Reader questions answered by The Catholic Answer magazine staff.
Send YOUR questions to

Q. How does the Church determine the date that Lent begins?

Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday. CNS photo

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin: Lent begins 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. This will always be the Wednesday, known as Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent that precedes Easter.

Easter is the principal celebration in the Church year, the “feast of feasts” and “the Solemnity of Solemnities” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1169). Its celebration determines the dates of Lent, the Ascension and Pentecost. Its date may seem arbitrary, because it varies from year to year, but it is easily calculated. The Catechism notes, “At the Council of Nicaea in 325, all Churches agreed that Easter, the Christian Passover, should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon … after the vernal equinox” (Catechism, No. 1170).

The equinox (March 21) marks the beginning of spring, and determines the date of Passover, the most important event in the lives of our Old Testament ancestors, and even today the most solemn celebration of their descendants. Preparations for celebrating Passover are prescribed in Exodus 12. Roman Catholics embrace the Jewish date for Passover as the norm to calculate our Easter celebrations.

Q. Why do Catholics eat fish on Fridays? Some Catholics eat fish on every Friday, and some say you do not have to anymore; just Fridays during Lent. How long is Lent?

A. Here is a reply from Father Reginald Martin: Lent is the period between Ash Wednesday and the Wednesday of Holy Week. Holy Thursday begins the Easter Triduum, and ushers in a new liturgical season.

Whether one eats fish on Friday is a personal choice, but the Church universally recognizes Fridays (unless a major liturgical feast falls on a Friday) as appropriate days to undertake some form of penance. Abstaining from meat, and fasting — that is, consuming less than two full meals — are traditional penitential practices, which, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (No. 2043).

We should note, however, that although Church law recommends fasting and abstinence on penitential days, the local bishops’ conference can substitute “other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety” (Canon 1253). The U.S. bishops have prescribed abstinence on the Fridays of Lent; Catholics may embrace a different penance on other Fridays of the year.

Special rules govern the use of food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Those who have reached the age of 15 may not eat meat on either day. In addition, Catholics between the ages of 21 and 59 are obliged to fast on those days.

Q. My friend told me that last Sunday was “Quinquagesima Sunday.” I’ve never heard of that before. What was she talking about? -- L. G., Chicago, Ill.

A. In the old Church liturgical calendar — still observed in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (celebrated in Latin) — the weeks immediately preceding Lent are observed as a time of preparation for the upcoming penitential season. In ancient times, Christians began their time of abstinence during this period. (By the way: The ancients gave up all animal products for the entire season of Lent — not just Fridays. We moderns are such wimps!)

The last three Sundays before Ash Wednesday are called Septuagesima (Latin, “seventieth”), Sexagesima (“sixtieth”) and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”). The historical origin of these names for these particular Sundays is disputed. The earliest occurrence of the terms in liturgical literature is in the eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary.

In the traditional Latin Mass, the Gloria is omitted on these three Sundays, just as it is throughout Lent in both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Mass. This omission serves as a reminder of the penitential nature of the season.

A. What is the 'Easter duty'?

Q.From Fr. Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.: “Easter duty” -- If we have sinned (and who of us has not?) we are all obliged by Church law both to go to confession and to receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once each year. Of course, we are obliged at least to attend Mass every Sunday and every holy day of obligation. The season for fulfilling one’s Easter duty extends from the first Sunday in Lent to Trinity Sunday.

Q. St. Joseph’s feast day is usually March 19th, but my 2017 church calendar shows it this year on Monday, March 20. Why is that? And what about St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, which seem to change sometimes, too? It’s all confused and confusing. -- W.T., Savannah, Ga.

A. When St. Joseph’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day fall within Holy Week -- or on a Sunday -- they are moved so that the festivities associated with them don’t take our attention away from the solemn observances of the week. (Easter Sunday, which is a moveable feast depending on the lunar cycle, can occur as early as March 22. This means that Holy Week sometimes begins in mid-March.)

Of course, civil authorities aren’t bound by Catholic Church law. But they may move the civic celebrations to coincide with the Church’s observance as a sign of respect for the Catholic community, which figures so prominently in the local tradition of St. Patrick’s Day events.

By the way: Each year the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah, Georgia, attracts more visitors (several hundred thousand) than the total population of the metropolitan area. Folks come from all over the country and beyond for the fun; it’s the largest celebration of the day outside New York City. The annual parade, along with many other Irish-themed events, has been a beloved tradition for the whole city for 190 years. Y’all come sometime!

For more information, click here.

Q. Why do Catholics eat fish on Fridays? Some Catholics eat fish on every Friday, and some say you do not have to anymore; just Fridays during Lent. How long is Lent?

