Rorate Caeli

A fixed, "unified" Easter? Not so fast!
Part I: Why a unified Easter will not be implemented in the foreseeable future.


Last year, Pope Francis reportedly spoke of the need to unify the date of Easter among Christians during the meditation that he preached to the World Retreat of Priests at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. The text of the meditation itself seems to be missing from the Vatican website (although there is a video) and Zenit's own translation of the meditation (Part 1, Part 2) does not include any references to Easter. The Pope's call to spread the charismatic-pentecostalist practice of "Baptism in the Spirit" (his third and most explicit endorsement of it, by our count) actually warrants far more attention, although none has been forthcoming.

Now we have Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury speaking of the need to put Easter Sunday on a fixed date. Various news reports (such as this) quote him as saying that it should be fixed on the second or third Sunday of April and that he expects the change to happen between 5 and 10 years' time. Although the reports don't mention it, he is echoing a proposal first made by Paul VI in 1975. (See below.) Some of these reports mention Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II as a proponent of a unified Easter, specifically on the third Sunday of April. It is true that Tawadros II has been vocal about the ideabut it remains to be seen if his fellow Oriental Orthodox (especially the more numerous Ethiopians) are willing to follow him on this matter. Welby reportedly mentioned the support of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for a unified Easter, but for reasons explained further in this article this support seems to be overstated.

These reports have morphed into even more outlandish ones claiming that "Christian churches are close to deal to fix common date for Easter". The reality is that there are no reasons to believe that a "unified Easter" much less a "fixed Easter" will happen anytime soon.

Vatican II and the post-Vatican II Popes on a "unified Easter"

On the Catholic side there is nothing new with the latest proposal to unify Easter. Francis already mentioned it in 2014 during his in-flight press-conference while returning to Rome from his trip to Turkey. The unification of the date of Easter was discussed by some Synod Fathers during the 2010 Synod on the Middle East that took place under Benedict XVI. John Paul II expressed the same wish in his January 25, 2001 homily at the conclusion of that year's "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity". Paul VI was more active. An article on the World Council of Churches' website (Celebrating together Redemption in Christ) summarizes the activity of Paul VI and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands on this topic. According to this article it was Paul VI who first proposed in 1975 that "Easter should always be celebrated on the Sunday following the second Saturday of April".

This was superseded in 1997 by the "Aleppo Consultation" that agreed on the following formula:

a) to maintain the Nicene norms (that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first vernal full moon), and
(b) to calculate the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) by the most accurate possible scientific means,
(c) using as the basis for reckoning the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ's Death and Resurrection.

The consultation was attended by representatives of the Catholic Church, many Protestant communities, and some of the Orthodox Churches (including the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch and Moscow) but as everyone can see there has been no concrete movement on these proposals. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, at the time the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, reportedly gave an "initial affirmative reaction" to the idea. 

Rome's openness to the idea of "unifying" Easter is in line with the Appendix to Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "A Declaration of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council on Revision of the Calendar" which states:

The Sacred Council would not object if the feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that those whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent. 

Take note that even Vatican II considered the Gregorian Calendar as an indispensable element in calculating any future unified date of Easter.

An Eastern compromise?

Patriarch Bartholomew clarified last year in a Vatican Insider interview that any change of the date of Easter on the part of the Eastern Orthodox will have to be done in a "Pan-Orthodox" manner. This all but ensures that there will be no compromise on their part for the foreseeable future. The "Pan-Orthodox Council" of 2016, should it actually push through, will have the question of a common liturgical calendar as part of its agenda. An AsiaNews article from June 16, 2015 (Moscow Patriarchate to Pope: On Easter a gesture of goodwill, but we will not overturn old traditions) quotes Russian Orthodox church official Fr. Nikolai Balashov to the effect that Constantinople and Moscow are at loggerheads over this question, with Moscow favoring the retention of the status quo for the Orthodox. This alone ensures that there will be no decree changing the date of Pascha and binding upon all the Orthodox because the decisions of the "Pan-Orthodox Council" will require consensus or unanimous vote among the representatives from all of these Churches.

