May. 22 2024

Does an obligation to attend Mass on Ascension Thursday include those traveling outside the diocese?

byJenna Marie Cooper

Image by Betty Verheij from Pixabay

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Q: I live in a diocese where the feast of the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday. This year, I was traveling for work on Ascension Thursday, and in the diocese where my conference was, Ascension was moved to Sunday (by which point I was already back home). I feel bad for missing the feast of the Ascension this year, and I'm wondering if there is anything I should have done to fulfill my obligation? (Greenwich, CT)

A: While it is a pity that circumstances prevented you from celebrating the Solemnity of the Ascension this year, you did not fail to fulfill any obligations.

For some background, Canon 1246, Paragraph 1 of the Code of Canon Law states: "The Lord's Day, on which the paschal mystery is celebrated, is by apostolic tradition to be observed in the universal Church as the primary holy day of obligation. In the same way the following holy days are to be observed: the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension of Christ, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the feast of Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, the feast of St Joseph, the feast of the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul, and the feast of All Saints."

But significantly, Paragraph 2 of that same canon goes on to tell us: "However, the Episcopal Conference may, with the prior approval of the Apostolic See, suppress certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday."

Practically speaking, this means that the holy days of obligation you are actually bound to observe as a Catholic depend on what your local bishops' conference (the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States) has decided to do.

For example, in the United States, Catholics are not bound to observe the feast of St. Joseph or the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul as holy days of obligation -- though of course, these feasts are still important and festive days on the church's liturgical calendar, and we are free to choose to attend Mass on those days if we wish. It was also the USCCB's decision to transfer the feasts of Epiphany and Corpus Christi to the following Sundays on a national level.

The solemnity of the Ascension is a somewhat special case, however. In 1999, the USCCB decided to allow ecclesiastical provinces -- that is, local groupings of dioceses ordered around a metropolitan archdiocese -- to decide whether to transfer the celebration of the Ascension to the following Sunday.

Currently, the provinces of the Archdiocese of Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, and Omaha maintain the traditional date for the celebration of the Ascension on the Thursday of the sixth week of Easter, 40 days after Easter Sunday. This applies to Catholics in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska.

Since the solemnity of the Ascension is a holy day of obligation, when it is observed on a Thursday this means an extra trip to church; when it is transferred to a Sunday, there is no "extra" obligation beyond Sunday Mass.

In your case specifically, the general principle is that you are bound to observe the laws, including the liturgical laws, in the place where you are actually present (see Canon 13, Paragraph 2). So, your obligation to attend Mass on Ascension Thursday only applies when you are physically present in a diocese that celebrates the Ascension on that Thursday; the obligation does not follow you personally when you are traveling.

That all being said, the mystery of the Ascension is an important one in our life of faith, so if you happened to "miss" the Ascension this year, you might consider looking up and prayerfully reflecting on the Mass readings for this feast on your own. Praying a novena to the Holy Spirit is also a good way to remember the apostles' post-Ascension time of waiting for Pentecost.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.