A. Here is a reply from Father Reginald Martin:Lent is the period between Ash Wednesday and the Wednesday of Holy Week. Holy Thursday begins the Easter Triduum, and ushers in a new liturgical season.

Whether one eats fish on Friday is a personal choice, but the Church universally recognizes Fridays (unless a major liturgical feast falls on a Friday) as appropriate days to undertake some form of penance. Abstaining from meat, and fasting — that is, consuming less than two full meals — are traditional penitential practices, which, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (No. 2043).

We should note, however, that although Church law recommends fasting and abstinence on penitential days, the local bishops’ conference can substitute “other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety” (Canon 1253). The U.S. bishops have prescribed abstinence on the Fridays of Lent; Catholics may embrace a different penance on other Fridays of the year.

Special rules govern the use of food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Those who have reached the age of 15 may not eat meat on either day. In addition, Catholics between the ages of 21 and 59 are obliged to fast on those days.

Q. I have a friend from Michigan who says muskrat is a traditional Lenten dish there. Isn’t muskrat a meat? It’s definitely not a fish. But I guess that eating muskrat would be a penance in any case. -- M.E., via e-mail

A. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of this one before. At TCA in the past we’ve received Lenten questions about whether it’s allowed to escargot (snails), frog legs or alligator stew. (The matter is apparently debated by the best canon gourmets … I mean, lawyers.) But muskrat has never been mentioned to us in this regard.

 As it turns out, the custom of eating muskrat in Michigan during Lent goes back at least to the early nineteenth century and perhaps before. At that time Father Gabriel Richard, the celebrated missionary priest, ministered to a Michigander flock that included many French-Canadian trappers.

According to local legend, trappers and their families had a hard time finding food that wasn’t flesh during the long, cold weeks of Lent. (In those days, Catholics had to abstain from meat every day in Lent except Sundays, not just on Fridays.) So the good father allowed the people to eat muskrat. After all, the critter lives in the water!

 Whether the custom ever became the subject of a formal dispensation of the local church is debated, as are the precise boundaries of the area included in the dispensation. A 2002 document from the Archdiocese of Detroit notes that “there is a longstanding permission — dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s — to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent.”

In 1956 the Bishop of Lansing ruled that even though muskrat is a mammal rather than a fish, eating it during Lent was permitted because the practice had been around so long in the area that it was “immemorial custom,” making it permissible under church law.

Muskrats are foot-long rodents. It’s hard for me to imagine eating one, but then I recall that my mother grew up eating possum, squirrel and raccoon in rural Georgia. So I suppose it’s just a failure of imagination on my part.

In any case, some parishes in Michigan have muskrat dinners during Lent. I hear that it goes great with creamed corn, sauerkraut or mashed potatoes and gravy. And the hind legs are the best part!

 The big question: Does it taste like chicken? Better ask a Michigander. I think I’ll stick with salmon patties.

Q.  Someone recently told me that pretzels have their origin in medieval Lenten practices. Is that true?
-- P.E., via email

A. Yes, according to tradition, that’s correct. In earlier times, Lenten abstinence laws were much stricter than they are now. Throughout the forty days — not just on Fridays (but not on Sundays) — Catholics abstained from eating not just meat, but also eggs and dairy products. Only one meal was taken a day, usually toward evening, though eventually the meal was moved up to 3:00 p.m. or even noon.

After the meal became established at the earlier time of day, a collation (small snack) came to be allowed in the evening. People needed some kind of light food that fit the abstinence rules, and pretzels filled the bill.

Traditions vary about the exact origins of the snack. One popular story says that a young monk in the early seventh century in Italy was preparing a special Lenten bread of water, flour and salt. (No eggs, milk or lard could be used as ingredients). To remind the other monks that Lent was a time of prayer, he rolled the dough in strips and twisted each strip in the distinctive pretzel shape we know today. This design reflected what was then a popular prayer posture of crossing the arms upon the chest.

The dough was baked to become a soft bread like the large soft pretzels we sometimes enjoy today. In time, the smaller, hard-baked variety was developed as well (not to mention pretzel sticks).

What’s the origin of the name? One tradition says it comes from the Latin word bracellae, meaning “little arms” (at prayer). From this word, the Germans derived the word bretzel, which came into English as pretzel. Another story insists that the term comes from the Latin pretiola, which means “little reward,” because the legendary originator of the treat gave the breads to children as rewards for reciting their prayers.

Whatever their precise origin may be, let’s all enjoy some pretzels this Lenten season — and let them remind us to pray!

Q. In Matthew 6:17, Jesus says, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” If we leave the ashes we receive on our foreheads all day, how does that correspond to washing one’s face? Or do the ashes cleanse us spiritually, or something to that effect? -- T. A., via e-mail

A. Let’s look at the context of Jesus’ words — both the statements preceding them and the cultural situation they represent. 

