Celebrating Pascha Together

Patriarch Gregorious standing on a green lawn with background of building arches

Letter of His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios III for Pascha 2010

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

From Gregorios, servant of Jesus Christ, by the grace of God, Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, to their excellencies, the bishops, members of the venerable Holy Synod, to our sons, the priests, and to all our sons and daughters in Jesus Christ


Celebrating Pascha together!

What joy fills the Christian world, East and West! Yes, we rejoice at celebrating the glorious Feast of Pascha together, the holy Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ! Yes, East and West! All Christians, both those who follow the Julian calendar and those who follow the Gregorian calendar, are all celebrating together! What is more, we shall celebrate together in the same way in the year 2011! We thank the Lord for this gift.

This fact is the result of the ecclesiastical calendar that governs the annual celebration of the Feast of Pascha. We published a brief summative study on the topic in the third volume of liturgical books that we compiled, revised and published between 1992 and 2000, as requested by our predecessor of blessed memory, Patriarch Maximos V, after our election by the Holy Synod as president of the liturgical commission in 1986.

We should like to take advantage of this opportunity to provide some background on this matter. In fact the liturgical commission, made up of fifteen members, representing the eparchies and the masculine and feminine religious orders, were faced with a gigantic task. The whole collection of liturgical service books eventually appeared in four volumes. To do this, we had adopted a pilot method, never used in any other Church of Byzantine Greek tradition. Indeed, normally, monastics, especially in their monasteries, and parishes need for the celebration of the daily office the following books: the Horologion (the common of the divine office), the Menaion (offices of the immovable feasts by month), the Paraklitike (in sections corresponding to the eight tones), the Triodion (for Lent), the Pentekostarion (Paschal season) and the Prophetologion. Besides (apart from the Horologion) these were few in number, even in monasteries and big churches, where there might be just two or three copies.

The liturgical commission then adopted a new method under our presidency and at our proposal and that is how the whole divine office could be contained in just four volumes[1].

So the liturgical books of all the services are within the reach of all: bishops, priests, monks, nuns and lay-persons. The books are in two formats, large and small, destined either for church or for personal use.

Patriarch Maximos V wrote in his patriarchal decree, “We hope very much that these books, in their new form, may be a substantial contribution towards reviving the original liturgical tradition and making Eastern spirituality better understood and more deeply appreciated.”

Calendar: explanation about the Julian and Gregorian reckonings

We deem it useful to our faithful to present this explanation about both Julian and Gregorian calendars.

The solar or astronomical year is the time the sun takes in its movement from the vernal equinox until its return to the same point in its revolution: a length of exactly 365 days, five hours and approximately forty-six seconds.

The ancient Egyptians reckoned the year as consisting only of 360 days, to which they later added five epagomenal days. Therefore the vernal equinox occurred in its astronomical course later by about five and three-quarter hours every year, so that spring fell progressively earlier through the calendar months, rather similar to what happens with the reckoning of the Hegira, the Ramadan fast and all feasts of the Muslim faith.

In the reign of Julius Caesar (obit 44 B.C.), at his request, the Alexandrian astrologer Sosigenes corrected the Egyptian astronomical reckoning, by increasing each year by six hours. From this annual increase there was created a whole day every four years, which was added at the end of the month of February. So February would have in that year twenty-nine days and that year was called a leap year, since it was increased by a day.

This system, which is still followed by some Eastern Churches, is called the Julian calendar, after Julius Caesar and is popularly known as the Old calendar.

So according to the Julian reckoning, the year is 365 and a quarter days, exceeding the true solar year by eleven minutes and fourteen seconds. Over a century this amounts to eighteen hours thirty-five minutes and over a millennium to seven days, seventeen hours, fifty minutes.

