Recently, our Holy Father Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in war-torn Syria. In a sight that we haven’t seen in recent memory, Our Blessed Lord in the Eucharist was exposed in St. Peter’s Square for this prayer vigil on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady’s birth. Estimates were that about 100,000 people showed up for this prayer vigil in front of Our Lord and countless others throughout the world heeded the pope’s call. At the time of this writing, tensions are still high with regard to Syria, but have taken a dramatic turn—due, I suspect, to the softening of hearts as a result of the pope and the faithful in St. Peter’s Square turning in humble supplication to Our Eucharistic Lord.
Once again, Pope Francis is calling us back to basics. The Pope has rightly put Christ at the center of our worship and devotion. He has not tired of invoking Our Blessed Lady’s intercession, and he has used the time-honored and traditional means of combating sin and evil in the world—prayer and fasting. The fact that Catholics the world over joined in these traditional practices of our faith, have shown a readiness to practice the faith in their daily lives. The new dimension that seems to mark out Francis from his predecessors is a gritty, practical, and common sense living out of the spiritual life that draws upon traditional devotions and practices. Thus, it is timely for me to offer His Holiness a modest proposal: restore to prominence–and its obligatory nature–the Ember Days.
The traditional Ember Days were not suppressed by the Second Vatican Council. Michael P. Foley points this out admirably in “The Glow of the Ember Days.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, indicates such in #50:
[Liturgical elements] which have suffered injury through the accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers.
Further, the 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar specifically envision the maintenance of Ember Days but, like so many other post-Vatican II decisions, implementation was left to the various bishops’ conferences:
On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks (45). In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions…the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration (46).
As Foley points out, experts will parse the niceties of the distinctions between Ember and Rogation days and their purposes. But, in itself the instruction is rather neutral. We know that they are to be preserved, and that the bishops are to implement them. Unfortunately this was not done. Thus, my proposal.
From the first day of his pontificate, we have seen the unique ability of Pope Francis to call people to prayer. The silence in St. Peter’s Square when he was introduced to the world and asked for the faithful’s prayers was deafening. Cameras from around the globe caught this unique moment. Likewise, a spontaneous call for prayer and fasting for peace in Syria did not require fanfare or much preparation. The pope called it and six days later millions of people in the world were participating in this traditional means of Catholic piety to ask the Lord for His favor. As I mentioned above, Catholics want traditional devotions, piety, and a truly authentic way of praying. Felt banners, fancy power points, iPhone apps, and syrupy homiletics are not satisfying and do nothing for an authentic increase in holiness.
In addition to sanctifying time and praising God for the natural wonders of the world which are a mirror to deeper unseen realities, a universal return to the Ember Days would foster a true understanding and sense of community. Not the ridiculous notions that are put forth from the “evangelization offices” of most dioceses, but an authentic fostering of faith and charity for our fellow man. This can be seen as part of the great tradition of papal admonitions to the faithful, significantly in the homilies of Pope St. Leo the Great. On the occasion of the September Ember Days, Pope St. Leo had this to say of the efficacy of the fast:
Although it be lawful for each one of us to chastise his body by self-imposed punishments, and restrain, with more or less severity, the concupiscences of the flesh which war against the spirit, yet need is that, on certain days, a general fast be celebrated by all. Devotion is all the more efficacious and holy, when the whole Church is engaged in works of piety, with one spirit and one soul.
Pope St. Leo continues:
Everything, in fact, that is of a public character is to be preferred to what is private; and it is plain, that so much the greater is the interest at stake, when the earnestness of all is engaged upon it….[T]he soldier of the Church, though he may act bravely in his own private combats, yet will he fight more safely and successfully, when he shall confront the enemy in a public engagement; for in that public engagement, he has not only his own valour to which to trust, but he is under the leadership of a King who can never be conquered, and engaged in a battle fought by all his fellow-soldiers; so that, being in their company and ranks, he has the fellowship of mutual aid. (Pope St. Leo, Serm. iv., De jejun. Sept. Mensis.)
Read that last paragraph again, dear Reader. Did we not see this very thing in action with Pope Francis on September 7, 2013? Are Pope St. Leo’s words not confirmed? Were not Catholics the world over—especially our suffering brothers and sisters in Syria—confirmed in the faith by the mutual bonds of charity between the pope and all the participating faithful?
In another sermon regarding the Ember fast of September, Leo says:
[A] fast undertaken by the Church at large includes everyone in the general purification. God’s people is never so powerful as when the hearts of all the faithful join together in the unity of holy obedience, and when, in the Christian camp, one and the same preparation is made by all, and one and the same bulwark protects all…See, most dearly beloved, here is the solemn fast of the seventh month urging us to profit by this invincible unity…Let us raise up our hearts, withdraw from worldly occupations, and steal some time for furthering our eternal welfare. (Pope St. Leo, Serm. iii., De jejun. Sept. Mensis.)
And now, a word to the Holy Father Pope Francis.
Most Holy Father,
Please consider in your solicitude for the Church and the salvation of souls, re-establishing the liturgical custom and practice of the Ember Days for the universal Church in the Latin Rite. Firstly, to mark those natural seasons of the year, wisely established by the Creator, in order to put us in touch with His handiwork and to recognize them as a mirror of the deeper reality of the world of the supernatural. Secondly, to join the traditions of our forefathers in fasting and praying to build up the bond of charity among the faithful in the communion of saints and for those who do not yet know Christ and His Church. Finally, as a means of personal sanctification for the family so gravely threatened by the unnatural assaults that daily harass this ancient and wise institution of God’s image on the earth.