Re-posted from Rev. Ron Roberson, CSP at the USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs:
Last month, in his address to a group of priests in Rome from around the world, Pope Francis again raised the question of the date of Easter, which Orthodox and western Christians have usually celebrated on different dates for centuries. In fact, he said that the Catholic Church was “ready to renounce” its method of calculation of the date of Easter in order to reach an agreement with the Orthodox Church, so that all Christian churches can celebrate Easter on the same day. What’s going on here?
In the early church there was considerable confusion regarding the date of Easter and different areas were observing it on different days. Eventually a consensus developed that harkened back to discussions at the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325, that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is the classical formulation that has remained in place until the present day.
But as the centuries went by, things grew more complicated. Most importantly, the calculation of the date of Easter on the traditional “Julian” calendar became more and more inaccurate. Eventually there was a reform of the calendar in the West that was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The reform included skipping ten days in October (October 4 was followed by October 15 that year) and the introduction of leap years. In the West this new and much more accurate “Gregorian” calendar was subsequently used to calculate the date of Easter, but the Eastern Churches continued to use the Julian calendar. Another difference in calculation is that in the East, Easter may never coincide with Jewish Passover but must come after it; in the West the two can coincide.
As a result, for several centuries now the western and eastern churches have had different ways of calculating the date of Easter. Sometimes they still coincide, as they did in 2010, 2011, and 2014, and will again in 2017, but not after that until 2025. Often the two are just a week apart but can be much farther apart, as they were in 2013 (March 31 and May 5), and will be in 2016 (March 27 and May 1), and 2024 (March 31 and May 5). It should be noted, however, that the eastern and western calculations of the date of Easter are not absolutely identified with the western and eastern churches. Catholics in Greece, for example, celebrate Easter on the Orthodox calendar, and the Orthodox in Finland celebrate on the western calendar used by the majority of Christians in that country. Some Eastern Catholics also celebrate Easter on the Julian calendar.
It has often been observed that the inability of Christians to celebrate together the central mystery of their faith is nothing short of a scandal, and it diminishes the credibility of Christian witness to the Gospel in today’s world. With this in mind, the Vatican and the World Council of Churches sponsored a conference in Aleppo, Syria, in March 1997 to examine this question. At the end of the meeting, the conference issued an agreed statement entitled, “Towards a Common Date for Easter.”
The Aleppo document recommended that all the churches reaffirm their acceptance of the formula of the Council of Nicaea, but that the astronomical data (the vernal equinox and the full moon) be re-calculated by the most accurate possible scientific means, using the meridian of Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection, as the basis for reckoning. The result of this re-calculation would produce a calendar different from both the eastern and western calendars as they exist today, although it would be closer to the western one. It would allow all Christians to celebrate the Resurrection together, while also being more faithful to the Council of Nicaea than any of the churches are today. The obvious advantages of this solution were spelled out in an agreed statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation in October 1998.
Nevertheless, it has become clear that the Orthodox are not able to support the proposals in the Aleppo document. The reasons for this are not primarily theological but pastoral. After World War I most of the Orthodox Churches (except Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, and Mount Athos) adopted the Gregorian calendar for fixed feasts, but not for Easter and the movable feasts dependent on it. There was a strong reaction to this among the faithful with a more traditionalist outlook, which led to schisms and the foundation of several “Old Calendar” churches in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria that still exist today. Also, in Russia in the early years of communism the Soviet government supported a “Living Church” movement within the Orthodox Church that advocated the use of the Gregorian calendar. That group was eventually suppressed in 1946, but in the minds of many faithful there was now a connection between the Gregorian calendar and communism. These fairly recent schisms within Orthodoxy explain why the Orthodox are extremely reluctant to tamper with their traditional reckoning of the date of Easter.
In view of this history, it is not easy to imagine an agreement on the date of Easter that all Christians would find acceptable. The Aleppo document proposed an eminently reasonable solution that the Orthodox have been unable to accept. A fixed date for Easter such as the third Sunday of April would be a departure from the tradition that few would find acceptable. It has often been observed that the only way that all Christians could agree on a date for Easter would be a universal adherence to the Orthodox calendar. This solution would have obvious disadvantages, but in the real world it may be the only one possible.
Father Ronald Roberson, CSP is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is also a consultor to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches.