saint Bonaventure said something about people who neglect to love Our Blessed Lady in her proper place … and it ain’t pleasant!

  • JabbaPapa

    For starters, I used “National” in its ecclesial meaning, ie Church in England and Wales, Church in France, and so on — and the Church in the Vatican is not the same as the Church in Italy.

    Second — it is of course perfectly untrue that the civic authorities have no say in the matter : if they do not declare a particular Feast Day to be a holiday, then this will directly influence the feasibility of religious worship on that day.

    Third — what teigutur said.

  • David Lindsay

    I was unable to attend the
    Extraordinary Form last Thursday, although I shall be able to make it for Corpus
    Christi. We don’t all live in London, you know? And in any case, we
    should not have to seek out the Extraordinary Form merely in order to
    keep the Ascension on the Biblical day, 40 days after Easter.

    There are, however, those in
    England who will still have been keeping it on the same day as the Pope. In the
    of England. Quite a senior member of which once asked me in all
    whether or not we were still keeping Christmas Day on 25th December
    rather than
    moving it to the nearest Sunday. If I miss anything about the Church of
    England, then it is the way in which it would never do anything as crass
    or as philistine as this.

    We had rather hoped for a
    reversal when Archbishop Nichols was installed on the real Ascension Day. So,
    where is it? Meanwhile, liberals like ecumenism. Let them do the ecumenical
    thing by doing the Ultramontane thing, restoring the Epiphany and Ascension
    Day, and with them Corpus Christi, to their proper days, as kept both by our
    separated brethren and by our Holy Father.

  • Parasum

    “This is the original ur-Novena.”

    ## LOL

    “Despite this, I have the distinct feeling that novenas are going out of fashion. It is time they were revived, and the same goes for Octaves too, the custom of marking the eighth day after a feast and the period in between.”

    ## And the Rogation days – don’t forget them. At least the traditionalists don’t forget novenas.

    “I  suppose what we are witnessing here is the disappearance of the concept of sacred time; this is a huge pity, for a tradition once lost can only with great difficulty be restored.”

    ## Looks like another step in the Church’s secularisation :( And, equally important, another instance of the deafness of modern Catholicism (?) to the importance of *signs*. Sacred time, sacred space, sacred clothing, sacred functions, all have *sign*-value.  As one would expect from a sacramental religion based on a Divine Incarnation among men.  Salvation history, & its summary in the Creed, is made of sign-ificant acts of God.

    STM the Vatican has a totally weird approach to Tradition – which is treated by the Vatican as though it were (in principle) endlessly manipulable. This is not a Catholic POV – it’s bureaucratic & utilitarian – or worse. The bureaucratic mentality is what landed us with the mess that V2.

    ” I asked last year about the restoration of the Ascension to the Thursday, and there was some talk of putting it back in its original place.
    Is it worth asking again?”

    ## Without the asking, it will probably not happen. So ask. Then it will become worth asking.

  • Parasum

    “Response, “they” want to reduce Marian devotion.”

    ## Someone should tell them that she is Queen of the Universe :) We need more Marian devotion, for though some forms of it have been dodgy, it is in itself a very great gift to the Church. The Church ought to be more “RC”, & less one-sidedly ecumenical. Not saying we should be unpleasant – merely unmistakably clear about what we believe, & why.  Being fuzzy or wooly is a virtue only for

    - not for:

  • baoni779

  • Pattif

    I think the correct order of precedence is that the Diocese of Rome celebrates the Ascension three days after its Bishop.

  • John Jackson

    Point taken, and I appreciate your concern and it is well stated and argued.  I suppose if there is a benefit, it may be something simple as those who do attend mass on that Sunday where Ascension has been moved and, whether right or not, might not be inclined or able to attend on the correct day, they will gain in their knowledge of why the feast of the Ascension is important as it is (especially if the sermons are as good as the one I was privileged to hear).  As you have shown and as the preface for Pentecost says, ‘This same Spirit, as the Church came to birth, opened to all peoples the knowledge of God…’  Hopefully their knowledge has increased some about their faith, and that might be a benefit.  Just a thought.

  • CatholicBlogger
  • Kim Hatton

    Yes it is certainly worth asking again, and again and again.  We are losing Sacred Time and I amongst, I imagine, along with many others wish it were not so. It makes no sense, in Sacred Time, to move it to Sunday and is a misjudgement of the many Catholics who would attend on the correct day.

  • licjjs

    The push to change the feasts of Ascension and Corpus Christi certainly did not come from lay Catholics.  Cardinal Hume had a kind of consultative survey on the matter and came to the conclusion that the faithful did not want the change, in spite of priests publicly stating that ‘pastoral’ reasons dictated that the feasts be moved to Sunday.  As soon as Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor took over, the change was introduced without any further reference to what the people wanted, and since then some of us have written more than once asking that the feasts be restored to their proper liturgical days.  Some of us still try to keep the tradition of the novena, invoking the Holy Spirit each day by saying the ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ and/or other prayers.  What these changes did was ‘privatise’ this practice which up until then had been one of the great public unifying periods of prayer in the Church.

  • Nicola Raye

    Yes, bring back the novenas and thank you for the information on the Octaves. Letting people know of these even if  they themselves are fixed in commuting lifestyles, could help to bring a slower peaceful moments whilst engaged; just the being aware, that others maybe observing, would bring a harmony which lengthens the time of celebration as well as the moment.   I have always believed that similarly there is an approach to one’s birthday and definitely the birthday week following in which one may continue to celebrate!