By 1582, this discrepancy amounted to over ten days’ difference between the true astronomical reckoning and the Old or Julian calendar. Pope Gregory XIII ordered this fault to be corrected, on the basis of this astronomical data, by moving directly from 4 to 15 October. (So 5 October became 15 October in Catholic countries.) He also ordered one whole day to be added every four years in leap years. However, a year is a leap year either if it is divisible by 4 but not by 100 or if it is divisible by 400. In other words, a year which is divisible by 4 is a leap year unless it is divisible by 100 but not by 400 (in which case it is not a leap year.) Thus the years 1600 and 2000 are leap years, but 1700, 1800, 1900 and 2100 are not.

Despite this correction, there remains a difference of about twenty-six seconds over the year between the astronomical year and the Gregorian reckoning. So the Old or Julian reckoning is now running some thirteen days behind the reformed Gregorian calendar of 1582, because it fell back one day in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It will next drop back by one day in 2100, as the Julian reckoning has a different method from the Gregorian for calculating leap years.

A great number of Churches of Byzantine Greek rite have progressively adopted the Gregorian calendar, except with regard to the reckoning of Pascha. Our Melkite Greek Catholic Church started using the Gregorian calendar first in 1857, in the time of Patriarch Clement (Bahhouth.)

The reason for the different dates of Pascha by the Julian and Gregorian reckonings

One may well wonder what the reason is for the difference in the date of the Feast of Pascha between the Julian and Gregorian reckonings.

We have an answer to this question from Mr. Pierre Sollogoub, an Orthodox engineer and member and treasurer of the Fraternité Orthodoxe in Paris:

In the year 325, the First Ecumenical Council, otherwise known as the First Nicene Council, was held at Nicaea. Its aim was to define the Orthodox Christian faith as opposed to Arianism. The Fathers of the Council also dealt with the question of the date of Pascha, which was the subject of dispute. This Council decided that Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, should be celebrated on the same date, the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox, which falls on 21 March. This decree had deep import, because of the relationship with Jewish Passover and with the death and resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Fathers of the Council of Nicaea fixed the Paschal lists or tables on the basis of the Julian reckoning and ancient astronomical data known in the period, especially the Metonic cycle named after the astronomer Meton of Athens (fifth century B.C.) This astronomer worked out that in the course of nineteen years, there are two hundred and thirty-five lunar cycles and that the moon, after that period, begins to appear on the same dates again. On that basis, or according to that astronomical calculation, and following the decree of the Council of Nicaea, the Orthodox Church calculates the Feast of Pascha.

However, there are two reasons why that calculation is incorrect:

  1. The Julian reckoning, the basis for calculating the Feast of Pascha, moves a full day ahead of the solar year every 128 years. As a result, since the Council of Nicaea’s decree in 325, the reckoning has been slower by thirteen days (or fourteen in 2100) compared with the solar calculation. The vernal equinox no longer falls on 21 March when reckoned by the Julian calendar, but on 8 March.
  2. In the calculation of the lunar cycle by Meton, there is an inaccuracy[2], which means that the Paschal lists or tables based on it are by now some four or five days later in the Julian calendar when compared with the Gregorian.

In 1582, the New or Gregorian reckoning corrected these faults, so as to remain faithful to the ruling of the Council of Nicaea. So the two methods of reckoning, both Julian and Gregorian, are very careful to keep to the Nicene ruling. The difference between the two methods comes from the difference in determining the date of the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Because of the difference in calendars and formulas, Western Easter and Orthodox Pascha do not often coincide. Under current rules, they can differ from each other by 0, 1, 4, or 5 weeks. They are in separate lunations (meaning that they are 4 or 5 weeks apart because their respective cycles identify different ecclesiastical lunar months as the Paschal lunar month) in years 3, 8, 11, 14, and 19 of the 19-year cycle, and in the same lunation (0 or 1 week apart) in the other years.

This is why, for example, in 1983 Western Christians celebrated Easter on April 3, following the Gregorian tables for calculating the first full moon after the vernal equinox. However, Eastern Christians, following tabulations of the moon based on the Julian calendar, identified the first full moon after the equinox as the one after that identified under the Gregorian tabulations. So Orthodox celebrated Pascha that year on 25 April by the Julian calendar, but 8 May in the Gregorian.

