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William Oddie FAITH Magazine July-August 2008s

 

TAKING LEAVE OF OBLIGATION

I begin with the excellent Pastor Juventus column in The Catholic Herald. This quiet but compulsively readable column is about the spiritual life, written from the point of view of a working Parish Priest; it is, for me, the most unmissable regular contribution to the Catholic Press (I have an interest to declare here: it was I who in my days as editor of The Catholic Herald installed it as a weekly event). It isn’t normally contentious or controversial; only when something happens that is destructive to the writer’s or to his people’s spiritual life. And in May he put his finger on an issue that has disturbed – even distressed – many of us: the moving of some Holy Days of obligation from a weekday to Sunday (thereby effectively reducing the number of such days). Hebegins quietly enough:

“The celebration of the Feast of the Ascension falling on a Sunday felt odd and out of kilter. The feast undoubtedly loses something by being shifted to a Sunday. What that something is is hard to define, but it is real nevertheless.”

He goes on, however, to define rather well a good deal of why this is not merely a disturbing change – (after all, disturbance might do us some good, might shake us up in some spiritually productive way; religion isn’t just about feeling comfortable) – but one which is for many people futile and wholly unproductive:

“Ironically, it is the fact that [the Ascension] has been transferred to a Sunday, which means that no extra effort is required to celebrate it and therefore no special sense attaches to it. It becomes less significant for being absorbed into the weekly routine.”

That last sentence bears repetition, for it is fundamental to why there is such a widespread feeling that in some way our religious observance has by these changes been diminished and devalued: the day ‘becomes less significantfor being absorbed into the weekly routine’. Not only that: the fact that the feasts of the Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi are all now a week apart means that ‘their particular significance will be crammed into the shortest possible time, leaving little sense of being able to savour them individually and fully’. Another compulsive reason against these disturbances, one which makes one wonder whether our bishops ever seriously think about the consequences of their bright ideas (or even if they care), is the effect on Catholicschools: I know, says Pastor Juventus, ‘that Catholic schools are still feeling the sense that the bottom has fallen out of their liturgical year with the removal of these feasts, which shaped the landscape of their celebration of the Christian mystery as a faith community’.

Speaking personally, it means the grievous loss of something about Catholic observance which always used enormously to impress me as a non-Catholic: the spectacle of Catholics keeping their weekday obligations, often at enormous inconvenience to themselves: as an Anglican, for whom any liturgical obligation was essentially a matter of my own whim, this was immensely attractive: there was the sense that Catholics were under obedience, and that their religion was a real force in their lives, one not to be diverted by secular pressures or values. They were ‘signs of contradiction’: as Pastor Juventus powerfully expressed it:

“Moving these ‘holydays’ (how the etymology of that word says so much about what they were to our culture) represents a symbolic retreat of huge proportions; conceding the notion that the secular world and the imperative of its ephemeral commitments must now be considered more real than the way in which the divine has entered our history and shaped it.”

That is strong stuff: but the sense of distress and outrage it conveys was widespread, and flowed over into the secular Press. If Pastor Juventus is the best columnist in the Catholic Press, Charles Moore (in my opinion) is the best columnist in the secular Press: his column in the Saturday Daily Telegraph is the best reason for humping home the vast weight of all those colour magazines and other weekend sections; and his diary column in The Spectator is usually the first thing I turn to. The same week that Pastor Juventus delivered himself on the subject of the Ascension, so did Charles Moore in The Spectator:

“As a convert to Roman Catholicism, I find myself surprisingly distressed by the decision of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to declare Ascension Day, Corpus Christi and the Epiphany to be no longer Holydays of Obligation. The faithful will now not have to attend Mass on those days, but only on the nearest Sunday (which is always obligatory anyway). ‘Obligation’ is a strong word and, except for two occasions when I forgot, I have always fulfilled it on Holydays.”

This attendance has taught me more about the particular feasts, and about the Mass, than I would otherwise have learnt. It is true that I could (and should) go to Mass without it being an obligation, but I know that, for the most part, I won’t. It is particularly unhappy to shift the days of celebration because Epiphany and Ascension Day mark precise spaces of time (the 12 days of Christmas and the 40 days after Easter mirroring the 40 days of Lent). Faith needs these props.

Charles Moore’s was not the only reaction which homed in on that loss of the particular point of the traditional day for celebrating the Ascension. A.N.Wilson ‘went to church on Ascension Day and found that the feast had been abolished – or rather, moved to the following Sunday, thereby destroying the symbolism of 40 days separating the Ascension from the Resurrection. Whose bright idea was this? The Pope’s? How the clergy love tinkering.’ Well, it wasn’t the Pope’s bright idea in England, but confusingly
enough his diocese of Rome also transfers these feasts, though the Vatican doesn’t. As Fr Finigan explained in his blog ‘The Hermeneutic of Continuity’:

“Technically, there is uniformity in that in Italy the Holydays are transferred to the Sunday but in the Vatican territory, they are observed on the traditional days. In practice, it means that you can go to the Ascension Mass at St Mary Major’s or the non-Ascension Mass in any one of a number of Churches within a few minutes’ walking distance... .”

