Last week, Catholics in the United States experienced a “feast day fake out.”
A feast day fake out is when a Catholic is anticipating a holy day of obligation only to find out that the obligation has been removed, often because the feast falls on a Saturday or Monday. It usually involves a flurry of confused exchanges with other Catholics along the lines of: “Well, what does our bishop say?” or “Check the church’s website.”
It also typically involves an awkward announcement by one’s parish priest that such and such is a very important day in the liturgical life of the Church that used to require one to show up for Mass during the week, but not anymore.
My first feast day fake out was a real letdown.
Three years ago, I became a Catholic. I came hurtling into the Church with a zeal not uncommon to many converts to the faith. Coming from a mainline Protestant background, I was looking for moral and theological orthodoxy, among other things, and I found it in the rigor and discipline that Catholicism demands of its followers.
So when the time rolled around for what should have been my first holy day of obligation, I was ready and raring to go.
An “out-of-town Catholic” reminded me that the 40th day of Easter marks the day Our Risen Lord ascended into heaven and is therefore a holy day of obligation. It was time for me to mark the closing of my first liturgical period as a convert.
Part of the beauty of Catholicism is the occasional reminder that God demands more of us than rolling out of bed a bit early on Sunday mornings. The faith is structured to remind us now and then that the weekdays also belong to God — that every day, every minute, belongs to God. This sacrifice, this “inconvenience,” is a large part of why I became Catholic.
Faith should not be easy. It should be uncomfortable sometimes. It should remind us not to get too relaxed on this earth. Faith should be alive and push its way into our day-to-day lives.
So imagine my surprise when a “local Catholic” informed me there was no holy day of obligation for Washington, D.C., residents on Ascension Thursday. The explanation: The obligation had simply been moved to Sunday.
Apparently, the laity needn’t be burdened to take an extra hour out of their lives during the week to honor Christ’s Ascension into heaven. The end.
I decided that I would stick it to the man and go anyway. So I was even further vexed when informed that I could indeed go to Mass, but I would not be able to celebrate the Lord’s Ascension with the rest of the Catholics around the world.
So I did some research.
I learned that, of the 10 holy days of obligation observed by the universal Church, six are celebrated in the United States, four of which are either transferred to Sunday automatically or have the obligation to attend dropped if the day falls on a Saturday or Monday. A Catholic colleague told me that his priest cynically welcomed his congregants each year to “Ascension Thursday Sunday.” Just this past Sunday, Msgr. Ronny Jenkins of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gently explained to the noon Mass crowd at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that indeed our archdiocese was celebrating Ascension Thursday — on Sunday.
Last year I was broadsided by a feast day fake out when I tried to go to Mass on a Saturday despite no holy day obligation. I went to the basilica. I missed half of Mass. Why? Because the basilica went rogue and followed the holy-day-of-obligation schedule, despite there being no obligation! Ironically, removing the obligation made it more difficult for me to observe the holy day.
The removal of holy day obligations is just one aspect of a troubling trend of dilution of the Catholic identity in America and truncation of the life of the faithful. The pre-Vatican II Friday obligations fall into this category.
It is the universal norm of the Latin and Eastern Church to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. In 1983, U.S. bishops received permission to ease this precise requirement and instead ask the laity to make some other form of penance on Fridays. However, to abstain from meat on Fridays is still the universal law of the Church.
As a result, hardly anyone now even remembers they’re asked to do anything, and one of the most obvious markers of Catholic identity in America disappeared. Need evidence? Not too long ago, a fellow Catholic jokingly referred to me as a “mackerel-snapper.” I had to look it up; the reference was entirely lost on me.
The notion that if we make practicing the Catholic faith “easier,” then Catholicism will be more palatable to blasé Americans and the Church won’t bleed believers is deeply flawed. From the point of view of a baby Catholic, the effect is the opposite. Reducing the demands on the faithful will only lead to spiritual ennui, diluted identity and send Catholicism in the direction of the relativism and selfishness that characterize American culture today.
Douglas Hyde, a communist-turned-Catholic, once said, “If you make mean little demands upon people, you will get a mean little response, which is all you deserve; but if you make big demands on them, you will get a heroic response.” Similarly, St. Augustine wrote, “We must raise our goals if we are to reach them.” If the goal is to get American Catholics more engaged with their faith and more aware of their identity as faithful “in but not of the world,” the Church cannot afford to lower the bar when it comes to its demands on the faithful.
We should be doing pull-ups instead.
Ashley McGuire is the editor in chief of AltCatholicah. She lives in Washington, D.C.