Supplementary research and studies were carried out during the two congresses held at Chambésy in 1977 and 1982 in preparation for the Pan-Orthodox General Synod. The general result confirmed the inadequacy of the Old style reckoning and the need for rectifying it in accordance with the Gregorian calendar.

However, no decision has been taken, partly for pastoral reasons, of which the main one is that the Orthodox faithful are not prepared to take this step. On the other hand, any change to the ruling of Ecumenical Councils must proceed from another Ecumenical Council.

The situation causes inconvenience in practical life: the school year, holidays and official leave, commerce, travel, tourism, flights…Most of all, it is the cause of deep sorrow in the hearts of the faithful, who wish to express their great desire for Christian unity by celebrating every year together the greatest Christian feast, the Feast of Pascha and the Resurrection.

The date of Pascha in documents of the Catholic Church

The Second Vatican Council discussed the problem of the date of Easter in two documents. In the document Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (4 December 1963), there can be found towards the end a Declaration on Revision of the Calendar. This declaration relates to the question of determining the date of the Paschal Feast. The text is as follows:

The Second … Sacred Council of the Vatican, recognizing the importance of the wishes expressed by many concerning the assignment of the feast of Easter to a fixed Sunday and concerning an unchanging calendar, having carefully considered the effects which could result from the introduction of a new calendar, declares as follows:

  1. The Sacred Council would not object if the Feast of Easter were assigned to a particular Sunday of the Gregorian Calendar, provided that those whom it may concern, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See, give their assent.
  2. The Sacred Council likewise declares that it does not oppose efforts designed to introduce a perpetual calendar into civil society.

But among the various systems which are being suggested to stabilize a perpetual calendar and to introduce it into civil life, the Church has no objection only in the case of those systems which retain and safeguard a seven-day week with Sunday, without the introduction of any days outside the week, so that the succession of weeks may be left intact, unless there is question of the most serious reasons. Concerning these the Apostolic See shall judge.[3]

In the decree on the subject of The Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite (November 21 1964) the Council recommends in No. 20 to celebrate on the same day and to work to attain the objective so as to intensify Christian unity. There follows the conciliar text:

20. Until such time as all Christians are agreed on a fixed day for the celebration of Easter, with a view meantime to promoting unity among the Christians of the same area or nation, it is left to the patriarchs or supreme authorities of a place to come to an agreement by the unanimous consent and combined counsel of those affected to celebrate the Feast of Easter on the same Sunday.

The third document is one proceeding from the Congregation for the Oriental Churches (1996) and entitled Instruction for applying the liturgical prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Here is the text, taken from Chapter VI, No. 36:

Until the time in which all Christians reach the desired agreement of fixing one day for the common celebration of the Easter Feast, the practice, already in use among some Catholic communities living in countries of Orthodox majority, will be encouraged to celebrate Easter on the day in which it is celebrated by the Orthodox, in conformity with the indications formulated by Vatican Council II in the appendix of the “Sacrosanctum Concilium” and in “Orientalium Ecclesiarum” No. 20. In addition to being a sign of ecumenical fraternity, this practice allows the Catholic faithful to enter harmoniously into the common spiritual climate, which often also marks civilian life, avoiding inappropriate dissonance.

That text is an invitation addressed to all from the supreme authority of the Church: Patriarchs, bishops, priests, vicars, pastors and faithful to intensify their efforts to satisfy this popular desire for celebrating the Great Feast together. It invites Catholics to celebrate according to the Julian calendar in regions where the majority is Orthodox. That is the case in Syria and in general in the Arab world, where there are some fifteen million Arab Christians, the great majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox, then Greek Orthodox, then Greek Catholics and other Catholic Churches (Armenian, Maronite, Syriac etc.) The text goes beyond the logic of preference between the two calendars, Julian and Gregorian, on the basis of a religious, theological or scientific computus. In fact the calendars have no doctrinal content: they are two astronomical reckonings, one of which is of pagan Roman origin, named after Julius Caesar (c. 100-44B.C.) The Feast of Pascha was fixed on the basis of this pagan method of reckoning by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The second is still Julian, but corrected in the reign of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) and by his order.