Leading into this command, Our Lord said: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Matthew 6:16a).

In Jesus’ day, within certain religious circles people who fasted would make a show of their claim to holiness by their appearance and demeanor. Since fasting for religious reasons was customarily accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth and ashes (traditional signs of mourning for sin), whenever they fasted they went around in public unkempt and unwashed; they assumed a glum countenance. They wanted others to notice them, and they knew that within Jewish society, nearly everyone they met would recognize these customary indicators of fasting.

Jesus knew that many of the people who practiced this custom were hypocrites. That is, their intention was not to be truly holy, but simply to be viewed by others as holy. The sad and dirty face, the rumpled clothes, were calculated to elicit a response of admiration for their religious behavior. Jesus didn’t want His followers to imitate them.

In contemporary Western culture, at least, the situation on Ash Wednesdays is quite different from that. Non-Christians (and even some Christians) often mock those whose foreheads are smudged with ashes. Others may not mock, but they wince in disdain at the practice.

In these circumstances, keeping the ashes on our faces throughout the day doesn’t often elicit admiration from others, but rather contempt or indifference. Our intention in wearing them, then, is clearly not that we hope to be viewed by others as holy. In fact, the people I know who wear the ashes all day have quite other intentions.

They want to say to the world, “Yes, I’m a sinner in need of repentance.” They seek to show their solidarity with other penitential Christians on this holy day. They even hope that the smudge on their face might provoke a thought or conversation with someone who needs to know, or be reminded, that all of us are sinners in need of God’s grace.

Q. Do the rules regarding fast and abstinence apply to inmates in jails and prisons in the United States?
-- John Ferrand, Food Service Director, Monroe Correctional Facility, Stroudsburg, Pa.

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:Yes they do. Only age -- too young or too old -- and poor health excuse a Catholic from fulfilling the required penitential practices. Given your position as a food-service professional working in a correctional facility, I think God will reward you for any efforts you make to help Catholic inmates fulfill their responsibilities in this regard.

Q. How did the Stations of the Cross come up with 14 stops? Is it biblical in nature?

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin: Not all the stations (“stops”) along the Way of the Cross are mentioned in Scripture, but each may be considered an extension of an event the Gospel records. The evangelists do not describe Jesus’ falling, but they pay honor to Simon of Cyrene (see Mt 27:32) who helps Jesus carry his cross, perhaps as a consequence of a fall. Likewise, the Gospel is silent on Jesus’ meeting his mother, and Veronica’s wiping his face, but St. Luke mentions “women who mourned and lamented him” (Lk. 23:27), so these meetings could have occurred at that time.

St. Jerome remarks on visits paid to the holy places, so devotion to the Way of the Cross is quite ancient, although the number of stops has varied. The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes the number has been as few as five and as many as 30, or more.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be . . . honored” (No. 82). Thus, although the Stations may not all be mentioned in the Scripture, meditating on them is one way to identify ourselves more closely with the sacrifice Christ offered for us.

Q. After viewing the movie "The Passion of the Christ," a Protestant friend of mine said there wasn't anything in the Bible about Jesus falling three times while carrying the cross.What would be an appropriate response? Thank you.
-- D.H.

A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D: Given Our Lord's ill treatment beforehand, it's certainly reasonable to assume that He would have stumbled and fallen under the weight of the cross, and more than once. But we don't know the precise historical origins of the three "falls" represented in the Stations of the Cross, which is the traditional devotion on which these scenes in Mel Gibson's film were based.

The Stations as we know them now are a rather late development in Western Europe. But the practice had its roots in the pilgrimages made by ancient Christians as they retraced Jesus' steps to Calvary along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. So perhaps there was a local historical tradition in that city which was learned by European pilgrims and brought back home.

One popular medieval German devotion was actually known as "the Seven Falls of Christ." In this depiction, Jesus fell when He met His mother; when Simon of Cyrene shouldered His cross; when Veronica wiped His face; and when the women of Jerusalem began to weep -- incidents reflected in our present-day fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth Stations of the Cross. The other three "falls" in that devotion correspond to those in our third, seventh and ninth Stations.

Whatever their historical basis may be, the falls in the Stations serve as sobering reminders that in His passion and death, Jesus suffered more than we can even imagine, and did it all because of His unfathomable love for us.

Q. Are priests or deacons the only ones allowed to lead Stations of the Cross? Can lay parish members lead Stations? -- Kurt K.

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin: The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a remarkable job of summarizing teaching contained in several documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) speaks of the “common priesthood” of Christ’s people, and Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests) makes some useful distinctions. “Certain members are called by God … and consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders., by which the Holy Spirit enables them to act in the person of Christ … for the service of all the members of the Church” (No. 1142).

