06 January 2009

Epiphany: should we switch feasts?

La Adoración de los Reyes Magos, The Adoration of the Magi,
Bartolomé Estebán Murillo (1617-1682)

Today is the Epiphany in the universal calendar of the Catholic Church. However, in many countries it is now celebrated on the Sunday that falls between 2 and 8 January. The Philippines has opted for the latter, while Ireland, after switching to the Sunday back in the 1960s reverted to the proper date within a couple of years because of the reaction of the people.

I remember the late Father Fergus O’Higgins, known to his fellow priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin as ‘Father Zealous’, expressing his puzzlement from the altar at the Irish bishops opting to retain 1 January as a holyday of obligation while dropping the Epiphany. I can’t remember the exact year but I was still a seminarian. It must have been around 1966. Father O’Higgins was in our parish as a curate for many years and assisted me and preached at my First Mass on 21 December 1967, the old feast of St Thomas the Apostle.

Though it’s not a holyday of obligation in the Philippines, the bishops back in the 1970s, I think, made St Joseph the Worker on 1 May the principal feast of the saint. But there was a strong reaction from the people and, like the Irish bishops with the Epiphany, they quickly reverted to 19 March.

I remember a teacher at Dublin City University telling me in the early ‘90s that while very few attended the daily Mass there, when there was a holyday of obligation the chapel was full for the extra Masses celebrated. The young people were freely choosing to fulfil their obligation. However, a few years ago the Irish bishops, in their wisdom, dropped both Ascension Thursday and Corpus Christi as holydays of obligation, moving them to Sundays. Despite the fact that the Ascension is a ‘biblical feast’ in the sense that Corpus Christi isn’t, it being more of a devotional feast, and is meant to be celebrated 40 days after the Resurrection, and despite the fact that we are supposed to be ecumenical, it seems the bishops never consulted either their own people or the Anglicans, the second largest group of Christians in Ireland and who observe the same major feasts as Catholics.

When I was based in Britain from 2000 till 2002 doing mission appeals, very few parishes I visited had a Sunday evening Mass. One that did was near Leeds University and quite a few students were at that Mass. One, who chatted with me after Mass, was actually a student in Ireland and had come over to see his favourite soccer team, Leeds United, play. But he went out of his way to go to Sunday Mass, God bless him.

Here in the Philippines President Gloria Arroyo in her wisdom has tinkered with every single specifically Filipino holiday, including Independence Day, 12 June, and has been much criticized for separating them from their roots and meaning. She’s all in favour of long weekends for government workers, with holidays switched to Fridays or Mondays. Ironically, 12 June was set as Independence Day by her father when president, Diosdado Macapagal, the date of a declaration of independence in 1898. That date replaced 4 July, the date on which the Republic of the Philippines became independent of the USA in 1946.

Back in the early 1980s the businessmen of Cebu City hijacked the Feast of the Santo Niño, the Holy Child, and now the secular celebration of the Sinulog, as it’s called, overshadows the religious festivity, which commemorates the arrival of the Christian faith in the Philippines. The Sinulog is a religious dance that has become a secular one. It seems to me that the Church authorities in Cebu went along with this.

When the Whit Monday holiday, observed on Pentecost Monday, was moved from that day to the first Monday of June in Ireland, its roots were lost, the Christian faith diminished that little bit more. It’s now simply the June Bank Holiday. The faith was further diminished in England and Wales and in Ireland when Sunday was made into an ordinary working day for so many.

I discovered just recently that the term ‘bank holiday’, which in Britain and Ireland means a public holiday, is used here in the Philippines and in the USA when a bank has to be closed because it has run out of money. That has happened to a number of rural banks here, or banks that would deal mainly in smaller amounts of money.

One of the realities in the Philippines that still shocks me is that Sundays and even Christmas Day are working days in department stores and supermarkets. The only days that are truly holidays for the vast majority are New Year’s Day, Good Friday and All Saints’ Day.

The only remaining holydays of obligation in the Philippines are the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (New Year’s Day), the Immaculate Conception and Christmas Day. But it has to be acknowledged that the churches aren’t packed on 8 December, even though Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the principal patron(ess) of the Philippines.

To all, as we say here in the Philippines, ‘Happy Three Kings!’


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Happy Feast Day Fr Sean!

Brendan Allen said...

I favour keeping Jan 6th as the Feast of the Epiphany. I do not, and did not, like the idea of switching Ascension Thursday and Corpus Christi to the Sunday.

I have a suspicion that certain business interests in Ireland would like the Public Holiday for St. Patrick's Day to be moved to the Monday nearest March 17th. Though that is a separate issue from when the Holyday of Obligation will be.