Last month I found myself reflecting on several aspects of one of our principal holy days of obligation in the Church, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As I reflected on the particular feast throughout the day, I couldn’t help but notice the somewhat sparse attendance at Holy Mass that day.
While it was a morning Mass, you’d expect all the families with children to be in attendance as school had not yet started. We have a school attached to my parish, so it was a bit perplexing to see that the church was not full for Mass. It made me realize two things. One was that a good number of Catholics don’t know which feasts are holy days of obligation, let alone that willfully and purposely missing Mass on that day is the same as missing a Sunday Mass. To do so is a mortal sin.
The second thing I realized is that people don’t like it when someone tells them they are obligated to do something. I’ve heard more than one person tell me that we shouldn’t call feasts like the Assumption “Holy Days of Obligation”, but instead call them “holy days of opportunity”. To be sure, we do have a great opportunity to receive our Lord in the Eucharist twice in the same week. But what’s wrong with calling these days “obligatory”? Is it really a bad thing to look at Mass in this way?
The Virtue of Religion
What do the Catechism and the Tradition of the Church say on this matter? We as people in our modern, Western culture have a sense of duty and justice when it comes to other things in our daily lives. Why is it oftentimes so hard for us to break out of our own bad habits and recognize that we also owe God a great deal? Delving into the Church’s point of view on these things can get us back on the right track.
If someone asked you to name the theological virtues, you’d probably know them by heart even if you didn’t remember their “official” title. Those three virtues are faith, hope and, charity. But we forget about the human virtues sometimes, which the Catechism calls “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, [and] habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith… The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. (CCC 1804).”
Among the human (or moral) virtues are what we call the cardinal virtues. We call them “cardinal” as all the other human virtues stem from these four. They are: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The one virtue that we will be focusing on today, the one that St. Thomas Aquinas calls “of greatest importance”, is justice. This is because the practice of our religion is grouped under the umbrella of the “virtue of justice”. The Catechism describes justice in this way:
“Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion’” (CCC 1807).
“If You Love Me …”
Notice the language used in the above selection. To give someone “their due”, means that we owe something to someone. We are obliged to render what is due to that someone. And in the case of Holy Days of Obligation, that “Someone” is God himself.
Think about it this way. When you were baptized, you entered into a covenant with God. We were admitted into God’s family, and became sons and daughters of the Creator himself. And just as it was under the Old Covenant, we have an inheritance with God. But in order for us to receive this inheritance, we must cooperate with God’s grace.
Don’t take this to imply that this means we work our way into heaven by “following the rules”. Not at all. While some of our non-Catholic Christian friends contend that we are saved by “faith alone”, the reality is that we are saved by “grace alone”. Since we have free will, we can choose to respond to that grace, or we can reject it. By responding to that grace, we follow our Lord’s commands, principally those found in the Ten Commandments, as well as in the “new” commandments (see John 13:34) our Lord Jesus gave us with the inauguration of the New Covenant. Indeed, our Lord made himself very clear:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments… If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14: 15, 23-24).
5 Precepts of the Church
It is interesting to see that Jesus puts “love” before “commandments”. He doesn’t say “If you keep my commandments, then this proves your love for me.” No. Instead, he tells us that if we love him, if we truly love him with our whole hearts and minds, then we will obey him and do that which we are obliged to do as his disciples. We’ll go more into that a little bit later. In the meantime, this prompts the question: what are we obliged to do as Catholic Christians? As disciples of Jesus Christ? We’ve already mentioned the Ten Commandments, which is binding in every time and place. But the Tradition of the Church also tells us about what we call “precepts”. After talking about the precepts of the natural law, of which “their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation (CCC 2036)”, the Catechism then describes what we call the Precepts of the Church in detail, emphasis added:
“The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor” (CCC 2041).
