QUAERITUR: Ember Days during Octave of Pentecost… penitential?

From a priest:

For those that follow the 1962 calendar or simply follow the traditional penitential days, are the ember days in the octave of Pentecost days of fast? It would seem not since the octave days, similar to Easter, are first class feasts. Your insight would be most helpful.

Good question, Father.

A rule of thumb for anyone, lay or cleric, who desires to follow the “old ways” is:  We are bound by the law as it is now, not as it was.  If you desire to do a little more, fine!  You are not obliged to so by the law.

You will see on some wall calendars for the older, traditional Roman use, little fish icons (which indicate days of fast, or abstinence and of penance) on those very Ember Days.

20130509-094445.jpgFor example, on a nice calendar sent to me by Canons at St. John Cantius in Chicago, I see a little fishy sign on Ember Wednesday and Saturday during the Octave of Pentecost, a full fish on Friday.  So, in accordance with the principles of the older calendar, yes, those would be days of either fast and partial or full abstinence.

Ember Fridays were once, in the Roman Church’s universal calendar, days of fasting and abstinence.  Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays were once days of fast and partial abstinence (meat permitted only at the main meal).  These days on some calendars get the half-fish icon.

The older, traditional calendar is not at this time the Latin Church’s universal calendar.  In the new calendar there are no Ember Days (though diocesan bishops can even now, I believe, establish something like them, and they are vaguely mentioned in the explanation of the present calendar).

It is praiseworthy to stick to the formerly obligatory penitential practices.  Penance is good for us and can edify others.

So, (unless you are a professed member of some traditionalist order or institute recognized by a bishop or the Holy See – therefore bound to follow their rules) you can do as you please in this regard.

If you are sticking closely to the older calendar and celebrate mainly or exclusively the older, traditional form of the Roman Rite, then it is logical that you would want to follow the internal logic, indeed wisdom, of our forebears, who had arguably sounder insights into the human condition than those of the perhaps overly optimistic reformers in the 60’s.

If, Father, you are adhering closely to the older form of Mass and these practices, and by that I suppose I mean daily use of the older missal for Mass, then I recommend also daily recitation of the Roman Breviary, which is consonant with the Roman Missal.   They complete each other.  But ask yourself honestly what you are understanding of the Latin.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. wolfeken says:

    The priest who asked the question should be commended for striving to go the extra mile. It makes a lot of sense to pair the traditional Latin Mass and its 1962 calendar with the disciplines in place during 1962, even if the legal obligation has been removed. For instance, during the 40 day weekday fast during Lent, there are many collects in the traditional Latin Mass that refer to the ongoing fast. The same with the collects for Ember Days, even including Pentecost Ember Days. It would be weird to say, sing or hear those collects, and then proceed to wolf down a Combo Number Two.

    Question for anyone who has studied Ember Days: how in the world did they get fixed to Pentecost Wednesday, Pentecost Friday and Pentecost Saturday? I am searching for the reason why an octave of the first class (the second highest liturgical week of the year next to Easter) has three days of fast and abstinence/partial abstinence using the traditional Mass and calendar.

    This would also make a good article if someone knows the history of these three specific days getting fixed to the Pentecost octave, presumably centuries ago.

    Kenneth J. Wolfe

    [Something is rattling in my head about this. However, off the top of my head, it seems to me that it could have to do with Ember Days as being propitious as preparation days for ordinations, and the time around Pentecost is extremely propitious. But there may also be a connection with either an ancient Jewish or Roman feast. Since my main hard drive is pretty full, I will need to think a bit longer.]

  2. Mike_in_Kenner says:

    Fr. Z, thanks for all the great information you provide.

    Perhaps I could comment that I think people who participate in both the OF and EF are sometimes confused by the rank of liturgical days in the older calendar because the terminology is not like that in the newer calendar. There is a rough and imprecise idea that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th class days in the old calendar are basically equivalent to the new calendar’s solemnity, feast, memorial, and feria. I think some people get confused due to the fact that the new calendar seems mostly to refer to liturgical rank with reference to the importance of feast days, while not being so clear about the rank and importance of penitential days. The old calendar’s terminology of, for example, a 1st class day indicates that it is a day of the highest liturgical importance, but it could be a joyful feast of the highest importance (Christmas is 1st class) or it could be a sad penitential day of the highest importance (Good Friday is 1st class). The old calendar has things such as 1st class ferias (such as Ash Wednesday) and even a 1st class commemoration (All Souls Day). My impression is that the new calendar terminology struggles a bit to name the rank of important penitential days. If people only go by the notion that “2nd class” on the old calendar is similar to “Feast” on the new calendar, then it is hard to make sense of days such as the Ember Wednesday in Lent, which is 2nd class, but clearly not a “Feast.”

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Fr. Z writes of the (possible) “daily recitation of the Roman Breviary, which is consonant with the Roman Missal” but adds, “ask yourself honestly what you are understanding of the Latin.”

    Father (and/or anyone else), for those of us (layfolk) whose honest answer is probably ‘not enough, readily enough’, can you recommend (once more?) Breviary translations (or even something like ‘ponies’) – perhaps even (most handily) online?

  4. jeff says:

    In Australis there are two Ember Days–one for Autumn and one for Spring.

    I have been a Catholic for 10 years, but signed up a few months ago to the local Anglican Ordinariate, where the Ember and Rogation Days are back. I guess it means they are obligatory for me?

  5. jmgarciajr says:

    Dear Fr. Z. (or some other sould equally disposed to cyber-kindness),
    Where might someone get such a calendar?

  6. jmgarciajr says:

    Did I just type “sould?” Yikes. S-o-u-l. Mea maxima culpa.

  7. John Pepino says:

    Dear Father Zuhlsdorf,

    You wrote:

    “If, Father, you are adhering closely to the older form of Mass and these practices, and by that I suppose I mean daily use of the older missal for Mass, then I recommend also daily recitation of the Roman Breviary, which is consonant with the Roman Missal. They complete each other. But ask yourself honestly what you are understanding of the Latin.”

    As a Latin professor in a traditional seminary in the USA (…), I should like to discuss this with you, privately. May I ask you to contact me? My emails to you (from this website) seem to go down a rabbit hole (I’m a techno-boob, as Fr. Rob Johansen puts it…).

    By the way, are you attending the Veterum Sapientia seminar in Charlotte? I had hoped to meet you there.

    Respectfully yours,
    John Pepino

  8. acardnal says:

    The calendar Fr. Z mentioned from the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius is available here:

  9. acardnal says:

    TAN Books also publishes calendars with both the new and traditional feasts listed on each day.
    http://www.tanbooks.com Just search for ‘calendar’.

  10. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you very much for the link!

Comments are closed.