Efforts for celebrating Pascha together

Christian unity is a value surpassing every astronomical calculation. Celebrating the feast together has been one of the most important elements of Christian unity down the centuries.

The blessed Pope John XXIII said, “What unites us (Christians) is much greater than what divides us.” What unites us is especially our common Creed, which all Christians in both East and West recite every day, despite the diversity of their Churches. That is why we rejoice at everything that unites us in this same faith and long for and work for more unity. In fact, since Vatican II, ecumenical efforts have developed among Christians, to smooth out difficulties that still hamper the almost complete unity of Christians. We all know that the basic obstacle is the concept of unity with regard to the practice of authority in the Church, especially the authority of the Pope of Rome in history and today, in theory, doctrine and practice. This is not the place to go into this question.

Yet the celebration of Pascha, the Holy Resurrection, is a purely astronomical question, as we have shown above. Nevertheless, it is also a common popular wish.

Our Melkite Greek Catholic Church has always been very flexible on the matter. That is what Patriarch Maximos IV expressed in his 1967 decree on the subject of adopting the Julian calendar in Egypt:

The general interest of Christians and the desire to foster unity between Churches require Catholic and evangelical Christians to give up celebrating the Feast of Pascha according to their reformed calendar and provisionally adopt for the celebration of this feast the old calendar, still observed by the majority of Christians [that is, Coptic Orthodox] in this country… That is why, after consultation with the parties whom it seemed appropriate to consult, our community in Egypt, belonging to our Patriarchate in Alexandria, should from this year 1967 henceforth celebrate the Feast of Pascha according to the unreformed Julian calendar[4].

The Julian calendar for Pascha was adopted in Jordan for Easter 1972. Moved by the same attitude of ecumenical openness of mind, we accepted in 1995, during our ministry as Patriarchal Vicar in Jerusalem, that some of our faithful (from Ramallah, Nablus and the northern West Bank) who requested it, should celebrate Pascha according to the Julian calendar, while other of our faithful (from Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Jerusalem) should continue to celebrate according to the Gregorian calendar.

This arrangement or decision created no schism or disagreement in our Church. The same decision was taken by the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, and by the Anglicans and other Protestants. That caused no schism between the different communities!

I wanted to take the same step after my election as Patriarch and on the occasion of the visit of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, to Syria in May, 2001. In fact I discovered in the archives of the Patriarchate in Damascus a great number of documents requesting the unification of the feast over a period of more than twenty years. But unfortunately I have been unable to convince my beloved colleagues of the other Catholic Churches to take this step and come to a common decision, so as to gladden the hearts of our faithful who wish most ardently to unify the feast!

This has been a cause of great disappointment to the majority of our parishes throughout Syria and in all Catholic Churches. A great number of faithful, both individuals and confraternities, have made great strides in this respect among ecclesiastical authorities. Young people, especially, have expressed their desire for unifying the date for Pascha. Talks have been given on the subject, with a view to fulfilling this desire and popular wish. Yet we do not lose hope.


On the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2005, I wrote a letter to their Beatitudes the Patriarchs. It was a long letter from which the following is an extract:

In all the efforts for the unification of the celebration of Pascha in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, flexibility was the golden rule, the goal being to celebrate together.

On that basis, I am re-launching my appeal to my brother Patriarchs and the bishops in Lebanon and Syria, begging them to hear the urgent and repeated appeal of the faithful. In the majority, they consider the unity of the feast to be the symbol and expression of their Christian unity, their Christian presence and their Christian witness in their society. We have all heard these appeals; we all know the immense desire of our faithful to see realised their dearest wish of celebrating together the One Great Feast (according to the popular expression) before their non-Christian fellow-citizens.

