Bishops are enlisting lay people for a spiritual crusade against corruption

The Ember Days recall an age when the rhythms of human life were still bound to the changing of the seasons. A corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora (“Four Times”), the Ember Days were an attempt by the ancient Church to preserve and sanctify the pagans’ observation of equinoxes and solstices. Our predecessors in the faith marked the cycles of Creation with fasting, prayer and acts of charity – giving thanks to “the Lord of the Harvest”, as Jesus called his Father.

The Ember Days are seldom marked by Catholics today, when every fruit and vegetable is available in the supermarket all year round. Harvest festivals can mean little to the New Yorker who buys fresh pineapples in the middle of December to garnish his Christmas ham. What do the changing seasons mean to us, except whether to order our coffee hot or iced?

Yet Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh (pictured) has found a new use for the Ember Days. His diocese was rocked by scandal following the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report, which accused his predecessor Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the Archbishop of Washington, of covering up for abusive priests.

So, as part of a “Year of Penance”, Zubik asked “the faithful to join with the clergy” in observing the fasts. “Faced with the sinful actions of the members of our own ranks of the clergy … we feel both shame and sorrow, and are reminded of our own sinfulness and the need for mercy,” he wrote.

Few latter-day agrarians raised their voice to defend the traditional meaning of the Ember Days. (They were celebrations, after all – not penances.) However, some of the laity have balked at the idea that they should be doing penance at all.

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