Rorate Caeli

Ember Days in the Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms: An Accidental Elimination?

This week in the traditional Roman Rite, we have one of its most ancient celebrations, the Ember Days. The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the first week of Lent are one of the four times during the liturgical year (hence the Latin title Quattuor Temporum) specially set apart by the Church for fasting and abstinence, as well as prayer for farming and harvests. The Ember Days also have a traditional association with the conferral of Holy Orders. Their antiquity is attested by Pope St Leo the Great in, among other places, one of his Pentecost sermons:

To the present solemnity, dearly beloved, we must also add that devotion, so that we might celebrate with holy observance the fast which conforms to the apostolic tradition. This ought to be numbered among the great gifts of the Holy Spirit, that, against the desires of the flesh and the snares of the devil, the protection of the fasts has been set up for us. By these we may overcome all temptations with the help of God. Let us fast on Wednesday and Friday. On Saturday, however, let us celebrate the vigil with the blessed apostle Peter as advocate for our prayers, that we might deserve to obtain the mercy of God in all things through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and with the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen. (Sermon 76)

In what could be seen as an anticipation of Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 108 (“the proper of the time shall be given the preference which is its due over the feasts of the saints”), the 1961 Code of Rubrics even elevated the Ember Days to II class ferias, meaning that they would take precedence over almost all other celebrations that could coincide with them. Less than a decade later, however, these ancient parts of the Roman Rite would disappear almost entirely. Removed from the General Roman Calendar in the 1969 reforms, their observation was devolved to local bishops’ conferences with a mere suggestion that they “should” be kept in some manner:

In the drawing up of the Calendar of a nation, the Rogation Days and Ember Days should be indicated, as well as the forms and texts for their celebration, and other special measures should also be kept in mind. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, n. 394)

How did this happen? Well, when we examine the documentation of Coetus I, the group of the Consilium responsible for the reform of the liturgical calendar, it almost seems as if the Ember Days were eliminated by accident. In Schema 61 (De Calendario, 1), of 12th February 1965, Coetus I proposed the following question for discussion (p. 3):

Is it pleasing to you [i.e. the members] that the Ember Days be arranged so that they are celebrated at the beginning of each of the four seasons of the year (that is, around the 21st of March, June, September and December)? [1]
The results of this discussion were summarised the following month, in Schema 65 (De Calendario, 2), of 15th March 1965 (p. 15):

[Rembert] Van Doren: Placet for the months of March, September and December. However, for the month of June, is it not necessary to pay attention to the rules concerning the relative stability of Easter [2] that may be issued?
[Aimé-Georges] Martimort: Non placet to the question as proposed, nor to the declaratio clearly drawn up by our friend P[ierre] Jounel concerning this matter. The situation is much more complex, and needs deeper study with the collaboration of A[ntoine] Chavasse. The nature and manner of celebrating these days must first be discussed: are they to be celebrated only liturgically, or also with penitential discipline? And what, in truth, are these days? Are four to be kept, or reduced to three? (The days in the first month in Lent are sufficient in themselves, as is clear from the early tradition.) [3] After these questions have been answered, then we can have a debate on these days. Certainly, it would be inconvenient to celebrate them after 21st December, for liturgical reasons as well as the festivities and public holidays in the northern hemisphere.
[Agostino] Amore: Affirmative.
[Herman] Schmidt: I do not see a quick solution; further investigation is required along with a debate.
[Ansgar] Dirks: Placet.
[Adrian] Nocent: By all means. But much has been said about these liturgical celebrations at the meetings of Coetus XVII in Milan. [4]

It would seem, then, that most of the group wanted to keep the Ember Days, although there was some question about which ones and precisely when they would be observed. Aimé-Georges Martimort was the most negative about them, having objected to the way in which the question was framed as well as to the explanation given by Pierre Jounel (sadly, this explanation is lacking in the documentation), but even so, he was not entirely closed off to retaining them on the calendar. Likewise, Herman Schmidt did not think there was an easy solution, but was happy for further discussion to take place.

Unfortunately, the relevant schemata of Coetus XVII (the group assigned the reform of special rites in the liturgical year) referred to by Adrian Nocent are not currently accessible, [5] but by the time the Ember Days are mentioned again by Coetus I, in Schema 174 (De Calendario, 10), of 1st August 1966, we effectively arrive at what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal would say about them, and it is likely that this was the “solution” Coetus XVII arrived at (p. 4):

Likewise, the arranging of Ember Days as votive celebrations is entrusted to bishops’ conferences. The number of these celebrations, even if fewer than at present, shall take place according to local circumstances, with a connection to the [astronomical] seasons of the year. [6]

It is perhaps worth noting that, in the rather drastic reorganisation of the Church’s fast and abstinence rules by Paul VI earlier that year (Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, 17th February 1966), Ember Days are conspicuous by their absence. It seems highly likely that this disciplinary change was a factor in the decision of the Consilium to remove the Ember Days from the universal calendar and allow bishops’ conferences considerable freedom in implementing them – though it should also be noted that the assumption is that the Ember Days will be observed in some way. This assumption continues over to Schema 213 (De Calendario, 12), of 1st March 1967, where we read the following (p. 4):

The Church, spread throughout the world, requires that the celebration of the Ember Days be regulated by bishops’ conferences; the Ember Day Masses will be votives, with no connecting ties to the celebration of the [liturgical] season. [7]

Finally, we read another version of the above in Schema 260 (De Calendario, 16), of 30th November 1967 (p. 7):

A widespread desire among the whole Church requires that the celebration of the Ember Days be regulated by bishops’ conferences, so that, according to the climate and the seasons, they are established at the most opportune times. Adhering to this desire, the principle has therefore been adopted that the Masses of the Ember Days are votive, without particular connection with the course of the [liturgical] temporal cycle. [8]