Is it permissible to turn a deaf ear to the voice of our sons and daughters?

Let us really hear the call of Vatican II, and that of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the documents adduced above. His Eminence Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has often recalled them. Can we forget the voice of John Paul II often emphasising the importance of celebrating together?

I am convinced that the decision to celebrate together in Syria and Lebanon greatly serves the cause of our Christian presence and witness, especially after the events of September 11, 2001 and the following tendency to provoke a clash between Christianity and Islam.

Today more than ever, we need to recognize the signs of the times, the outstanding initiatives to which our people aspire, athirst for Christian unity and for making progress in realising it, whatever the measures, great or small, needful to bring it about.

I beg my brothers in Christ to respect each other’s freedom. If a Church wishes to take this step by itself, this should not be considered as a break in Catholic ranks at global level.

The logic of the faithful is the following: I prefer to celebrate with my close neighbour, even if I am not in agreement with the faithful of my own Church in other regions.[5]

The Arabic proverb says: Thy close neighbour rather than thy distant brother. That is the people’s logic – and the voice of the people is the voice of God! Vox populi, vox Dei.

Common efforts towards a single, fixed, common Feast of Pascha

I should like to summarize the explanation about the topic of the common Feast of Pascha, which has a great importance in the history of the Church.

  • 1. The date of Pascha was determined by the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea on the basis of the Julian calendar. In the East, we call it the Eastern calendar, and in Europe and the West, the Old calendar.

  • 2. Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar, whence the term the Gregorian calendar, or the Western calendar, as we say in the East.

  • 3. The Gregorian calendar has been observed by the Roman Catholic Church and, at different dates, by Anglicans and other Protestants and the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Middle East.

  • 4. The Gregorian calendar is currently followed (except for the Paschal cycle) by most Orthodox Churches.

  • 5. The Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, with the exception of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in Palestine and Jordan, follow the Gregorian calendar, except for the Paschal cycle which is determined on the basis of the Julian calendar.

  • 6. The Second Vatican Council made two proposals:
    • i. to work together at the level of Churches and world level, to fix the date of Easter, on the Sunday that falls between 9 and 15 April, without debating the question of the Julian and Gregorian calendars
    • ii. the Council and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches invited the Eastern Catholic Churches to adopt the Julian calendar in regions where the majority of Christians is Orthodox. This would be a temporary but beautiful solution, both useful and important, for promoting Christian unity. This was carried out in Egypt (1967), Jordan (1972) and in some districts of Palestine (from 1995) and in some villages of Lebanon and Syria.
  • 7. However, the ideal solution is the adoption of a common, fixed date, such as the Sunday which falls between 9 and 15 April. This solution should be worked out in collaboration between East and West, especially between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek and Slav Orthodox Churches. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, there is currently a stalemate.
  • 8. For my part, I wish to become an apostle of unity of the feast. I shall present this study and letter to the Special Synod on the Catholic Church in the Middle East, proposing to the Pope and to the Fathers of the Synod, both Eastern and Western, the adoption of a resolution to resume the efforts to celebrate Pascha on a common, fixed date.
  • 9. I would like to propose to the Fathers of this Synod the adoption of a resolution exhorting Christians, pastors and people, especially in Syria and Lebanon to observe the Julian calendar for Pascha, as a temporary solution, whilst awaiting a definitive resolution: this with a view to showing visibly the aim of the Synod, whose motto is: Communion and Witness.
  • 10. I should like to contact a number of Orthodox and Catholic Churches throughout the world, requesting urgently, with humility and trust, for us to work to realize this holy cause.

Finally, I call upon all the faithful, all those men and women who love Christian unity, to accompany these efforts through their prayer and their own efforts. May the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, our Mother, Lady of unity, intercede with her Son and our God, that he may bless the efforts of all of us his children, that we may all together realize his prayer, “that all may be one.”

