On Ascension Day – Or Not – The Church Retains Its "Option"
...to everyone else, well, re-read this on Sunday.
Given the unique patchwork of how American Catholicism observes this 40th Day of Easter (or doesn't), it bears recalling how the split decision – and its still-resulting confusion – owes itself to a 1994 vote granted by Rome to the bishops of each of the nation's 33 Latin-church provinces: a concession which followed a five-year "experiment" that initially allowed the five Westernmost jurisdictions to move their Ascension date to the weekend.
To put it mildly, no shortage of things have changed since then, above all the makeup of the bench. Indeed, it's hard to think of more than five still-active prelates (of some 250) who would've cast a vote on this question, and all but one of them are now in very different provinces than they were at the time.
More to the point, the last two decades have brought something of a tidal shift across the board, even as its wake has pulled in two very different directions: in the Northeast, where 1994's ample numbers of priests and people have largely been obliterated due to aging and atrophy, the region's historic premium on tradition – and, to be sure, the ever-sacred Holy Day Collection – is a lot more costly these days... while even as a thousand and more new communities have bloomed to points South and West, amid presbyterates that've either grown or, at best, barely kept pace to serve the boom, in many places said epochal ascent has brought a more deeply-rooted sense of Catholic identity to the fore, one in which days like this make for a particular flashpoint, and a very desirable one to maintain at that.
In other words, since there's no need whatsoever for the prior generation's judgment to hold today's Church hostage, the Ascension Day vote can be retaken at any time... and if it were, one way or another, odds are the resulting map would look rather different. It wouldn't exactly be rocket-science to pull off, either – the majority of diocesan bishops in any given province would be able to petition for a change on their respective turf. Toward that end, the exigencies of a different Church in a different age make this question feel like something at least worth discerning anew, that the needs and aspirations of God's People in our situations today might best be served as they are, instead of as they were two decades and an ecclesial age ago.
All that said, in the grand scheme of things, the date is but window dressing. For all the hand-wringing that remains over when this feast is (or isn't) celebrated, to engage in that while missing out on what the day actually means – and the responsibility and work that it requires – only creates yet another vapid distraction from the lone thing that matters most....
“Evangelization takes place in obedience to the missionary mandate of Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). In these verses we see how the risen Christ sent his followers to preach the Gospel in every time and place, so that faith in him might spread to every corner of the earth.
The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth”.... The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, that he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.
Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The Lord gets involved and he involves his own, as he kneels to wash their feet. He tells his disciples: “You will be blessed if you do this” (Jn 13:17). An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. Faithful to the Lord’s gift, it also bears fruit. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear. The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed. Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.
I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be “permanently in a state of mission”....
There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling,” any new structure will soon prove ineffective.
I dream of a “missionary option” – that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her [own] self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.”
Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel")
24 November 2013