Is Ascension Thursday a Holy Day of Obligation?

Jesus Christ statue
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Ascension Thursday, also known as the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Chris, is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics around the world. On this day, the faithful celebrate Christ's ascension into Heaven on the 40th day after Resurrection. Depending on the year, this day falls between April 30 and June 3. Eastern churches following the Julian calendar observe the day between May 13 and June 16, depending on the year.

In most dioceses of the United States, Ascension Thursday (sometimes called Holy Thursday) has been transferred to the following Sunday, so many Catholics think that the Ascension is no longer considered a holy day. It's also sometimes confused with another Holy Thursday, which takes place the day before Good Friday.

Celebrating Ascension Thursday

Like other Holy Days of Obligation, Catholics are encouraged to spend the day in prayer and contemplation. Holy days, also called feast days, have traditionally been celebrated with food, so some faithful also observes the day with a picnic to commemorate. This also pays homage to the Church's historical blessing on Holy Thursday of the beans and the grapes as a means of celebrating the first harvests of late spring. 

Only the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha (the state of Nebraska) continue to celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord on Thursday. The faithful in those provinces (an ecclesiastical province is basically one large archdiocese and the dioceses that are historically associated with it) are required, under the Precepts of the Church, to attend Mass on Ascension Thursday.

What is a Holy Day of Obligation?

For practicing Catholics around the world, observing Holy Days of Obligation is part of their Sunday Duty, the first of the Precepts of the Church. Depending on your faith, the number of holy days per year varies. In the United States, New Year's Day is one of six Holy Days of Obligation that are observed: 

  • Jan. 1: Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • 40 Days After Easter: Solemnity of the Ascension
  • Aug. 15: Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Nov. 1: Solemnity of All Saints
  • Dec. 8: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • Dec. 25: Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

There are 10 holy days in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, but only five in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Over time, the number of Holy Days of Obligation has fluctuated. In 1991, the Vatican allowed Catholic bishops in the U.S. to move two of these holy days to Sunday, Epiphany and Corpus Christi. American Catholics also were no longer required to observe the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles.

In that same ruling, the Vatican also granted the U.S. Catholic Church an abrogation (waiving of ecclesiastical law), releasing the faithful from the requirement to attend Mass whenever a Holy Day of Obligation such as New Year's falls on a Saturday or Monday. The Solemnity of the Ascension, sometimes called Holy Thursday, is frequently observed on the nearest Sunday as well.