Call for unity

Setting aside the question of unifying the feast and a unified date according to a common calendar, what matters is Christian unity. That is why I am making a heartfelt plea to all the faithful, the sons and daughters of our eparchies, especially young people, who are the future of our countries and of the Church, and all the Christians who this year are celebrating together the Feast of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ. I am calling them to unity, solidarity, love and to good relations between families and the inhabitants of the same district, village and parish. I call all, great and small, men and women, poor and rich, young people especially, to remain firm in their holy faith, to preserve their Christian identity, to practise solidarity and mutual help, and to be proud of their faith, confessing it openly, with humility and nobility. I call upon them to walk together (not just to celebrate together) along the road of faith, despite challenges, difficulties, sufferings, obstacles and vexations. May they be capable of giving common witness together, in secret and even in public, to their beautiful faith, to Gospel values and to their love for Jesus Christ, living in their hearts, minds and lives! So may they be in their countries and their Arab societies and everywhere in the world, in all areas of their social life and life of faith, their cultural, societal, medical, political life, what Jesus commanded us to be – salt, light and leaven to ferment the whole lump, the whole of society.

The Special Synod for Eastern Catholic Churches which will take place between 10 and 24 October next (2010) calls us to that. I believe that if this Synod could take the decision to unify the celebration of Pascha, it would be the most significant result and decree expected by our faithful.

Paul calls us to unity

To this unity, shown in common celebration and shared values of our holy faith, the great Apostle Paul invites us, explaining the most sublime significance of unity with God and man, and the manifestation of unity among human beings themselves – that is, both the oneness of God and the unity of people among themselves and with God. This unity is human and divine, cosmic in fact. This unity is assuredly capable of leading all humanity, states, peoples and nations towards common progress in spiritual faith, which is able to unify all Christian believers among themselves and Christians and Muslims living in Arab countries, so as to realize together, in solidarity, in mutual love, the purposes of God for them, for an abundance of development, prosperity, well-being, security and tranquility. So together they can build on this earth of humankind, in their countries, the civilization of God, the civilization of love and peace.

Let us listen to Saint Paul inviting us to unity, which is the highest expression of the resurrection and of life:

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.. And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour. (Ephesians 4: 1-6, 13; 5: 2)

This last recommendation is the motto of our priestly ordination (1959), of our episcopal consecration (1981) and of our patriarchal service (2000.) [One can also see further in chapters 12 and 13 of the First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, on the subject of unity and varieties of charisms, unity of the body and of the Church, and the attributes of love, or of charity, which is the height of unity.]

Wishes for a Happy Feast

With these spiritual meditations, these hopes for the resurrection, this longing for unity, this ardour of charity, this joy in the glorious Resurrection, that Great Feast common to all Christians, we address you, dear brother bishops of our Holy Synod, and you, our dear priests, to whom is entrusted the deposit of unity in the faith in your parishes, especially in this Year for Priests.

We are also addressing our sons and daughters in our eparchies and parishes, in our beloved Arab countries and throughout the world, especially in our eparchies of Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina, which I shall be visiting in August and September 2010.

We are addressing our dear families and our young people – the special object of love! – all Christians who are celebrating this Great Feast together, and all our dear Muslim citizens, who are witnessing the unity of our feast. And we are sending to them and to all you men and women who are reading this our letter and message, our warmest good wishes and feelings of love, friendship and wishes for a Happy Feast.

May all our peoples in our Arab East, Christians of different Churches and Muslims too, walk forward together in the path of faith, hope and love, of solidarity, compassion and unity; the path of prosperity and peace – which is the great good, especially in Palestine and Iraq – for our peoples and for all the young generations.

And together let us sing, with one heart, one beautiful festive melody, with heroic faith, with a deep sense of strong ecclesial membership, with all the joy of our hearts and souls and with all our feelings, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Happy Feast!

Gregorios III

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,

Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Translation from French: V. Chamberlain