Why Going to Mass is Not Optional
Sunday Mass Obligation
Do you understand the Sunday Mass obligation? Do you know a Catholic who doesn't like to go to Mass? Do you understand why it is a Mortal sin to miss Sunday Mass without grave reason? In our modern society, faithfully attending Mass seems to have become an act many Catholics view as optional. The teaching of the Church has never changed. To get directly to the point, it is not optional. Faithful Catholics are obligated to attend Mass each and every Sunday.
But we should not view the word ‘obligation’ as a bad thing. Going to Mass is not a punishment, it’s not a chore to get out of the way so you can go to the movies or out to brunch. The Mass is celebrated at Christ’s instruction, “Do this in memory of Me.” If we all take a moment to understand why participating in Mass is so important, why skipping Mass is a mortal sin, maybe ‘obligation’ will no longer seem like such an imposing word. Understanding why the Mass is so important is the first step to loving the Mass. And when you come to love the Mass, going to church on Sunday no longer feels like an “I have to,” but instead becomes an “I need, I want to."
The Precepts of the Church
Before going further, it is important to note what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us about Catholic Mass attendance.
The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor") requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the Mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.
The second precept ("You shall confess your sins at least once a year") ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness.
The third precept ("You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season") guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord's Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy. (CCC 2042)
The precept of the Church specifies the law of the Lord more precisely: "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass." "The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.”
The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin. (CCC. 2180 and 2181)
The Code of Canon Law, the legal code of Christ's Church, states:
On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass. They are also to abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the due relaxation of mind and body.
The obligation of assisting at Mass is satisfied wherever Mass is celebrated in a Catholic rite either on a holy day itself or on the evening of the previous day. (Can 1247, 1248)
Both the code of Canon Law and the Catechism clearly state the obligation. There was some general teaching prior to Vatican II that one had to be present for the offertory through reception of Holy Communion to fulfill the obligation. However this is not a part of the canon and the faithful are to participate in the complete Mass in order to fulfill the Sunday obligation.
Some consider the formal language of the Catechism and Canon Law to be somewhat inaccessible, or others may read the Catechism and rebuke what is said simply because they think there are “too many rules.” Of course, rules are in place for a reason – even when it comes to driving, where the seemingly mundane rule of staying inside the painted lines has an enormous effect. So we can easily acknowledge that the rules about something so much more important – our faith – were not thrown together randomly, but have great meaning. Beyond the precept itself, we can also look at why it is so critical, and better understand the importance of participating in Mass every Sunday.
The Third Commandment: Remember to Keep Holy the Lord’s Day
When asked why Catholics go to Mass on Sunday, the third commandment is quite often given as an answer. This commandment is definitely not where the reason we are obligated to participate in Mass ends, but it is a good place to start. In the earliest days of Christianity, Sunday replaced the Sabbath as the Lord’s Day because it was on Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead, Sunday on which He appeared to two of His disciples and broke bread with them:
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Lk 24:30-35)
It was from that first day onwards that the faithful began to celebrate the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice and rising, and still today, it is in the breaking of the bread that we recognize Jesus. The Second Vatican Council also recognizes that Sunday as the foremost day to celebrate the Eucharist was handed down from the day of the resurrection:
"Apostolic tradition of the Church is, from the very day of the resurrection of Christ, to celebrate the Pasch every eight days, on the day which is called the day of the Lord" ("Sacrosanctum Concilium", 106)
The First Commandment: You Shall Not Have Strange Gods Before Me
The third commandment is often mentioned as explanation for the importance of attending Mass on Sunday, but the first commandment is just as crucial. In fact if the first commandment is followed, abiding to the third will come naturally.
There are those who choose to willfully skip Mass, or those who ‘drag’ themselves to Mass but do not want to be there. The question is, “why?” Why don’t they want to be there, sharing in Christ’s passion, sharing in His resurrection? Quite often, it is because they feel they have something better or more interesting to do. Watch a sports game, go shopping, paint the shed, read a book, watch a movie, take a nap, get a head start on work related tasks for the week. The focus is put on these things, and not on God.
It’s not worshiping a golden statue, but the result is the same. When these things take precedence over Christ, the false gods of the material world are being put before Our Lord. It is not to say that ambition in career, shopping, entertainment, and keeping up the house are evil in themselves. The problem is when one allows them to become more important than God, when one willfully chooses these in place of God, including in place of participation in the Mass, the core of our faith. If you find yourself asking if you really have to go to Mass, change the question and ask yourself why you aren’t excited to go to Mass? In the early days of the church – and in some countries still – faithful people could be jailed or even killed for celebrating Mass. So why do we allow worldly entertainments to compete with our love for God and the Eucharist?
The Words of the Saints
The perfect answer to the “do what you feel like doing” mentality of modern society is to seek inspiration in the words of the saints, who understood the importance of holy Mass. For the most part, they too lived in societies where materialism was a distraction to those around them. Yet these saints had a love for God that helped them to overcome temptations, and even their own past actions, to be more fully devoted to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The writings of the saints would be a good place to begin to find instructional and inspirational words of those holy people who lived before us.
The Intention of the Faithful
It is important to note that one’s will is also factor here. The church acknowledges a difference between missing Mass for a grave reason or for something over which you had no control, and the act of willfully choosing not to go to Mass. The former is not a mortal sin, the latter is. In the Apostolic letter Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II instructed those who are prevented from participating in the Mass in the following way:
Finally, the faithful who, because of sickness, disability or some other serious cause, are prevented from taking part, should as best they can unite themselves with the celebration of Sunday Mass from afar, preferably by means of the readings and prayers for that day from the Missal, as well as through their desire for the Eucharist. (Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II)
There are several books available to help one understand the Mass more fully and deepen their love for the celebration. Loving the Holy Mass is a great place to start and If Your Mind Wanders at Mass and Heart of the Mass are great resources for any Catholic. For more on the Mass, check out our extensive Liturgy and Mass section.
Learn more about the effects of mortal sin in our article: What is Hell and How Do I Get There?