Thursday, May 01, 2008

Dr. Alcuin Reid on the Transfer of Holy Days of Obligation

The following appears in today's edition of The Catholic Herald:

A canonically correct but unfortunate clarification.

Dr Alcuin Reid

There is no doubt that bishops, with the consent of the Holy See, enjoy the power to transfer Holy Days of Obligation to another day or to dispense their obligation; both the 1917 Code of Canon Law (canon 1247) and the 1983 Code (canon 1246) foresee these possibilities. Indeed, in England before the Council the obligation to attend Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was dispensed, though it was celebrated on December 8th each year.

Many of us will recall the impassioned debate in the Catholic press and beyond when the Bishops of England and Wales recently transferred the feasts of the Epiphany, Ascension and Corpus Christi to the nearest Sunday. It is said that earlier, when Cardinal Hume was presented with this proposal, he blocked it with the retort: “Secularism has gone far enough!” After his death the bishops judged the move to be apposite.

The pastoral reasons for the bishops’ decision are clear: modern urban life can render it very difficult to get to Mass on Holy Days, and even more so in rural areas where priests are fewer. An alternative can be argued: if it is truly impossible given the obligations of one’s state in life or one’s location to get to Mass on Holy Days, one is dispensed by that impossibility and there is no need to tamper with the liturgy because of such modern exigencies. Yet conversely again, regularly relying on a dispensation could mean many people never celebrating profoundly significant feasts of the liturgical year. One may prefer that the bishops had not transferred the feasts, but one can follow their rationale in so doing.

Catholics who worship according to the usus antiquior – the more ancient use of the Roman rite (sometimes called the “traditional Latin Mass”) – are understandably reluctant to accept the modernization of the liturgy or any steps that appear to move in that direction. This may be seen by some as a weakness. Whether it is this or whether it is a healthy distrust of unnecessary change, it is a reality that must be taken into account by the Church’s pastors. Pope Benedict’s decree last year that the ancient use had “never been abrogated” and that it was freely to be available to all who wished it were greeted by such groups with profound joy and reassurance. It was a profoundly pastoral measure.

The announcement last week of the canonically correct clarification obtained by the English bishops from Rome that “priests who celebrate according to the 1962 Roman Missal for the benefit of the faithful…should also celebrate these Holydays on the prescribed Sundays” is not such a pastoral measure. Yes, one can understand the desire for feasts to be kept by all on the same day. And yes, one can understand the annoyance of some modern liturgists and even bishops by those attached to the usus antiquior who have at times been somewhat smug about retaining the feasts on the original days. However, whilst these may be concerns, there are others to be taken into account.

The first is that those who worship according to the usus antiquior are most often deeply attached not only to the form of the rite but to the riches of the whole liturgical year. They would usually make the effort to be at Mass on the “extra” days whether it was strictly of obligation or not. By all means let the bishops remove the “weekday” obligation if they think it unduly onerous. But this does not necessitate their insistence on the transfer of the liturgical celebration of the feasts in the older use. For the transfer impoverishes the liturgical ‘diet’ that will now be on offer. What Mass will the priest say on the Thursday before Ascension “Sunday,” as in the more ancient use a “votive” Mass of the Ascension is simply not possible? It would in any case be ludicrous to extinguish the paschal candle after the Gospel on Thursday symbolising the departure of our Lord’s resurrected body only to do so again on Sunday! Are we to have two Epiphanies? Are the feasts of All Saints, Sts Peter and Paul and the Assumption to be repeated on a Sunday or a Monday after their observance the previous day? And what of their proper vigil days that are integral to the older use? What offices are to be celebrated? Then there is the issue of the occlusion of the liturgical texts of the Sundays that the transferred feasts will displace. Alas this “clarification” serves to deprive the faithful of some of the very liturgical heritage Pope Benedict sought to protect.

The second is that the liturgical life of the Catholic Church has always borne witness to unity in diversity, but not uniformity. Eastern and Western Catholic rites have utterly different calendars. Different uses of the Roman rite have had significant variations even, in the case of Religious Orders, in the same cities. The Ambrosian rite of Milan had no Ash Wednesday. Yes, it may seem a bit untidy to have some celebrating Epiphany on one day and some others a few days later, but there is surely no sin in it? After all, the calendar of the more ancient use, last issued in 1962, celebrates many feasts on different days from that of that of the modern use, and not without good reason. It must be said plainly that there is no overriding liturgical reason that these feasts cannot be celebrated on their original days in the usus antiquior.

Nor is there a pastoral necessity; indeed pastoral considerations suggest the opposite. The Holy Father was clear in his explanation of Summorum Pontificum that one motivation for its promulgation was the promotion of unity within the Church. This measure will without doubt be seen as another obstacle in the path of reaching that unity with those who find themselves in an irregular situation, such as the Society of St Pius X. We might think that they should not react thus, but some shall: that is a pastoral reality. There may even be people scandalised by this change who turn anew to the SSPX.

The timing of the bishops’ announcement is unfortunate: made but a week before Ascension and less than a month before Corpus Christi, what are clergy and faithful who have made plans for Masses on those days to do? It is also a little unclear, for a press-release referring to a response to a question put to Rome, but not publishing the question itself or the response given, has no binding canonical status. Nor would it appear that the bishops have formally decreed that this change is to be observed: certainly no decree of the English and Welsh bishops has been published. Such publications are necessary before obedience to the change is required.

Whilst our Fathers in God certainly have the canonical right to decree such a change, perhaps in this instance they might be so kind as not to do so, for the pastoral and liturgical reasons mentioned above, amongst others? St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians teaches us that we should, as children, obey our parents (including, by analogy, our spiritual fathers, the bishops), and as faithful Catholics we should do so. However he also adds the admonition: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Dr Alcuin Reid is a London-based liturgical scholar. His new edition of Adrian Fortescue’s “The Early Papacy” has recently been published by Ignatius Press.

Note 1: The artlce as it appears in the paper can be found here.

Note 2: There is another article in The Catholic Herald today on this subject. See: Bishops insist on uniformity for Masses on Holy Days

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