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) identifies “particular ministries” to be exercised by the laity, and identifies a few of them, “servers, readers, commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function.” Diocesan and parochial custom play an important part in determining who exercises these “particular ministries,” but, otherwise, the laity are encouraged to take an active role in leading devotional exercises, such as recitation of the Rosary or leading the Stations of the Cross (see Catechism, Nos. 1140-1144).

Some confusion may arise if a devotion takes place during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, but even in this case, the Church’s sensible “division of labor” recognizes both the priest’s and the layperson’s contribution to the worship that is taking place.

Q. In which city or town was the Last Supper held? Was it Jerusalem? --J.S., via e-mail

A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D : Indeed, the Last Supper was held in Jerusalem. That city was the focal point of Jesus' entire earthly ministry. It had long been the center of ancient Jewish religious practice, because the Temple was there.

Recall the famous Gospel account in which Mary and Joseph lost track of the young Jesus but finally find Him in the Temple. When Mary remonstrated with Him for staying behind in the Temple in Jerusalem, He asked, perhaps rhetorically, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Lk 2:49).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to Jerusalem as "the city of the great King," quoting the psalmist (see Mt 5:35; Ps 48:2).

Several times Jesus told His disciples that His passion must take place in Jerusalem (see Mt 16:21; 20:17-19). "It cannot be," He observed, "that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem" (Lk 13:33). At His transfiguration, Moses and Elijah spoke to Him about "His exodus [His passion] that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Lk 9:31). (Notice the word "accomplish" -- not simply "endure.")

In anguish for all those who would not accept Him, Our Lord wept over Jerusalem: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!" (Lk 13:34).

Obviously, the city was dear to His heart.

Q. My father died on Holy Thursday a few years ago. We had to wait till Easter Monday so that we could have a Christian burial. Now, my aunts and uncles knew that during Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday he couldn't be buried; the Church doesn’t bury anyone during this time. But they couldn't tell us why. Can you? -- S.R., via e-mail

A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.: Your father could have been buried with a funeral liturgy, but not with a funeral Mass, on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday, because the liturgy does not provide for it.

The only Masses allowed on Holy Thursday are the Chrism Mass in the morning and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the evening. No Mass can ever be celebrated on Good Friday; the only service allowed is the Lord’s Passion. Likewise, no Mass is celebrated on Holy Saturday because the entire Church is preparing for the Easter Vigil, which begins at sunset. Easter Sunday, the most important celebration of the year, focuses our attention on the Resurrection.

Nevertheless, a funeral rite on those days could make use of a Liturgy of the Word and the farewell rite as presented in the “Order of Christian Funerals” (part 1, no. 4).

Q. A friend of mine wanted to know what is the significance of visiting seven churches during Holy Week. Why not visit five or nine churches?

I asked my pastor, and he said he didn’t know. He thought that maybe the number seven was chosen for the seven hills of Jerusalem. My thought was that the number was based on Scripture, as seven is the number of perfection in the Bible.Is there even any significance to the number?  Thanks for your help! -- D.S., via e-mail

A. The tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday during Holy Week is especially popular in Italy, Poland, Mexico and the Philippines. It was brought to this country by immigrants from those and other predominantly Catholic lands.

 The general consensus seems to be that the custom originated in Rome, where there are seven “pilgrim” churches traditionally designated as places to visit for those seeking indulgences during a Holy Year. These include the four patriarchal basilicas — St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls — and three minor basilicas: St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, Holy Cross in Jerusalem and St. Sebastian Outside the Walls (which, in the Great Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II replaced as a pilgrim church with the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Divine Love).

In the Philippines, where the tradition is known as the Visita Iglesia, some pilgrims visit 14 churches instead on Holy Thursday, observing one of the 14 Stations of the Cross at each church.

 The question still remains why the original pilgrimage in Rome involved seven churches (rather than, for example, only the four patriarchal basilicas). I think your speculation is the best: In Scripture and Tradition, seven has always been regarded as the number symbolizing perfection, from the seven days of the week created by God in the Book of Genesis (2:2-3) to the “seven spirits before the throne of God” in the Book of Revelation (1:4) — a book which is full of sevens, by the way (including Jesus’ message to “seven churches”, 1:4).

Q. A few years back, a young priest became pastor of our parish church. He did things differently from our old pastor. The holy water fonts were filled with sand during Lent. During Good Friday Services, a huge wooden cross was brought out for adoration. There was no Corpus on it. Everyone got in line to kiss the cross.

I stayed in the pew because I felt bewildered that there was no corpus. I felt we should kiss the feet of our Savior instead of the cross He hung on. Was this a misjudgment on my part? Should I have gotten in line also? -- P.K., St. Paul, Minn.

