A Little Liturgical Rant

This year Catholics in England and Wales will be celebrating the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady on Sunday the 16th rather than the customary date of 15 August. That is in line with the decision of the Hierarchy of England and Wales regarding the transfer of certain feasts. At one level, one admits their arguments, though perhaps with a few reservations about whether it really does encourage more people to celebrate the feast or lift some of the burden from priests struggling to do the work of two or three. There is, after all, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ day for a feast, only the one the Church chooses; but being out of step with the rest of the Church, both historically and geographically, does matter, perhaps more than our bishops concede.

Historically, the Church has always managed to be both centralised and localised. Take, for example, the existence of the many local calendars, or those particular to an Order or Congregation, which supplement the Universal calendar; or the way in which the Roman Rite has been enriched by lots of regional/religious variations (think Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Dominican, etc). It is, however, the Universal calendar which shapes the Church year and strengthens our sense of Catholic unity. When we all celebrate the Epiphany on 6 January, or the Ascension on the fortieth day after Easter, we are doing more than observing an old custom. We are affirming with one voice our united belief in the mystery that these feasts proclaim. In addition, there are often scriptural warrants for the choice of date (e.g. Ascension) that are lost when a feast is transferred. It is no accident, surely, that Rome herself always observes these feasts on the customary dates.

In England and Wales we have a further complication in that our sister Churches, by and large, stick to the traditional dates; so we end up out of step not only with Rome but also with our fellow Christians round about. You might guess that as a Benedictine, for whom the liturgy is a major influence on every day, I would be unsympathetic to the transfer of feasts, unless it were really necessary. But it isn’t just love of the familiar or theoretical notions about unity that drives my unease. One of the great achievements of Vatican II was to restore to the liturgy a clear sense of the importance of Sunday. By transferring feasts we are losing that, and I, for one, regret it.