“Spring forward/Fall back”: It’s a clever catch-phrase and play on words and for at least a couple of generations Americans have agreed to agree that, though it is now 5:10 p.m. on the clock, it sure looks like it’s 6:10 p.m. Well, we’ll get used to it as we always have every year since 1973, unofficially, and officially since 1986—though the history of Daylight Savings Time goes back to at least the First World War.
Still, Daylight Savings Time is to our body clocks what Ascension Thursday is to the revised Roman Liturgical Calendar: Anytime you have to ask, “Does Ascension Thursday fall on a Thursday here—or on the following Sunday?” something must be systemically wrong.
Call it lassitude or group-think or the lack of being able to get a critical mass of, well, critics together to combat bad ideas that seem relatively harmless—like Daylight Savings Time, or the fact that no one is quite sure when to observe Ascension Thursday—but it’s not an isolated incident in terms of our post-Vatican II spiritual lives. For instance:
1. Abstaining from meat on all Fridays. Eating meat on Fridays was, of course, verboten for centuries for Catholics. Indeed, it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays. However, the Second Vatican Council mitigated this, somewhat, by making it “almost optional”: instead of not eating meat, one could substitute another form of penance on Friday. This wasn’t a bad idea, exactly, but it’s a tough one to enforce, as it leaves the penitential practice up to the individual. So if one does not substitute some other form of penance in place of abstinence from flesh-meat, one must still abstain (Canons 1249 and 1250). But this change is a switch to the body which, like Daylight Savings Time, is tough to adjust to: while it may be hypocritical to forgo, say, roast lamb in favor of Chilean Sea Bass served on a bed of risotto on Fridays, at least the body knew to expect “Fish-On-Friday”, even if the soul was a little shaky on the theology behind it. However, one can now substitute eating fish on Friday with making the Stations of the Cross. Which brings us to…
2. The Stations of the Cross. Every single Friday in Lent, the Stations of the Cross are made en masse by the Catholic faithful of their own free will, not because they have to or because it’s a mortal sin not to do so. Personally this is one of my favorite devotions, as it allows for different prayers, readings, artwork, and even “living” Stations of the Cross. However, it’s another one of those things that doesn’t make sense that we all seem to have agreed to agree upon: many, if not most American Catholics, make the Stations of the Cross ONLY during Lent. This is particularly odd in that almost every single Catholic Church in the West has Stations permanently and prominently on display. There is no reason not to make the Via Dolorosa outside of the Lenten season—indeed, with Fridays now being termed “official days of penance” one would think (or at least hope) that more and more of the faithful would pick up on the Way of the Cross. But this didn’t happen. The Stations of the Cross, second only to the Holy Rosary as a popular devotion, remains largely confined to the forty days of Lent—though we see them every single Sunday at Mass. And there’s nothing to prevent groups of the faithful from making them together during the rest of the year.
3. Traveler’s dispensation from Mass. Some relatives came to see me last weekend. When I asked them if they wanted to sleep in on Sunday (they arrived late Saturday) and go to a later Mass they responded, quite seriously, “Oh we don’t NEED to go to Mass: we have a travelers’ dispensation.” I tried to politely and decorously explain to them that (1) they were not actually traveling on this particular Sunday, and (2) more importantly, there is no such thing as a “travelers’ dispensation”. They didn’t believe me. And they didn’t go to Mass with me and my family, either. The strange thing here is that these are people who NEVER miss Sunday Mass when they are home. However, since they were on vacation, it seems that they felt the imaginary “travelers’ dispensation” applied to them. While the Code of Canon Law does, of course, allow for dispensations and the interpretation of such (cf. Canons 85-93), an automatic one for those traveling simply doesn’t exist. But like Daylight Savings Time, such things die hard even in the minds of regular churchgoing believers.
4. Natural Family Planning. Here’s one that started as a great idea and somewhere got turned inside-out, backwards and upside-down. My wife and I first started attending Natural Family Planning courses because we were having difficulty conceiving children. The people who ran the NFP classes—a married couple—were both Registered Nurses, practicing Catholics, and very personable, charismatic, and likeable folks. Problem was: after the first several classes, it was clear that, except for my wife and me, the “goal” here among the other couples was to figure out a way to be able to have regular marital relations without “having to worry about getting pregnant”. My wife asked, “Is it just me or are all these people trying to avoid having kids?” While no one in this class would ever countenance artificial contraception, they did seem to think that “Natural Family Planning” was a sort of “Natural Contraception” which flies in the face of every marital act being open to the possibility of conception. In fairness, many, if not all of these couples already had large families and were doing their best to be “responsible fathers and mothers” (CCC 2399) with less means than their own parents had had while raising them. Still, when I think of my great-grandparents who had 11 children, or even my best childhood-friend, Guppy, who was one of ten children—the first conceived after their mother had had ten miscarriages before making a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré—I wonder if we weren’t doing the right thing the right way for the wrong reason. Not unlike trying to have more sunlight, or concoct an extra hour of sleep.
5. Fasting after Holy Communion. Here’s one that I myself have gotten wrong for a long time. I was taught that one had to fast one hour after Holy Communion as well as an hour before. In fact, I spread this “teaching” to anyone who would listen to me. (There were few who did.) Turns out there is no mandatory post-Communion fast. And given that even in the Novus Ordo Mass there’s a solid ten-to-twelve minutes before the final dismissal, the Body and Blood of Our Lord has been absorbed by the time we are in our cars and en route to the bakery for the donuts. Still, like Daylight Savings Time, such things don’t go away easily: I still don’t feel quite right about eating less than an hour after Holy Communion. And I still can’t adjust to Daylight Savings Time, spring or fall.