Abolish Ordinary Time

With Ascension and Pentecost looming, and with their passage an end to the Paschal season, it’s time to reconsider and abolish Ordinary Time.

As dramatically drastic as this may sound, it would not be a move without precedent. For centuries, for most of Church history in fact, there was no Ordinary Time on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Rather, we celebrated what were referred to as the weeks after Epiphany and Pentecost, the two major solemnities that closed out the Christmas and Easter seasons. “Ordinary Time” as we call it has only existed since the establishment of the new liturgical calendar in 1970.

It is true that we are told that “ordinary” does not here mean what it usually means in English—commonplace, standard, no special or distinctive features—but, rather, it refers to the counting of the weeks, as in “ordinal” numbers that define something’s position in a series, such as “first,” “second,” or “third.” In the official Latin, this time is simply referred to as tempus per annum, or “time through the year.” This being said, there really is no difference. These days are ordinary, tied by name to neither of the great liturgical seasons.

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Some Catholics also reflect that there is value in mentally separating these seasons from the great feasts. As one writer puts it, “If the faithful are to mature in the spiritual life and increase in faith, they must descend the great mountain peaks of Easter and Christmas in order to ‘pasture’ in the vast verdant meadows of tempus per annum, or Ordinary Time.” This is, in fact, a strong metaphor that also argues the opposite. We pasture in meadows to gain strength for the climb up the next peak, where we will be closer to heaven. We note these great mountain peaks because they are each of singular importance, marking the Incarnation of Our Lord on the one hand and his revelation to the world at Epiphany, and his Resurrection on the other, an event completed with the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

What’s worse, the significance and historical importance of the two great feasts of Epiphany and Pentecost have been downplayed by the Church since the Council. When it comes to Pentecost, traditionally on a Sunday, there was once an octave celebration not unlike that for Easter. In fact, the octave after Pentecost was once called the “grandest octave, perhaps in the whole year,” by Blessed John Henry Newman, and an Oratorian priest has explained its importance thusly: “The character of Pentecost as a consummation and fulfillment of the Paschal Mystery suggests that it is fitting to celebrate it with an octave similar in character and rank to that of Easter.”

This went out the window when the calendar was changed. One apocryphal story about Pope Paul VI is that he wept on the Monday after Pentecost in 1970, when his sacristan laid out green vestments for him for Mass, and he realized what he had done.

Someone recently noted the great damage done by the U.S. bishops in moving Epiphany from January 6 to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8, citing four reasons to oppose this move, especially the problem of Christian unity. We need to celebrate major events together, as the universal church. In many parts of the world, the great solemnity of Epiphany even rises to the level of a holy day of obligation. At any rate, when Christmas itself has become so thoroughly secularized by modern society, we need to remember that the Twelve Days of Christmas—the days leading up to Epiphany—are more than just a catchy song.

A related change to that of Epiphany was the removal of the Solemnity of the Ascension from Thursday to the following Sunday—but only for certain dioceses. In the United States, only the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha and Philadelphia, which cover 10 states, mostly in the Northeast, have not transferred the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The rest of the country celebrates it on Sunday.

When it comes to holy days of obligation, like the Ascension, if three of the six extra-Sunday holy days of obligation fall on either a Saturday or Monday, the requirement to attend Mass is “abrogated,” with the courtesy of our bishops—except for Hawaii, where there are only two holy days of obligation, Christmas and the Immaculate Conception. In other parts of the world, Catholics celebrate more holy days than Americans, including the Epiphany and Corpus Christi, the latter of which our bishops have graciously moved from a Thursday to a Sunday, removing the connection to the events of Holy Thursday.

We are living in an age that demands more, not less, sacrifice and witness on the part of Catholics. Like our Jewish and Muslim counterparts, we should demand (and get) time off work for religious worship, especially when we might not otherwise be able to attend an evening or early morning Mass.

The liturgical laxity the Church imposed on the laity nearly a half-century ago needs to end. It’s time to repair the errors and fix the calendar. Restore the Pentecost octave. Put the solemnities of the Ascension and the Epiphany back on their proper days. Abolish Ordinary Time.

We are a universal Church and should therefore worship according to one calendar that inspires and motivates Catholics throughout the year. In the Christian life, and in this age, how can any time honestly be deemed ordinary?


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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