Our families and friends were extremely helpful to us, and to get us out of town for a break we received an invitation from two gifted priest friends—both outstanding in their respective fields—to come up to Boston for an extended weekend. Liturgically the trip took place during the Sixth Week of the Easter Season (which is our current week in 2015) and we flew from Orlando on Thursday. In Florida the Feast of the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season. We arrived in Bean Town in midday and took a long guided walking tour led by one of our friends. The trip must have done me some good, because I can remember visiting Cambridge for the first time and asking to see the (mythical) law offices of Dewey, Cheethan, and Howe, the fictional in-house counsel for Click and Clack on Car Talk.
We got to Saturday night and joined one of the priests for a Saturday night parish Mass out in the coastal suburbs where he assisted when his university duties permitted. We were expecting the Mass of the Ascension, only to discover that Boston celebrated the Ascension on Thursday, or the day we had left Orlando. Even in our exhaustion and distracted state, finding ourselves in this sort of “obligational limbo” and particularly with two men of noted theological erudition, did not pass without some tongue-in-cheek analysis of our moral status. I believe it came down to whether we were guilty of culpable ignorance or worthy of the “travelers’ dispensation,” an old law which dispensed the Mass obligation if a traveler had covered 200 miles in a day. (Clearly this old provision of pastoral law was written long prior to commercial jet travel and I wouldn’t recommend going too far out on that limb today unless you know some Canon lawyers named Fathers Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe.)
Not to lose our train of thought, but there actually is a website devoted to the Ascension problem. I cannot vouch for the authenticity but certainly for the humor.
The Ascension "dilemma" brought some distracting humor into 2001 but for catechists and church ministers the variant practices around the country—date of the Ascension, appropriate age for Confirmation, initiation sequence, altar girls, communion under both species—create not simply confusion and at times annoyance, but probably more seriously, having to confront a casual attitude about Church policy and a breakdown of unity, which ought to begin from the ground up. At times these variants actually hold the Church to ridicule. One of the last Catholic dioceses in the U.S. to hold out against allowing Saturday Vigil Masses was Philadelphia under Cardinal Krol. According to the best-known Vatican blogger Rocco Palma’s Whispers in the Loggia, Catholics in Philadelphia crossed the bridges in such large numbers to the Camden NJ Diocese for Saturday night Mass that massive traffic jams developed just as during the work week. Philadelphia also became famous at that time for a spate of 12:01 AM Sunday Masses in various parishes.
The actual celebration of the Feast of the Ascension is not bound to a hard and fast doctrinal principle other than falling between Easter and Pentecost. Traditionally the Church celebrated the feast forty days after Easter, but this dating is based on only one Evangelist, St. Luke, and the term “forty days” is used metaphorically. By contrast, St. John dates Easter, Ascension and Pentecost as occurring on the same day, Easter.
The more pressing issue here is not doctrinal but pastoral. It is a six-hour plane ride (or two decent movies and a meal) between the furthest reaches of the lower 48 states (Seattle to Florida). Anyone with internet access can read the home page of every diocese, and nearly every parish, in the country. Americans immigrate and relocate to the point that mobility is genetically encoded in our culture. And yet as Catholics we live and make policy as if our communities were isolated Viking settlements along the coast of Greenland (which regrettably all died out.) The key point is that unity gives witness. My own opinion at this stage of my life is that many of our pastoral differences involve inflexibility or a need to assert independence on the part of many church leaders at all levels, including catechists. It is a harsh judgment, but we do profess to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”