Picking the Day Lent Begins

And More on Polygamy

ROME, FEB. 28, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: What determines what day Lent begins? P.R., Fresno, California

A: The short answer to your question is that the beginning of Lent depends on the date of Easter.

Easter follows a lunar, rather than a solar, calendar and is celebrated on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after March 21, the vernal (spring) equinox. Therefore Easter cannot fall earlier than March 22 or later than April 25.

All the other movable celebrations in the Church calendar ultimately depend on the date of Easter.

Most of the Eastern Churches follow the same basic principles but often celebrate Easter on a date different from Catholics and other Western Christians because they continue to follow the calendar of Julius Caesar without the corrections incorporated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

Julius Caesar’s calendar calculated the year as 365 days and 6 hours and thus was about 11 minutes and 9 seconds more than the sun’s actual course. Although tiny, this excess puts the calendar off by a day, more or less, every 128 years. Thus, the Council of Nicaea already found it necessary to regress the date of the spring equinox to March 21 instead of the original date of March 25.

By the time of Pope Gregory XIII the difference had grown so much that the spring equinox occurred on March 11.

In 1581 with the bull “Inter Gravissimas” Pope Gregory promulgated a widespread reform which, among other things, re-established the spring equinox on March 21 by eliminating 10 days from October 1582. Coincidence would have it that St. Teresa of Avila died on that very night of Oct. 4-15.

The error of Julius Caesar’s calendar was corrected by deciding that the turn of the century –always a leap year in the Julian calendar — would be so only when the year could be divided by 400, that is 1600, 2000 2400 2800, etc., whereas there would be no leap year in the others.

Most Catholic countries, and even some Protestant ones, accepted the reform almost immediately. Some countries, such as England, held off accepting the papal reform until 1752 while Russia did not adopt it until after the Communist takeover in 1918.

The calculation is still not perfect as there is still a difference of 24 seconds between the legal and the solar calendar. However, 3,500 years will have to pass before another day is added.

Getting back to Lent. This season comprises 40 days before Easter without counting Sundays which, even though they are called “Sundays of Lent,” are not days of penance. Church tradition has always excluded fasting and penance on a Sunday.

The tradition of a fast in preparation for Easter goes back to the late third century but it varied in duration. The tradition of a 40-day fast was established in Rome between 354 and 384, although it began after the first Sunday.

As this period was also deemed suitable for the final preparation of candidates for baptism, the baptismal scrutinies were incorporated with the rites of this season. Scrutinies are communal prayers celebrated around the elect to strengthen them to overcome the power of sin in their lives and to grow in virtue.

Later, at the start of the sixth century, the beginning of Lent was moved up to Ash Wednesday in order to guarantee 40 days of effective fasting.

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Follow-up: Polygamy, Sons and the Priesthood

Several correspondents wrote in reply to our Feb. 14 column about a man excluded from the seminary in Uganda because his father was involved in a polygamous marriage.

A Ugandan priest wrote: “In your treatment of the topic of polygamy, sons and priesthood, you rightly pointed out the nonexistence of impediments to sacred orders in current canon law, arising from the irregular condition of one’s parents’ marriage, unlike in the past. You also pointed out that even in the past, this impediment was not absolute. It was dependent on the particular situation of the particular candidate, considering factors such as the social stigma attached to illegitimate children and the negative effect on the pastoral effectiveness of such candidates as well as their personal and psychological balance.

“On the whole, however, your answer weighed toward the continued exclusion of such candidates today. Based on my lived experience in Uganda, I think we should be moving in the other direction, for the two main reasons you mentioned: the absence or rather the revocation of such an impediment by the legislator of universal canon law (cf. Canon 6) and the need for dealing with such situations on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, because of the widespread nature of irregular marriages among baptized Catholics even in Uganda, the social stigma attached to such families is no longer as great, nor does the situation have any notable effect on the pastoral effectiveness or personal balance of potential candidates. After all, the communal nature of raising children in African families ensures that there are always good examples of Christian marriage among other members of extended family.”

Another priest, writing from Cameroon, made a similar point, although the concrete social situation in that country may differ somewhat from Uganda.

In my former piece I specifically mentioned that judging such situations from outside was very difficult and thus I tried to take a neutral stance.

Although I suggested a possible motivation for the exclusion of candidates, my intention was to explain and offer neither a defense nor a critique of the seminary superior’s decision.

In this sense I agree with my Ugandan correspondent who quoted an address by Pope John Paul II to a group of American bishops asserting that diocesan guidelines for the administration of the sacraments should not be more restrictive than norms issued by the Holy See (L’Osservatore Romano, June 16, 1993).

He cited Canon 18 of the code: “Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.” It is also pertinent to this argument although, strictly speaking, nobody has a right to priestly ordination.

I further agree with the Ugandan correspondent that all questions regarding vocations should be decided on a case-by-case basis and not subject to a restrictive general law at the local level.

Another correspondent, from the United States, asked about impediment due to age.

He writes: “In the U.S. there is a constant call for men to the vocation of priesthood because of the shortage that is being seen. Why then, are some bishops putting age limits on those they will even consider for priesthood if that person has a call to that vocation? Instead they discourage them. Our diocese’s vocation director says there is a need for more men to enter the priesthood but I know that at times he has discouraged men, even refusing to interview them. One young man eventually left for another diocese who accepted him with open arms and this young man will soon be ordained a priest for this other diocese. I myself was seeking to enter seminary studies after graduation from college with my degree in theology, with emphasis on pastoral ministry. I was allowed to take the pre-seminary evaluation and did well on it, but due to my age, my bishop said no, too old. At that time I was 53 years of age with a strong desire to serve God as one of his shepherds.”

Many factors may be involved in vocational discernment or acceptance, and age plays a role.

That said, while canon law sets the minimum age for ordination at 25, there is no universal canonical maximum age and many recent vocations to the priesthood are from the ranks of older men.

There is even a seminary in Rome and at least one in the United States that specifically cater to such vocations as older men often find it difficult to fit into seminary programs designed for men in their early 20s.

Some religious congregations do have an upper age limit for admittance as experience has taught them that older people may be too set in their ways to adapt to the particular demands of certain forms of religious life.

I have no idea why this particular diocese would not wish to accept older vocations. The reasons probably concern the diocese’s concrete pastoral situation, the makeup of faithful and the clergy, the seminary formators’ experience (or lack thereof) in guiding older vocations, and many other factors that may have nothing to do with the candidate’s actual worthiness.

If, for serious reasons, a diocese considers that it cannot undertake the formation of older vocations, it should be willing to recommend a worthwhile candidate to another diocese that has this need or possibility.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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