Catholics in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and New York will celebrate on Thursday the solemnity of the Ascension — a “holy day of obligation” — while Catholics in the rest of the U.S. will celebrate the feast on Sunday, and are not required to attend Mass on Thursday.
It’s an unusual in the U.S. for a feast to be a day of precept — requiring Catholics to go to Mass — in some dioceses, but not others.
But when it comes to celebrating the Ascension of the Lord, U.S. dioceses have had differing practices for decades — with some regions of the country sticking to Thursday, and others moving the feast to Sunday.
Here’s the history.
What is the Solemnity of the Ascension?
The Ascension has been observed liturgically as a Christian feast since at least the fifth century, commemorating the Ascension of the Lord Jesus into heaven.
Before it was celebrated as distinct feast, the Ascension was celebrated in the fourth century in tandem of with Pentecost.
Ascension has long been celebrated 40 days after Easter, because the book of Acts recounts that Christ continued to appear to his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection, before taking his disciples to the top of Mount of Olives, and ascending from there into heaven.
The site of Christ’s Ascension was commemorated in the fourth century by the construction of the Church of the Disciples, or the Church of the Olive Grove, which was commissioned by Constantine and built under the supervision of his mother, Helen. The church was destroyed by the Persians in the seventh century.
The Ascension feast was for more than 1,500 years preceded by a three day period called the “Minor Rogation Days” — days of prayer and fasting, in which Catholics asked God to be merciful to them, to bless their crops and labors, and to protect them from natural disasters.
Rogation Days included processions taking the route of parish boundaries, the blessing of fields, rivers, trees and rocks, the litany of the saints — and the processions were followed by Rogation Masses.
When the Church revised the liturgical calendar in 1969, Rogation Days largely fell out of use in the U.S., as their observance was left to the discretion of episcopal conferences. But John Paul II later allowed parishes the option of celebrating Rogation Days, and they are observed in some parts of the U.S.
Ok, so the Ascension is 40 days after Easter — that means on Thursday, right?
In November 1998, the U.S. bishops’ conference approved a plan that would allow individual ecclesiastical provinces to transfer the liturgical observance of the Ascension from Thursday to the following Sunday.
It had taken the bishops several tries to approve that plan — it had been brought before the conference a few times during the 1990s, but did not get approval from two-thirds of the voting bishops until the fall USCCB meeting of 1998.
After the bishops approved the plan, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship gave it an ok, and several provinces began moving the feast to Sunday.
And the USCCB was not the first to get Vatican permission for a transfer. With a Vatican ok, the Church in Australia moved the feast to Sunday in 1992, and countries in Europe followed suit. While dioceses in England and Wales moved the feast to Sunday in 2007, bishops in 2018 moved it back to Thursday.
What’s an ecclesiastical province?
An ecclesiastical province, sometimes called a metropolitan province, is a group of dioceses affiliated with an archdiocese. The archdiocese is referred to in ecclesiastical language as a metropolitan see, and the smaller dioceses are called suffragan sees.
Since 1998, ecclesiastical provinces in the U.S. have been free to transfer the liturgical feast of the Ascension to the Sunday following, the seventh Sunday of Easter.
Some moved the feast immediately, while others have done so over the years: The province of Baltimore, for example, transferred the feast in 2002, and the province of Newark transferred the feast in 2022.
In 2023, the U.S. provinces observing the Ascension on Thursday, May 18 are Boston, Hartford, New York, Omaha, and Philadelphia. All other provinces observe the feast on Sunday.
So if you live in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Nebraska, or Pennsylvania, you’ll likely need to head to Mass on Thursday. If you live somewhere else in the U.S., you can definitely go to Mass, of course, but you’re not obliged.
If you’re a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter — the “Anglican ordinariate” — Thursday is a day of precept for you. If you’re not sure whether you’re a member, you probably aren’t,
If you’re a member of the military, or otherwise a subject of the Archdiocese of Military Services, your diocese will celebrate the Ascension on Sunday.
If you’re Eastern Catholic, you’ll want head to Divine Liturgy — The Eastern Catholic eparchies of the United States observe the Ascension on Thursday.
Are other feasts moved in the United States?
Yes. The dioceses of the United States observe the solemnity of Corpus Christi on a Sunday instead of on a Thursday, and observe Epiphany on a Sunday instead of on Jan. 6, its customary date of observance.
Some other days of obligation - the Solemnity of Mary, the Assumption, and All Saints’ Day, lose their preceptive character if they fall on a Saturday or a Monday.
So if I live in an ‘Ascension Sunday’ place, can I celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, too?
Sure! With an Ascension party, a family feast, or a visit to the adoration chapel, it sounds like a great day! You could even go to Mass — but it won’t be the liturgy for the Ascension.
Takeoff for that one will remain delayed for a couple of days!