Confusion in the Ranks

According to the online Wikipedia Encyclopedia,

March 25, which is nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Jesus, or Christmas, is the traditional date for the commemoration of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

That seems pretty straightforward and it is. It appears, however,that celebrating such a significant event in both Christian and Catholic history on a specific date does not conform to the demands of Catholic ritual observation.

In the Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgical calendar, the feast is moved if necessary to prevent it from either falling on a Sunday (because Sundays at that time of year are of the highest liturgical rank), or during Holy Week or Easter Week (the week in which Easter occurs). To avoid a Sunday before Holy Week, the next day (March 26) would be observed instead. In years when March 25 falls during Holy Week or Easter Week the Annunciation is moved to the Monday after Octave of Easter, which is the Sunday after Easter. (If the Feast of St. Joseph, normally falling on March 19, must also be moved to a later date as a consequence of Easter falling on one of its earliest possible dates, the Annunciation remains on Low Monday, with the feast of St. Joseph on the following Tuesday, as the higher-ranking person is transferred first.) .Ibid.

In the year 2005, March 25th happened to fall during Holy Week; specifically on Good Friday. As explained above, this necessitated re-scheduling the Feast of the Annunciation. According to the Roman Catholic Calendar 2005, Catholics commemorated this feast, which theoretically also marks the date of Jesus' earthly conception, on April 4.

Some time ago, I participated in a spirited discussion concerning the apparent relative importance of Jesus and Mary in the Catholic Church. For the purposes of this discussion, relative importance would be measured by the number of feasts celebrated in honor of each. Within this context, another issue developed concerning the Feast of the Annunciation, a Catholic holy day of obligation. One group argued that it was a Marian feast while another held that it was a feast of Christ. Both sides were able to point to online, unofficial Catholic references in support of their opposing positions.

In an attempt to pour oil on the waters, I said that I would write to the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for their official position on the issue. I mentioned that, in the past, Monsignor De Noia, the Executive Director, had been helpful to me in other matters. I received a reply from the new Executive Director, Monsignor John Strynowski, who appeared to be every bit as gracious and helpful as was his predecessor.

Before posting the information the Monsignor provided, I first want to post something from an apostolic exhortation written by Pope Paul VI:

6. To the two solemnities already mentioned (the Immaculate Conception and the Divine Motherhood) should be added the ancient and venerable celebrations of March 25 and August 15.

For the Solemnity of the Incarnation of the Word, in the Roman Calendar the ancient title--the Annunciation of the Lord--has been deliberately restored, but the feast was and is a joint one of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin: of the Word, who becomes "Son of Mary" (Mk. 6:3), and of the Virgin, who becomes Mother of God. With regard to Christ, the East and the West, in the inexhaustible riches of their liturgies, celebrate this solemnity as the commemoration of the salvific "fiat" of the Incarnate Word, who, entering the world, said: "God, here I am! I am coming to obey Your will" (cf. Heb. 10:7; Ps. 39:8-9). They commemorate it as the beginning of the redemption and of the indissoluble and wedded union of the divine nature with human nature in the one Person of the Word. With regard to Mary, these liturgies celebrate it as a feast of the new Eve, the obedient and faithful virgin, who with her generous "fiat" (cf. Lk. 1:38) became through the working of the Spirit the Mother of God, but also the true Mother of the living, and, by receiving into her womb the one Mediator (cf: 1 Tm. 2:5), became the true Ark of the Covenant and true Temple of God. These liturgies celebrate it as a culminating moment in the salvific dialogue between God and man, and as a commemoration of the Blessed Virgin's free consent and cooperation in the plan of redemption.

The solemnity of August 15 celebrates the glorious Assumption of Mary into heaven…The Solemnity of the Assumption is prolonged in the celebration of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which occurs seven days later. On this occasion we contemplate her who, seated beside the King of ages, shines forth as Queen and intercedes as Mother.<18>

These four solemnities, therefore, mark with the highest liturgical rank the main dogmatic truths concerning the handmaid of the Lord.--Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, Apostolic Exhortation For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion To the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 2, 1974

In this Vatican document, which does not include those necessary statements required in order for it to be considered an 'infallible' ex cathedra teaching on a matter of faith or morals, the Pope confirms that the Catholic Church has and still does consider the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary to be a “joint one of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin.” Therefore, on the basis of this document at least, both parties in contention on the matter appear to have been correct, or at least partially correct.

It appears to me that, depending upon their doctrinal emphasis, some parties view the feast primarily as marking the Annunciation of Mary, while others apparently look upon it principally as honoring the Annunciation of Christ. While advocates of both positions are correct, in light of the Vatican position quoted above, I believe the strong conflicting positions defended by participants in that discussion concerning this Catholic feast to be symptomatic of the confusion over doctrinal issues that appears to be widespread among Catholic religious and laity. Certainly, Catholic polemists are not the only people who at times are confounded by the general ambiguity and internal conflict that marks Catholic doctrine.

It is not unheard of for champions of the Roman Catholic faith to decry confusion among non-Catholics. They claim that this is caused by our lack of a magisterium to interpret Scripture for us. Admittedly, there are some strange professing Christians teaching some strange doctrines. However, it should be borne in mind that not all these who claim to be Christians merit the label; nor are they being led by the Holy Spirit, despite claims to the contrary. Even qualified, Spirit-led non-Catholics who hold dear the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith differ among ourselves in the peripheral things of our worship and practice. Some who hold to the Catholic faith similarly see nothing contrary to Catholic dogma and doctrine in variations in the peripheral things of Catholic worship and practice. I find it interesting that these Catholic apologists, who are capable of generating quite a row over what they view as inconsistencies in non-Catholic doctrine and practice, see nothing wrong when similar variations occur within their own religious system. Is this a symptom of the blindness that can be generated by excessive pridefulness? Or is it simply hypocrisy?