Fr Finigan goes on to touch on a related controversy; in England, he writes, ‘it is becoming clearer that if there was an attempt to prevent traditionalists from celebrating the feasts on their traditional days, it seems to be failing. Mark Greaves has written an article for this week’s Catholic Herald (‘Bishops insist on uniformity for Masses on Holy Days’) in which he quotes “an official” from Ecclesia Deiwho dutifully says of traditionalists “They’re obliged to keep to the Holy Days that have been agreed upon” but then goes on to say that there is “no problem” with them also celebrating them during the week.’

Well, up to a point. The attempt to argue that the extraordinary rite could be celebrated on the traditional holy days is in fact causing ‘problems’: and there seems to be a certain amount of creative disobedience going on. Damian Thompson summed up both the general situation and the particular question of the attempt by traditionalists to argue for the traditional days for celebrations of the ‘old’ mass. The bishops hate Thompson’s blog and you can see why (apart from anything else, the fact that it’s an official Telegraph blog means that they can’t ignore it):

“The Bishops of England and Wales appear to have scored a point in their mean-spirited campaign against Catholics who use the old Latin liturgy. They have secured a ruling from Rome forcing traditionalists to follow the new practice of celebrating great feast days such as the Ascension and Corpus Christi on Sundays instead of weekdays. The English and Welsh bishops abolished these ancient midweek Holydays of Obligation last year without consulting ordinary churchgoers, many of whom felt insulted. And now critics say they have moved against traditional Catholics in a similarly sneaky fashion.

“The news was broken in a press release on the bishops’ politically correct website, which normally ignores traditionalists (and the Pope’s decision to remove the power of bishops to block the old Mass). But when there is bad news to impart to traddies – well, that’s different.

“Following a request for information, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales submitted a dubium (a query) to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which confirmed that in the Roman Rite, whichever Form of the liturgy is being celebrated, the Holydays of Obligation are held in common. Where the obligation has been removed and the Holyday transferred to the Sunday, the Epiphany of the Lord, the Ascension of the Lord and Corpus Christi, this is to be followed in both Ordinary and Extraordinary celebrations of Mass.

“And that’s it. The text of the bishops’ request and the Vatican ruling is not given. Why not? You might expect that this development came after consultation with the Latin Mass Society – aren’t the bishops supposed to be big on consulting the laity? Nope. The first the LMS knew about it was a blunt communication from Martin Foster, the bishops’ liturgical “expert” and a seasoned opponent of traditionalists.

“It’s hard to overestimate the anger this has caused in English Latin Mass circles. If ever there was a move designed to drive lovers of the old Missal back into the arms of the Lefebvrists, this was it. One very well-known conservative Catholic has described the announcement as ‘Cormac’s parting gift to the Latin Mass Society’. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

The effect in English ‘Latin Mass circles’, however, isn’t the most important issue on which we need to focus, though I agree that it does show that there is something remarkably ‘mean-spirited’ in the air, a fact which also emerged strongly in widespread attempts to frustrate the motu proprio; it also shows that although that many-faced and mysterious entity we tend simply to call ‘Rome’ can sometimes be relied on to defend us from reductionist tendencies in the English and Welsh Church, it is also the case that all too often it can’t.

The real point is that the moving of these holydays of obligation to the following Sunday has had possibly unintended but nevertheless damaging consequences, which outweigh any conceivable gain (I accept that for a very small number of people it does mean that they will be able to celebrate these feasts – in however reduced a way – when previously they couldn’t). I end by returning to Pastor Juventus’s very strong piece in The Catholic Herald; and I italicise what seems to me the central point in all this:

“In these days of vigil Masses and evening Masses, it can never have been easier to attend Mass on a Holy Day. If people were not attending, the problem is scarcely resolved by moving the feasts to a Sunday, for as we know the percentage of those who see the Sunday obligation as always binding is ever decreasing. For the sake of those who do make the effort to attend, and as a reminder that the obligation to worship is imposed on us by God himself and is not subject to our convenience, it is my opinion that this universally unpopular change should be reversed forthwith.”

It won’t be, of course. Reversing it will involve a long and laborious campaign, and success if it comes may be years ahead. But we must not lie down under this. Perhaps the most cynical aspect of these changes is the insolent claim that they took place after a process of full consultation. The fact is that we were not consulted: but now we must make our voices heard.


Faith Magazine

July - August 2008