Epiphany and Ascension may be brought back as Holy Days of Obligation, the English and Welsh bishops have said.
The bishops discussed the possibility of restoring two of the three Holy Days of Obligation, which were transferred to Sundays in 2006, at their first plenary meeting of the year.
They will spend the next six months in their dioceses “reflecting” about whether to celebrate the Holy Days on their customary days.
The days which were transferred were the Epiphany on January 6, the Ascension of Our Lord which is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday 40 days after Easter, and the Body and Blood of the Lord, known as Corpus Christi, celebrated after Pentecost.
Speaking after the bishops’ meeting in Leeds Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who leads the bishops’ conference, said: “We reflected about the two Holy Days that have such a traditional resonance about them, the Epiphany and the Ascension, and we as a bishops’ conference have determined to reflect a little bit more on this.
“We explored both sides of the aspect of what Holy Days mean in Catholic life. They are a point at which we concentrate and celebrate liturgically a particularly important part of the mystery of our salvation.
“And the placing of those Holy Days on a Sunday is to enable our participation and celebration of the holy day.
“On the other hand the Epiphany and the Ascension are still part of the rhythm of many people’s lives in this country and so we are weighing up how we stand on those two arguments and bishops have gone away ready to listen to their priests and their people as to what is to be best gained, either by marking those two days in the rhythm of the calendar or with the advantages of an easier and fuller liturgical celebration of them on a Sunday.”
A spokeswoman for the bishops explained that “each of the bishops will be reflecting about the pastoral needs within their dioceses, and the bishops’ conference collectively will return to the issue of celebrating these feast days at their next plenary meeting in November”.
When the bishops made the decision to move the Holy Days in 2006, Catholics protested against the move with a petition. Julia Ashenden, who launched the petition, said she managed to get over 500 signatures online.
She said she also received a number of emails saying that the petition had the support of parishioners who were unable to use computers.
An earlier attempt to move Holy Days in 1996 had been quashed after priests and lay people protested, but Mrs Ashenden’s petition did not seem to make a difference.
She said she was pleased to hear that the bishops were considering returning Holy Days to their original days.
Mrs Ashenden said: “I would be delighted if Epiphany and Ascension Day were restored to their proper days, especially as the Orthodox Church celebrates its Christmas on the Epiphany.
“This year was a nonsense, with Epiphany being kept by the Catholic Church on January 2. The Anglicans always keep Ascension Day on the Thursday, 40 days on from Easter of course.”
Fr Peter Newby, a priest in the City of London, said his church continued to be well attended on the days that the transferred Holy Days were originally celebrated.
He said he would be “delighted” if they restored the Holy Days because “it’s one of the ways this parish is made known throughout the City because people look for places to celebrate Mass on the Holy Days”.
“It’s good generally because I think all the reasons given for moving them were largely negative; that people don’t go to Mass on Holy Days and that sort of thing. It’s a bit like playing bridge, you play to strength rather than to weakness,” he added.
Fr Tim Finigan, the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen, and a popular blogger, said that Ascension and Epiphany would be the obvious Holy Days to bring back because of their places in the liturgical calendar.
Fr Finigan said: “They form part of the complex structure of the liturgical year. Many people were disappointed when the days were transferred, especially the Epiphany.
“Here in Britain we still have the tradition of the 12 days of Christmas, it’s one of those things, like Christmas, which still have a cultural resonance. I’d be delighted if those Holy Days were restored.”
The Church in England and Wales has seven other days during the year on which Catholics are required to go to Mass, other than fulfilling their Sunday obligation. That is one more Holy Day than the United States, Ireland and Poland.
Australia and the Netherlands only observe two, while the Vatican City observes all 10 Holy Days.