A paper dealing with Marian feasts is available from the EWTN library. In this paper, the writer identifies, as does Marialis cultus, the Feast of the Anunciation as one of the most important Marian feasts.

The purpose of the revision of the General Roman Calendar ("the Calendar") was to distribute throughout the Church year the whole mystery of Christ, from the Incarnation to the expectation of his return in glory (Marialis Cultus #2 at 14). Marian feasts are celebrated within this framework.

The careful revision of the Calendar was to ensure a harmony and balance between the worship of Christ and the veneration of his Mother. Contrary to some Protestant myths Catholics do not worship the Blessed Virgin Mary, nor do they treat her as a God. Her rightful place is that as the Mother of God, but more importantly she was the first and most perfect of God's disciples in the new testament. Pope Paul VI stated in Marialis Cultus: "This balance can be taken as a norm for preventing any tendency (as has happened at times in certain forms of popular piety) to separate devotion to the Blessed Virgin from its necessary point of reference-Christ." (Marialis Cultus #4 at 15).

To appreciate the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Sacred Liturgy you need look no further than Sacrosanctum Cocilum (The Constitution the Sacred Liturgy) the first document published as part of Vatican II. This document brought extensive changes in the discipline of the Mass, but not the essential doctrine underlying the Mass. Paragraph 103 states: "In celebrating the annual cycle of the mysteries of Christ, Holy Church honours the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, with a special love. She is inseparably linked with her Son's saving work. In her the Church admires and exalts the most excellent fruit of redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be." A most fitting tribute to the important role which Our Lord has given to his Mother for the redemption of mankind….

Important Marian Feasts According to Pope Paul VI, in Marialis Cultus, the 4 most important Marian feasts in the Calendar are: Mary's Divine Motherhood, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption and the Annunciation of the Lord (#6 at 18). Of these four feasts, the feasts of Mary's Divine Motherhood, her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption are holydays of obligation under The Code of Canon Law: Canon 1246(1). Although the Bishop's Conference can, with the prior approval of the Apostolic See, suppress certain holydays of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday: Canon 1246(2). In Australia, the only Marian feast which is a holyday of obligation is the Assumption. When the Assumption falls on a Saturday or a Monday, no obligation is attached to that feast that year. While they are recommended, no obligation to attend Mass is attached to the Marian feasts of the Divine Motherhood and the Immaculate Conception.-- Marian Feasts in the General Roman Calendar, Uploaded by Michael G. Hains, EWTN Library © 1993

Notice that, unlike the Vatican document, this paper fails to mention that the Catholic Church considers this to be a joint feast in honor of both Christ and Mary. What the writer committed to paper was in no way an error, at least of commission. However, I suggest that the 'oversight' may have been due to the paper's focus on Marian feasts, or it could reflect the writer's own Marian theology that, perhaps, may have blinded him to the possibility that the feast also honors Christ.

Nothing else wrong with the paper--from the Catholic point of view, that is.

It would be well, now, to look at the official position of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as expressed in the letter graciously sent to me by Monsignor Strynkowski:

Dear Mr. Loeffler:

In response to your letter of 10 May 2001, I consulted the Secretariat for Liturgy and was informed that in the Roman Catholic Church the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) is a feast of the Lord. This is obviously because it is the coming of the Lord that is announced.

May you receive all the blessings of this Easter Season.

Sincerely in Christ,

/s/ Msgr John Strynkowski
Executive Director

From this letter, which I am confident states the official understanding of the senior authority of the Catholic Church in America, the Feast of the Annunciation is stated to be a feast of the Lord. No mention of it's being a joint Marian feast. Again, I do not consider this position to be an error so much as a reflection of the theological bias of NCCB, at least in so far as the senior officials of two important Secretariats are concerned.

I do not for a moment doubt that the bishops and their support staff conform completely to liturgical guidelines when celebrating Mass on March 25th. My point in this paper is not to discredit the NCCB or the Vatican or EWTN for their differing positions concerning an important feast of the Catholic Church. I do not for a moment doubt that all of the policy-makers within all three of these organizations who had anything to do with formulating the positions published by the agencies they represent are doctrinally correct within the contest of Roman Catholicism.

The point I would like to make is that it is not difficult to understand why so many of those who would defend their Catholic faith on the Internet and in the 'outside world' manifest such widely differing understandings of even core dogma and doctrine of their faith. It is no wonder that they misunderstand evangelical doctrine, practice and theology since they seem confused concerning their own religion's teachings. And this is one of the factors that can make witnessing, debating or just conversing with Catholic apologists so darned frustrating. Their arguments can be obscure at times, and this surely is due, at least in part, to the often conflicting and always confusing output from their wonderful, and sometimes, at least, allegedly infallible Magisterium.

That's all I have to say on this matter.

BTW, did you notice that Monsignor Strynkowski used the term “Roman Catholic Church” that is so offensive to some converts to Catholicism? And that is another contributing factor to the difficulty of communication between Catholics and evangelicals: disagreement over the meaning and use of terms.

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