Q. In our church, during the Good Friday services and continuing through the entire Easter season, the crucifix is removed, leaving only a bare brick wall in its place. There is no other crucifix, either upon the altar or near it, such as a processional crucifix. All we have is a crudely fashioned cross of rough-hewn beams, which is placed in the nave of the church. This cross stands covered in red fabric and is unveiled during Good Friday services, when it is venerated by the faithful.

Are these practices abuses, and if so, how does one proceed in trying to correct them? -- T.F., via email

A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:

What you describe are liturgical innovations that may confuse and bewilder some of the faithful. For that reason they should be avoided, no matter how significant the symbolism might be.

Holy Water may be removed from the fonts from the end of the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday until it is blessed again at the Easter Vigil. The sand in the Holy Water font during Lent is symbolic of Our Lord’s fasting and praying in the desert for forty days: a good reminder, a powerful symbol — but not to be done. Sand could be placed somewhere else, but not in the Holy Water font.

The cross without a corpus is also a powerful symbol inviting each of us to be the “corpus” on the cross and carry our own daily cross in union with our Savior. However, the crucifix to be venerated during the Good Friday service is to have the corpus of our Savior upon it. The faithful can venerate the crucifix with a simple bow, a genuflection, or a kiss, either on the body of our Savior or the wood of the cross.

In some places the English translation of the normative Latin rubrics has translated the Latin crucifix with the English “cross,” thus giving rise to the confusion. But the liturgical tradition of the Church from time immemorial is to venerate a crucifix, not just a plain cross. Even so, if you are attending the Good Friday service and just a plain wooden cross is presented for veneration, I would encourage you to go ahead and venerate it with the rest of the faithful, because the principle of unity with the rest of the congregation is more important at that moment.

At all times during the celebration of the liturgy there is to be a crucifix in or near the sanctuary visible to the faithful. It may be covered during Passion Week and Holy Week. During the rest of the year the crucifix, with corpus, is to be clearly visible to all.

So what should you do? You could speak with the pastor of your parish, or the liturgy committee, and suggest they review the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) nos. 117, 122, and 308, where these directives are specified.

Q. A fellow Catholic told me that going to the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday would satisfy the obligation of Easter Sunday Mass. My opinion is that even if you attend the Vigil of Holy Saturday, you still have to go to Mass on Easter Sunday. Who is correct? -- T.M.B., Wheaton, Ill.

A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:This is an easy one. Attendance at the Easter Vigil fulfills the obligation to attend Mass on Easter Sunday. The vigil, called traditionally "the mother of all vigils," is the highlight of the celebration of Easter and indeed may be considered the principal liturgy of the church year. The whole liturgical year leads up to and draws its meaning from the Easter Vigil.

Q. Can you tell me the significance of lighting a candle at the prayer candle area of the church? -- P.H., via e-mail

A. “Lumen Christi!” (“The Light of Christ!”), proclaims the deacon as he enters the darkened nave of the Church each year during the Easter Vigil. As he chants this hopeful note, the newly consecrated burning paschal candle is raised for all to see, and the people exclaim: “Deo Gratias!” (“Thanks be to God!”)

The ultimate significance of the lighted candle is to remind us that Christ is the Light of the world. So wrote St. John in the introduction to his lofty Gospel (see Jn 1:4–9). Whenever the faithful leave a lighted votive candle near a holy image of our divine Savior, the Blessed Mother, or the angels and the saints, the light of the candle is to hold the attention of the intercessor to pray for our intentions.

You may have noticed that most churches or shrines offer a variety of candle size: one-day, three-day and eight-day are standard. The faithful are asked to make a donation, commensurate with the size of the candle. If there is any profit left over, it should go to the support of the Church and the aid of the poor.

Q. We were recently discussing baptism as a means of washing away all sin (original, mortal, venial). From this discussion came the question: Why do some parishes have new members receive their first reconciliation either prior to baptism or at the Easter Vigil Mass between baptism and their first Eucharist? Why would parishes perform either of these practices if baptism washes away all sin? -- J.B., via e-mail

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.: Baptism does indeed wash away all sin. If a person coming into the Church at the Easter Vigil is invited to make his or her first reconciliation before that event, it means that they are already baptized, just not Catholic.

Often when adults are received into the Church they have already been baptized into a Protestant denomination. That baptism is usually valid and, if that is the case, they are not re-baptized. However, they should make their first confession before they make their first Communion and receive the Sacrament of Confirmation at the Easter Vigil.