The language used here shows how necessary it is to follow these positive laws. Contrast this with language we might hear from our brothers and sisters that have become a bit lukewarm in practicing their faith. “I’m doing OK. I still go to Mass a couple times a month. Or at least during Christmas and Easter.” “I haven’t been to confession in years, but I still make sure I get to Mass.” The Catechism lays out here exactly what the bare minimum is in regards to being a Catholic that practices their faith and takes it seriously. Below are the five Precepts of the Church:
1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
4. You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5. You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church (CCC 2041-2043).
Aquinas: ‘Religion is of Greatest Importance’
Unfortunately, many in the world (and indeed, even many Catholics) will look at the above and see the precepts as “legalistic”. That we should tell our fellow Christians that they are obliged to do anything is, to many, counterintuitive. But it need not be. If the above were to be the first thing someone heard about the gospel, then we would have a major problem. The above is meant to be heard by the faithful. That is, by those that are already in love with our Lord, and for those that claim that they want to do his will. If they reject these precepts, as well as the Ten Commandments, well then we already see how our Lord feels about such a decision. He says it is only those who follow his commands that love him. And since the Church is the bride and Mystical Body of Christ, everything she receives comes from God himself. To let people know about these precepts is not a bad thing; it’s the charitable thing to do! And of course, to carry these duties out is a virtue. We often say that “patience is a virtue” in our common parlance, but sadly we’ve lost the notion that attending Mass (since it is related to the justice owed to God as seen above in CCC 1807) is a virtue too!
The “Angelic Doctor”, St. Thomas Aquinas, had a bit to say on this often forgotten virtue of religion. It’s interesting to see how his thought helped shape the Catechism itself, but that’s no surprise considering that in a private revelation to St. Thomas, our Lord Jesus said to him, “You have written well of Me.” The following comes from St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae. He doesn’t see the virtue of religion as just one among many, but instead as the most important moral virtue of all. St. Thomas asks “Whether religion should be preferred to the other moral virtues?” The first objection given to this question is that “It would seem that religion should not be preferred to the other moral virtues.” St. Thomas answers this objection in this way:
“On the contrary, The precepts pertaining to religion are given precedence (Exodus 20) as being of greatest importance. Now the order of precepts is proportionate to the order of virtues, since the precepts of the Law prescribe acts of virtue. Therefore religion is the chief of the moral virtues” (ST, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 81, Article 6).
The Angelic Doctor further drives home the point that this virtue of religion is of the utmost importance. He continues:
“Now moral virtues… are about matters that are ordered to God as their end. And religion approaches nearer to God than the other moral virtues, in so far as its actions are directly and immediately ordered to the honor of God. Hence religion excels among the moral virtues” (ibid.).
Don’t Fear the Words ‘Holy Day of Obligation’
This might be surprising for some of us to hear. But it makes sense if we think about it. If God loved us so much that he sent his only son to die for our sins, how could we not thank him by participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass? So if someone asks why they are obligated to go to Mass on All Saints Day, before giving them the Scriptural and traditional reasons why, we should first ask, “Why would you want to pass up Mass in the first place?” As I mentioned, love comes first, and then obedience. We do what is asked of us because we love.
If we love God, and if we’ve entered into a covenant with God, we will keep his commands. A corporal is obliged to keep the commands of his general. Ideally, he should want to keep the commands of his general because the corporal realizes the general knows better, has his best interests in mind, etc. But with Jesus, we know that he truly loves us. His commands are found in the Precepts of the Church. We keep his commandments, and the obligations that come with them because we love him.
As a husband, I’m obliged to forsake all other women for my wife. But that obligation is animated with love for my wife. I fulfill my obligation because I love her. And it doesn’t even feel like an obligation because I love her so much. It should be the same for us and God! I fulfill my obligation with God not because it’s something to drag myself through, but because I love him! So let’s no longer be scared of using the word “obligation”. If what we give to God, through the virtue of justice, is done in love, then we have nothing to worry about.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a twenty-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, Christ Is Our Hope.