We are thus left with a situation similar to that which Lauren Pristas observed took place with Septuagesima, [9] where Coetus I voted to suppress the season while preserving the Mass formularies. Because the prayers, chants and readings were all the responsibility of other groups within the Consilium, the fact that Coetus I provided no place on the calendar for the Mass formularies of Pre-Lent to be used meant that, effectively, they sabotaged their own intentions, albeit accidentally. Likewise, with the Ember Days, we have seen that the majority of Coetus I was in favour of retaining them in some manner. However, not providing a place for them on the universal calendar, and instead relying on local bishops’ conferences to decide—in the midst of the post-Vatican II liturgical and theological chaos—when they would take place meant that these foundational elements of the Roman Rite would end up de facto abolished. [10]

And thus, through a mixture of accident, indecision, naivety and over-optimism, one of the most ancient features of the Roman liturgy effectively disappeared from the post-Vatican II Missal.

Lest we forget, the Novus Ordo claims to “bear witness to the Roman Church’s rule of prayer”, to “bring the faithful closer to the Sacred Liturgy”, and that it is an “outstanding sign of the integrity… of the Roman Rite” (GIRM, nn. 10, 15 and 399). Furthermore, not so long ago we were (in)famously assured that we can find “all the elements of the Roman Rite” in the post-Vatican II Missal. [11] Perhaps liturgists ought to begin to take the words of the Pope to heart—“realities are greater than ideas” (Evangelii gaudium, nn. 231-233)—for when one thoroughly examines the reality of the Novus Ordo itself as well as the historical process of the liturgical reforms, sentiments such as these found in the GIRM are very difficult to sustain.


[1] Latin: Placetne Quatuor Tempora ita disponi ut initio cuiusvis quatuor anni temporum (seu circa diem 21 mensis martii, iunii, septembris, decembris) celebrantur? (Note: all English translations of the Consilium schemata here are my own.)

[2] This is a reference to the appendix of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which declares that the Catholic Church would not object to the fixing of Easter to a particular Sunday if all other Christians agreed. (Which, of course, is never going to happen!)

[3] Originally, there were only three ember periods, in June, September and December. By the time of Pope Gelasius I, however, four (with the addition of March) are attested. Martimort here raises the question of abolishing the Lenten Ember Days, probably because in his opinion the character of the Lenten liturgy along with the fasting discipline then in force rendered these Ember Days superfluous.

[4] Latin: VAN DOREN: Placet certe quoad menses martii, septembris, decembris. Sed, pro mense iunio nonne attendendum est regulis circa stabilitatem relativam Paschatis forsan edendis? MARTIMORT: Non placet quaestio sic proposita, nec declaratio a clarissimo amico P. Jounel de ista re exarata. Res longe magis intricata est, et studio profundiore indiget, collaborante A. Chavasse. De natura enim et modo celebrandi Tempora primo disceptandum erit: liturgice tantum celebranda sunt, an etiam per poenitentiae disciplinam? Et quid reapse sunt Tempora? Quattuor servanda, an ad tres reducendum? (quia quadragesima mense 1° sufficit, ut ex primaeva traditione constat) Postquam his quaestionibus responsum fuerit, tunc de diebus poterit disceptatio institui. Certe inconvenientes celebrandi essent post 21 decembris, tam ex ratione liturgica quam ex ratione feriarum et otii civitatis in hemispherio septentrionali. AMORE: Affirmative. SCHMIDT: Non video solutionem maturam; requiritur investigatio ulterior cum disputatione. DIRKS: Placet. NOCENT: Utique. Sed de celebratione huius liturgicae multa dicta sunt in reunione coetus 17 Milano.

[5] Any information is likely to be contained in Schema 51 (De anno liturgico, 1), 25 June 1964, or Schema 55 (De anno liturgico, 2), 27 February 1965. Neither of these schemata have been digitised for the use of researchers.

[6] Latin: Iuxta locorum adiuncta numero, etiam minori quam nunc, et cum anni temporibus connexae, hae celebrationes fieri poterunt. Exactly the same thing is said in Schema 188 (De Calendario, 11), 22nd September 1966, p. 4. With regard to anni temporibus, as Schema 61 (see above) suggests that the Ember Days could be on or around the 21st of the respective months, it seems highly likely that astronomical seasons are being referred to here. 

[7] Latin: Ecclesia per universum orbem diffusa postulat ut celebratio quatuor temporum deinceps moderetur a coetibus episcoporum; missae quatuor temporum erunt votivae, nullo vinculo iunctae cum celebratione temporis. The same thing is said (but with the spelling quattuor) in Schema 225 (De Calendario, 14), 18th April 1967, p. 4.

[8] Italian: Un desiderio diffuso presso tutta la Chiesa postula che la celebrazione delle Quattro Tempora sia regolata dalle Conferenze Episcopali, perchè vengano stabilite, a seconda del clima e delle stagioni, nel tempo più opportuno. Aderendo quindi a questo desiderio è stato adottato il principio che le Messe delle Quattro Tempora siano votive, sena particolare collegamento con lo svolgimento del ciclo temporale.

[9] See The Collects of the Roman Missals: A Comparative Study of the Sundays in Proper Seasons before and after the Second Vatican Council (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), pp. 95-111; also idem, “Parachuted into Lent: The Suppression of Septuagesima”, Usus Antiquior 1.2 (2010), pp. 95-109.

[10] Though the CDW’s efforts to rectify this, imperceptible as they were, should perhaps be noted: see “De rogationibus et quattuor temporibus”, Notitiae 85 (1973), p. 273.

[11] For more on this, see my article “All the Elements of the Roman Rite”? Mythbusting, Part II at New Liturgical Movement (1st October 2021).