If a person has never been baptized, that person cannot receive any sacrament, since baptism is the necessary door to receive validly all the other sacraments. If a person is to be baptized at the Easter Vigil -- or at any other time -- baptism absolves him or her of all sin. There would never be a need to make a first confession at the Easter Vigil between baptism and the first Eucharist. If in fact that takes place, it would simply be out of devotion, not necessity.

Q. During Holy Week, the Catholic Church commemorates Christ’s death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. How does that square with the Apostles’ Creed that states that Christ on the third day rose from the dead? Likewise, the Nicene Creed states that Christ on the third day rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures. Christ predicted that, like Jonah, he will be in the bowels of the earth three days and three nights.

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:In “A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture” we read, “The Hebrew day began with the evening” (149d). This may seem odd to us, used to, as we are, beginning our day at midnight, but we see the convention at work in the Church’s tradition of “vigils,” in which we begin celebrating Sundays, or feast days, at sundown the evening before the actual feast day.

We must keep this in mind as we read the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. John’s Gospel account relates the Jewish leaders’ anxiety that the bodies of Jesus and his criminal companions be removed from their crosses before sundown. “Now since it was preparation day of preparation, in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the Sabbath … the Jews asked Pilate … they be taken down” (19:31).

Therefore, although the number of hours may not add up to the expected 72, the Gospel reader should conclude that Jesus spent Friday in the tomb (because his body was placed there before sundown), as well as Saturday. Because Sunday begins at sundown on Saturday, we say he spent Sunday in the sepulcher as well.

Q. Was Jesus’ resurrection essentially the same as the raising of Lazarus from the dead? -- F. X. R., via email

A. Not at all. As the Catechism states:“Christ’s resurrection was not a return to earthly life, as was the case with the raisings from the dead that he had performed before Easter: Jairus’ daughter, the young man of Naim, Lazarus. These actions were miraculous events, but the persons miraculously raised returned by Jesus’ power to ordinary earthly life. At some particular moment they would die again. Christ’s Resurrection is essentially different. In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space. At Jesus’ Resurrection his body is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit: he shares the divine life in his glorious state” (no. 646).

Unlike Lazarus, Jesus will never die again (see Rom 6:9).

Indications of this transformation are clear in the Gospel accounts. Christ’s resurrected body now has new capabilities: He can appear and reappear suddenly; He can pass through locked doors; He can conceal His identity even from those who know Him well (see Lk 24:13-37; Jn 20:11-19). Then, at the appointed time of His last appearance, He is able to ascend into heaven in this transformed body (see Lk 24:50-51), bringing about “the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory” (Catechism, no. 659).

How thrilling, then, to realize that, one day, Christ “will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” (Phil 3:21)! In Our Lord’s resurrection, we behold the destiny of all those who will take up their cross and follow Him — through death to new life to everlasting glory.

Q. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain other religious groups teach that Jesus was only “spiritually” resurrected. Is that true? -- W. L., via e-mail

A. The Gospel accounts show otherwise. The tomb was empty, and the disciples encountered Jesus alive in His physical body — the same body they themselves had laid there:

“While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them” (Lk 24:36-43).

Clearly, then, Our Lord’s entire human nature was resurrected — not just His spirit, but also His physical body. The Catechism concludes:

“By means of touch and the sharing of a meal, the risen Jesus establishes direct contact with his disciples. He invites them in this way . . . to verify that the risen body in which he appears to them is the same body that had been tortured and crucified, for it still bears the traces of His passion [cf. Lk 24:30, 39-40, 41-43; Jn 20:20, 27; 21:9, 13-15]” (Catechism, no. 645).

Q. Skeptics claim that the resurrection of Christ was just a hoax, hallucination or superstition. How should Catholics respond? -- B. M., via e-mail

A. If we affirm the essential historical reliability of the Gospel accounts (and there are many good reasons to do so, even aside from the requirements of Christian faith), we must conclude that none of these suggested alternatives are plausible. “The mystery of Christ’s resurrection is a real event, with manifestations that were historically verified, as the New Testament bears witness” (Catechism, no. 639).

Three kinds of historical evidence confirm the reality of the event: the reality of the empty tomb; the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ to more than 500 witnesses; and the consequent faith and life of the apostles, who were convinced by those appearances that He was indeed alive.

“The first element we encounter in the framework of the Easter events is the empty tomb. In itself it is not a direct proof of Resurrection; the absence of Christ’s body from the tomb could be explained otherwise [cf. Jn 20:13; Mt 28:11-15]. Nonetheless the empty tomb was still an essential sign for all” (no. 640).

If the crucified body of Christ had remained in the tomb, there could have been no credible claims of a resurrected Lord; the enemies of the Gospel could simply have produced a dead body to quash the rumor. But they could not.

