Hope Grows for Common Date for Easter
by David Gibson
Imagine celebrating Easter in your home both on March 31 and again May 5, as could happen in 2013 for a Catholic married to a member of one of the Orthodox churches. More often, Catholic and Orthodox celebrations of Easter are just a week apart.
Easter and Christmas are exciting times for families, which is not to say they don’t call for considerable effort and planning. I’m sure more than a few Catholic-Orthodox couples the world over breathed a sight of relief on Easter 2010, when the holiday fell on the same date for both their churches.
But will the Catholic and Orthodox churches succeed one day at establishing a common date for Easter every year? The hope that this can be achieved is expanding today, as participants in the Oct. 10-24 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East made clear.
Meeting in Rome, a number of synod participants made the case that setting a common date for Easter is not a lofty concern reserved to the finest theological minds. Rather, it is an urgent pastoral concern for at least two reasons:
1. Celebrating Easter on different dates divides Catholic and Orthodox couples at the time of Christianity’s central faith celebration.
2. There is concern that a divided observance of Easter lessens the impact of the churches’ potential witness to the world at this time.
Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the world Synod of Bishops, said the aims of the special assembly for the Middle East were “mainly of a pastoral nature,” although ignoring “the social and political picture in the region” was not possible. Issues that are “pastoral” involve matters directly related to people’s faith lives or to liturgy and the sacraments, for example.
If the issue of a common date for Easter was raised as a pastoral issue in several formal speeches during the synod, it also arose frequently during the hour of free discussion in the synod hall each evening, according to a synod media brief.
In a major report to the synod Oct. 18, Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, summed up speeches and suggestions by the participants up to that point. He noted that “the wish to unify the dates for Christmas and Easter between Catholics and the Orthodox has been expressed several times.”
Patriarch Naguib said that setting a common date for these holidays is “a pastoral necessity, given the pluralistic context of the region and the many interchurch marriages between Christians of different ecclesial denominations.” He also pointed out that establishing common dates for these holidays would allow the churches to present a unified witness to their region at these special times.
Another synod speaker, Latin-rite Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem said, “We truly hope for the unification of the Easter holiday with the Orthodox Churches.” Establishing a common date for Easter also would mean unifying observances of Lent, including the season’s fasting and abstinence practices, he observed.
Official representatives to the synod from Orthodox churches echoed these concerns. Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of Aleppo, Syria, addressed the synod, urging that Christians move quickly toward establishing a common date for celebrating Easter, something he said is desired by most Christians in the Middle East.
The dates for Easter in the Catholic and Orthodox churches will coincide in 2011, 2014 and 2017. After that, however, 17 years will pass before the churches again observe Easter the same day in 2034, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation explained Oct. 1. The official dialogue group said:
“There are significant pastoral needs at stake: Can the members of our interchurch families celebrate Easter together?”
The way things work now is that the families of interchurch couples “find themselves in conflict observing two Lenten cycles and two [Easter] dates,” the Orthodox-Catholic consultation’s 24 members said in a statement released after a three-day meeting in Washington that ended Oct. 2. The statement was devoted to the question of a common date for Easter.
In a second statement titled “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future,” the dialogue group said that “marriages involving members of both our traditions are increasingly common, especially in ethnically pluralistic countries, creating serious problems in Christian education and practice for the families involved.” This is one of the factors that “urgently call our churches to overcome their division,” it said.
Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, is a member of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation. I spoke with him about the discussions at the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East on setting a common date for Easter and the importance this bears for married couples and families.
“The pastoral problem, to me, is very clear,” Father Roberson said. He thought that Patriarch Naguib “got it right” at the synod in describing a common date for Easter as a pastoral necessity for interchurch families of the region and for “giving a more united Christian witness in the region.”
Father Roberson said, “Clearly the inability of couples in mixed marriages in the Middle East to celebrate the central mystery of our faith together is an issue.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.