The Ember Days recall an age when the rhythms of human life were still bound to the changing of the seasons. A corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora (“Four Times”), the Ember Days were an attempt by the ancient Church to preserve and sanctify the pagans’ observation of equinoxes and solstices. Our predecessors in the faith marked the cycles of Creation with fasting, prayer and acts of charity – giving thanks to “the Lord of the Harvest”, as Jesus called his Father.
The Ember Days are seldom marked by Catholics today, when every fruit and vegetable is available in the supermarket all year round. Harvest festivals can mean little to the New Yorker who buys fresh pineapples in the middle of December to garnish his Christmas ham. What do the changing seasons mean to us, except whether to order our coffee hot or iced?
Yet Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh has found a new use for the Ember Days. His diocese was rocked by scandal following the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report, which accused his predecessor Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the Archbishop of Washington, of covering up for abusive priests.
So, as part of a “Year of Penance”, Zubik asked “the faithful to join with the clergy” in observing the fasts. “Faced with the sinful actions of the members of our own ranks of the clergy … we feel both shame and sorrow, and are reminded of our own sinfulness and the need for mercy,” he wrote.
Few latter-day agrarians raised their voice to defend the traditional meaning of the Ember Days. (They were celebrations, after all – not penances.) However, some of the laity have balked at the idea that they should be doing penance at all.
Fasting, according to St Thomas Aquinas, has three purposes: to rein in carnal desires, to elucidate contemplation and to “satisfy for sins”. It’s the third purpose that, in this context, has struck some people as offensive. Certain bishops and priests are responsible for this scandal, they argue. The notion that we – the laity – should be asked to suffer for their sins seems unjust.
Indeed, some bishops have carefully chosen their words so as to place blame squarely on the clergy. Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, for instance, called this “a time for prayer and penance and purification for those of us who are bishops and priests”. He only asked that lay people lend their “assistance and expertise” to the effort to reform the institution itself, and to pray. “Keep praying for our Holy Father and for our Church,” Gómez said. “And please pray even harder for those who have been hurt.”
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, also focused on his own need to make reparations, undertaking a 24-hour fast “in penance for my own faults and failures as a Christian, priest and bishop, as well as for the sins and failures of all priests and bishops related to the sexual abuse of minors”.
Other bishops have combined the two approaches: asking the laity to join them in fasting while being careful not to diffuse the blame for their brothers’ misdeeds and their own failure to stop them. It’s possible, after all, for penitents to “satisfy for sins” committed by others, with the aim of seeking justice for victims and healing for the Church. Bishops may enlist the faithful to join them in a kind of spiritual crusade against institutional corruption.
Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, has attempted to do just that. In a letter carried by the diocesan newspaper, Morlino joined Zubik in asking the faithful to observe Ember Days – though not necessarily as a penance for their own wrongdoing. He acknowledged that “these atrocities were facilitated by the failure of bishops and the institutional Church to make amends in justice”. The sins committed by priests against their victims, he wrote, “cry out to God for mercy”.
The laity and other innocents can help facilitate that mercy, Morlino said. “When we offend God, we make amends by going to Confession and doing penance,” the letter continued, and “we also can ask God fervently for mercy on others who may offend God.” The Ember Days, then, are an opportunity for the lay faithful to “ask God for forgiveness and to pray that his justice lights the way for the Church from henceforth”.
Indeed, as Alexi Sargeant noted in The American Interest, lay people are taking their own initiative in seeking out penances to perform on behalf of the Church. There is a Facebook group dedicated to observing “St Michael’s Lent”, which spans the 40 days from the feast of the Assumption to the feast of the Archangels.
Begun by St Francis of Assisi, St Michael’s Lent is seen as an opportunity for all Catholics to share in his penitential spirituality. Others have begun to fast on Fridays, or simply abstain from meat – a practice that’s been widely neglected in the US for decades.
So this is an effort by lay Catholics to strengthen her leaders spiritually, so they may undertake the necessary institutional reforms. When done in a spirit of charity, it can bring solace and aid to the victims of abuse. This is what lay penitents mean to achieve when they undertake their fasts and prayers. One hopes it’s what the bishops mean as well.