Second, we cannot discount the testimony of so many eyewitnesses as some kind of mass hallucination produced by shared faith expectations. Rather, “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs” (Acts 1:3). Consider:

The encounters with the risen Christ occurred in a variety of times and places.

  • The reported details of the encounters differ significantly, and the people who had the encounters were of various backgrounds, with differing dispositions toward belief (see Mt 28:9-10; Lk 24:13-49; Jn 20:11-30; 21:1-23; Acts 1:1-9; 1 Cor 15:3-8).
  • Some of them actually touched His body and watched Him consume food they had given Him (Lk 24:36-43).
  • Meanwhile, since their faith in Jesus had been shattered rather than confirmed by the crucifixion, many were startled or doubting when He appeared to them.

Taken together, these circumstances prevent us from reasonably concluding that we are dealing here with mass hallucination caused by ecstatic faith.

Third, the possibility of a hoax or conspiracy to cover up the truth is ruled out by the subsequent behavior of the apostles and other witnesses. They dedicated the rest of their lives to proclaiming that Christ had been raised from the dead, and they willingly endured imprisonment, torture and even death for the sake of that declaration (see Mt 28:11-15; Acts 12:1-5).

Is it reasonable to think that these men and women would be willing to live and die in this way for what they knew to be a lie?

“Given all these testimonies, Christ’s Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as an historical fact” (Catechism, no. 643).

Finally, as the scriptural account shows, first-century people were no more likely than we are to be superstitious or gullible about claims of returning from the grave. The apostles themselves reacted with skepticism, not to mention others (see Lk 24:9-11; Jn 20:24-25; Acts 17:32).

“Therefore the hypothesis that the Resurrection was produced by the apostles’ faith (or credulity) will not hold up. On the contrary their faith in the Resurrection was born, under the action of divine grace, from their direct experience of the reality of the risen Jesus” (Catechism, no. 644).


A number of queries have come in about the nature of Christ’s resurrection. Though that historical event is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, skeptics have denied it, heretics have obscured it and even believers have debated its nature. Over the next few days we’ll answer a few of the most common questions, with references to Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In the meantime, let me recommend an excellent documentary: Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? A Critical Examination of the Facts About the Resurrection of Jesus, featuring Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Dr. Timothy Gray, Johnnette Bencovic, and others. For more about this 60-minute DVD, distributed by Ignatius Press, click here.

Q. I’ve heard some people say that it doesn’t matter whether Jesus actually rose bodily from the tomb. It’s His message that counts, they insist. I know that’s wrong, but what’s the best way to reply to that claim? -- M. M., via e-mail

A. St. Paul put it most bluntly: “If Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ” (1 Cor 15:14–15).

The resurrection of Jesus isn’t separate from His message; it’s an essential aspect of that message, of one piece with the rest of the Gospel. Deny it, and we might as well deny all the rest as an unreliable fabrication. Christ’s rising from the dead is integral to the testimony of the Church about who Jesus is, what He said, and what He did, a seal of authenticity on everything else.

The Catechism puts it this way:

“The Resurrection above all constitutes the confirmation of all Christ’s works and teachings. All truths, even those most inaccessible to human reason, find their justification if Christ by his Resurrection has given the definitive proof of his divine authority, which he had promised. Christ’s Resurrection is the fulfillment of the promises both of the Old Testament and of Jesus himself during his earthly life. . . . The truth of Jesus’ divinity is confirmed by his Resurrection” (nos. 651–53).

At the same time, Christ’s resurrection is the source of our present life with God, which came about after the death of our old life trapped in sin. “The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ, liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life . . . and a new participation in grace” (Catechism, no. 654).

Finally, Christ’s resurrection is essential to Christian faith because, as St. Paul went on to say, without it “those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor 15:18). Our own hope of resurrection is based on the reality of His. “Christ, ‘the first-born from the dead’ (Col 1:18), is the principle of our own resurrection, even now by the justification of our souls (cf. Rom 6:4), and one day by the new life He will impart to our bodies (cf. Rm 8:11)” (Catechism, no. 658).

Q. I notice on the calendar that Catholics celebrate Easter on a different date than Eastern Orthodox. Why would Orthodox Christians celebrate this important feast on a day that’s different from Catholics and Protestants? -- J.H., via e-mail

A. The day designated for annually celebrating our Lord’s resurrection varied within the early Church, a situation that sometimes led to controversy. The fathers of the First Council of Nicaea (A. D. 325) recognized that the unity of Catholic faith throughout the world would be better reflected by a consistency in the celebration of this most important of Christian feasts. So they standardized the method for determining its date.

Unlike Christmas, which always occurs on a set date (December 25), Easter was established as a moveable feast, dependent on the shifting relations each year between the cycles of the moon and the sun. The Nicene fathers declared that Easter would fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon to occur after the vernal equinox.