None of this should be surprising except to those who have been deluded by ecumenist propaganda that Catholic-Orthodox reunion is "imminent".

With the exception of the small Orthodox Church of Finland (under the Patriarchate of Constantinople) the Eastern Orthodox continue to observe Easter or Pascha according to the Julian Calendar (or more technically the "Julian Paschalion"). The question of the liturgical calendar is highly volatile for the Eastern Orthodox as witnessed by the large and long-standing "Old Calendarist" schisms among the Greeks and Romanians. These schisms developed over the acceptance by their hierarchies of the "New Calendar", sometimes called "Revised Julian", a hybrid where the fixed feasts (e.g. Christmas, Annunciation) are de facto on the Gregorian dates but Lent and Pascha (Easter) and their attached panoply of movable observances remain on the Julian Calendar. The Greek and Romanian Orthodox accepted the "Revised Julian" in the 1920's, nearly a century ago, but the Greek and Romanian Old Calendarist movement to this very day is alive and even showing signs of consolidation.

If a partial reform of the liturgical calendar, not involving Easter / Pascha itself, could cause such havoc among the Eastern Orthodox, how much more a wholesale move to the Gregorian calendar? The Finnish situation is unique (dating back to 1924) and not likely to be repeated anytime soon. It bears observing that the great majority both of nominal Orthodox, and of Orthodox bishops, clergy and monastics observe not only Easter but the whole liturgical cycle on the Julian Calendar. They include the vast majority of the parishes of the Patriarchates of Moscow, Jerusalem, Serbia, Georgia and all the monasteries on Mount Athos. The Polish Orthodox Church formally returned to the Julian Calendar in 2014. Constantinople itself has jurisdictions for the Russian, Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian diasporas with numerous parishes on the Julian Calendar.

It is necessary to mention that the majority of Greek Catholics also continue to observe the Julian date of Easter used by their Orthodox counterparts. For the vast majority of Ukrainian and Rusyn Greek Catholics this is not an "ecumenist" concession but a practice dating back to their Churches' reconciliation with Rome centuries ago. This demonstrates that observing Easter on different Sundays has not been seen for centuries by Rome as opposed to Catholic unity. If Rome could allow the Greek Catholics to observe Easter on the Julian date rather than on the Gregorian date, then what reason could there be to force the faithful of the Roman Church herself to abandon their own Gregorian Easter? Unfortunately "ecumenical" reasons, as we will next see, are considered sufficient by the Rome of today to effect division among Latin Catholics when it comes to Easter.

A Roman compromise?

Could a "unified Easter" take place with the Holy See deciding to move the entire Catholic Church into observing Lent and Easter according to the Julian Calendar? We think that this is highly unlikely to be implemented in the universal Church. Nevertheless, this move has already been implemented in the post-Vatican II era for all Catholics (including Latins) in select areas, such as Greece, Syria, Cyprus and the Holy Land (i.e Palestine, Jordan, Israel), except in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Here are some articles about the change in the Holy Land:

ASIA/HOLY LAND - In Jordan and Palestine Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Easter according to the Julian Calendar (2015)

Not 2015 Easter yet

Easter 2013 in the Churches of the Holy Land

Latin Patriarchate will celebrate Easter 2013 according to the Julian Calendar

Tale of two Easters: Holy Land Catholics, Orthodox to celebrate as one

Ironically the Catholic Church continues to observe Easter on the Gregorian date in the Basilicas of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulcher. This is due to the Ottoman-era "Status Quo" that governs the delicate relations among Catholics and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, not to speak of the needs of Catholic pilgrims from all over the world. Far from "unifying" Easter in the Holy Land, the Latin hierarchy's unilateral adoption of the Eastern Orthodox date of Easter has resulted in the Latin Catholic community being divided in its observance of Easter.

Changing Easter for Roman Catholics in lands where they are a small minority is one thing; changing it for traditionally Catholic lands is another. In the next installment of this commentary I will discuss the numerous reasons why changing the date of Easter will cause incalculable harm for the Catholic Church, with no real benefits accruing from it.