The vernal equinox is the time each spring when the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator, so that night and day are of approximately equal length all over the world. It usually falls on March 21. Thus Easter never occurs before March 22 or after April 25.

We should note that this not a precise statement of the actual Church rules for determining the date. The full moon involved in calculation is not the astronomical full moon, but rather an “ecclesiastical moon” determined from rather complicated tables developed by the Church. Nevertheless, the ecclesiastical moon keeps in step, more or less, with the astronomical moon.

If the Nicene fathers standardized the celebration of Easter, how is it that Eastern Orthodox Christians usually celebrate on a day different from Catholics and most Protestants? The ancient Nicene rule for calculation is in fact still followed essentially by all these Christian communions. But the basic calendar used by the Orthodox churches is itself no longer used in the West.

At the time of Nicaea, the Roman world was using the Julian calendar, so called because it had been introduced by Julius Caesar about 46 B.C. However, the imprecision of this calendar allowed the true (seasonal) year to move away from the calendar year over a period of centuries.

To solve this problem, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII made adjustments to the Julian calendar to make it correspond more closely to the true length of the solar year. The new arrangement was called the Gregorian calendar.

Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but by that time a discrepancy of 10 days had accumulated between it and the Julian calendar. So the extra 10 days were eliminated by having the date jump that year straight from October 4 to October 15.

By the early twentieth century, most countries had adopted the Gregorian calendar, at least for secular purposes. Nevertheless, the Eastern Orthodox churches, long separated from papal leadership, continued to use the Julian calendar to calculate the date of Easter. That calendar now runs 13 days after the Gregorian one.

As a result, Catholics and Orthodox usually end up observing our Lord’s Resurrection — not to mention the Lenten season and Holy Week preceding it — on different dates. Despite the best efforts of the council fathers at Nicaea so many centuries ago, Christians are still divided in their celebration of this most important of Christian feasts.

Q. In a recent Bible study the story of the Passover was read. It said that we should keep this ordinance forever (see Ex 12:14,17,24). What does the Church teach about the practice of the Passover supper? -- E.K., via e-mail

A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D: The Church celebrates the Passover every year in her observance of Easter. The deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt is a type, an anticipation, of the true Passover -- the sacrifice of God's Son, when He delivered the world from the power of sin.

In the opening statement at the Easter Vigil, the celebrant declares, "This is the Passover of the Lord." In the Easter Proclamation the deacon sings, "This is our Passover feast, when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain, whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers."

This feast is the high point of the year in the Church's liturgical cycle.

Q. Why were Jesus Christ's friends unable to recognize him after the Resurrection?

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin: Scholars provide compelling, logical reasons for individuals’ not recognizing the risen Jesus. For example, Mary Magdalene was crying (see Jn 20:11), and Jesus called the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias before daylight, from the shore (Jn 21:4).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm” (No. 109). Like all writers, the Evangelists arrange facts to lead readers to conclusions. Every failure to recognize Jesus provides a spiritual lesson. Mary recognizes Jesus when he calls her name; Peter’s companion recognizes him when he sees the fish. (We encountered a similar event at Easter, when the empty tomb baffled Peter, but caused “the disciple whom Jesus loved” to grasp the reality of the Resurrection). The disciples on the way to Emmaus recognize Jesus in the breaking of Bread (see Lk 24:31).

In each case, the Gospel text provides a picture of our relations with Christ. Mary teaches that we recognize Jesus when our love allows him to call us by name. Emmaus provides insight into the Eucharist. The empty tomb and the events at Tiberias describe the value of allowing faith and love to reveal more than our eyes can see.

Q. May the Te Deum be sung during Lent? And should the holy-water fonts be empty during Lent?

A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin: The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours prescribes the Te Deum (“O God, we praise Thee”) to be sung “on Sundays outside of Lent, during the octaves of Easter and Christmas, [and] on solemnities and feasts” (No. 67). When the General Instruction considers the celebrations of solemnities of saints it repeats this direction, “At the end of the office of Readings, the Te Deum is said.”

This is a both/and answer to the question of using the Te Deum during Lent. On Lenten Sundays and ordinary saints’ days, we do not say the Te Deum; on solemnities — such as St. Joseph’s Day and the Annunciation — we do.

Concerning holy-water fonts: On March 14, 2000, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship observed that the “removing of holy water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted.” The congregation cited two reasons: water and baptism are frequently mentioned in the Lenten liturgical readings, and avoiding use of the Church’s sacramentals is in no way part of the abstinence encouraged during the days of Lent.

To be sure, holy-water fonts are emptied on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but each of these days invites us to look forward to the blessing of the baptismal water at the Easter Vigil.