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Jul 10, 2019

Why Sunday Mass Is an Obligation

Nicholas LaBanca

Catholics are instructed to attend Mass and enjoy adequate rest on Sundays (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 2180-2188). This is not optional. However, in our modern society filled with packed schedules and stacks of bills, many Christians treat Sunday like just another day.

Many Christian communities even eschew the thought of obligatory worship on Sunday and Holy Days. For example, more than a few churches have been giving their congregations “the week off” for Christmas (even if it falls on a Sunday) affording everyone the opportunity to “prioritize your family”.  Sadly, this has trickled down to even Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and it’s something that deserves a response.

As a catechist at my home parish, it has pained me to learn that many of the children that I am instructing in the faith do not attend Mass regularly with their families. Those who are involved with religious education in their diocese know that this is a systemic problem throughout North America. In discussion with one director of religious education in a large diocese, I was told that a mom had said they want to enroll their child in religious education classes, but will not be attending Sunday Mass because when they do decide to go to church on Sunday, they want to go to the megachurch down the street because they are “fed” there.

What Really Matters?

The problem, then, is two-fold. The first is not understanding the necessity the Christian has in participating in the Eucharistic celebration each Sunday and Holy Day. The second problem is that many baptized Catholics do not fully understand what graces we receive from the celebration of Holy Mass. If we did understand it, our churches would be full each day, Monday through Sunday, with no problem!

Enter social media where memes are posted on a variety of topics; many of them garner instant likes, but rarely is there any room for much discourse. Recently I came across one such meme shared by a friend from Marcus Stanley, a non-Catholic Christian missionary and musician. The comment was very brief, but there’s quite a bit to unpack:

“It doesn’t matter how many Sundays you sit in church or if you think you are saved. God sees what you do and how you treat people. That’s what really matters.”

The Eucharist

This is exactly the mentality of many Christians today, and it’s a shame as this sentiment gets many things wrong about our faith in Jesus. We’ll leave aside the issue about being saved for now, as this appears to be a dig to those who subscribe to the “once saved, always saved” mantra. We can safely agree it doesn’t matter if one thinks they are saved. God is the judge of our souls (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 2:12). That being said, let’s jump into the implications being made from these comments, and answer why this view of “church” is un-biblical, and quite frankly, un-Christian.

Let’s first look at the opening statement. We are told that “it doesn’t matter how many Sundays you sit in church”. Well, let’s agree on one aspect of this. If all we’re doing when we go to church is just sitting there, totally unengaged, then we really are profiting nothing, and doing Sunday worship completely wrong. When we are in Church hearing Mass, we must be participating with our prayers, uniting our hearts with the priest at the altar. But if we seriously think that all we are doing on Sunday is “sitting” in Church, then we probably need to back things up and get to the heart of the matter: the Eucharist is Jesus. 

Faith and Love Need a Source

If Catholics lived like we truly believed the Eucharist is Jesus, we would not see so many parish closures and mergers as we do today. We would not have such a dearth of priestly vocations as we currently see. We would be beating down the doors to get into Mass during the week, or at least every Sunday, instead of trying to figure out ways to weasel out of participating in Mass, such as was seen this past Christmas when it fell on a Monday. People were asking, “Do I really have to go to Mass two days in a row?!” And what’s sad is that our fellow Catholic brothers and sisters were asking like it was a chore, or like it was unreasonable. This shows how dim of an understanding of the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament many Catholics, particularly in North America, have today.

We must remember that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life”. Not the source and summit for just Catholics, or for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians. This great gift that our Lord Jesus has given us is for all Christians. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch (CCC 1324).”

The World Needs the Mass

In Lumen Gentium, promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council, we are able to grasp in even more detail how necessary the Eucharist and the Mass are to the Christian life:

“Incorporated in the Church through baptism, the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion; reborn as sons of God they must confess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church… Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It. Thus both by reason of the offering and through Holy Communion all take part in this liturgical service… Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ, they then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the people of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament” (LG 11).

That really does not sound like merely sitting around at all. We must encourage all of our Christian brothers and sisters to enter into full communion with the one Church our Lord Jesus founded, in order that they may experience that “fount and apex” of the faith in Jesus Christ they say they profess. All Sunday “services” are not equal, and this meme implies that they are. As Catholic Christians, we must make this distinction. It’s imperative to differentiate between attending a mere “service” and participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, or the Divine Liturgy as it is called in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The meme mentioned above attempts to make all Christian modes of worship identical. This is simply not the case. As St. (Padre) Pio of Pietrelcina said:

“It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass.”

The Covenant Fulfilled

We must be clear (and charitable) in letting our lukewarm and fallen away Catholic brothers and sisters know that praying at home on Sunday, or attending worship services at Protestant churches do not give us as many graces as attending a single Mass does. How do we know this? Let’s look again to the Catechism and to Scripture.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see how the Israelites had a rich liturgical life, including a priesthood and a divine mandate to keep holy the Sabbath day. The Catechism states:

“The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship ‘as a sign of his universal beneficence to all.’ Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people” (CCC 2176). 

We Encounter Christ at Mass

While the ceremonial and judicial aspects of the Old Covenant are no longer binding on the Christian, the moral laws have not been abrogated. Furthermore, since our Lord Jesus came “not to abolish” the law, “but to fulfill” it (Matthew 5:17-18), we see the fulfillment of the command given in the Old Covenant today with the precept to attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass each Sunday and Holy Day. We have something much greater than what those under the Old Law had. Why would we want to miss it? The answer can only be ignorance of what is actually taking place at the Eucharistic celebration and the continuity it possesses with the Old Covenant.

We also must give a response to the second part of the meme that was posted above. Stanley also says that “God sees … how you treat people. That’s what really matters.” Let’s look at this from a different angle. If we treat other people kindly and the way we would want to be treated, we must also keep in mind that God is a Person; indeed he is one God in three Persons. How are we treating the three Persons of the Holy Trinity? Are we spending time with Jesus at Mass in the Holy Eucharist? How can we say that going to Mass on Sunday doesn’t matter knowing that we personally encounter our Lord Jesus there?

More Virtue, Please

Of course it matters that we treat people with charity, but we have a duty to both our fellow man and to God. One of the four cardinal virtues is justice, in which we give our due to others, and as the Catechism shows, as the Church has always taught “Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion’” (CCC 1807). Here’s what St. Thomas Aquinas says regarding this duty we as Christians have to God:

“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” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 81, A. 6).”

As we can see, justice is not just a virtue, but the principal virtue. We often remember the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity when we speak of virtues, but how often do we remember the virtue of justice? If we as Christians are called to be not simply “nice” (as the world would have it), but virtuous, should we not be working on all the virtues? Especially, as St. Thomas says, the “chief” of all virtues?

Intentionally Participating in the Mass

We as Christians can practice this virtue of justice to our Lord and God by participating in the sacramental life. Pope Pius XII made this very clear in his encyclical, Mediator Dei:

“It is, therefore, desirable, Venerable Brethren, that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity… [and] with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the Apostle, ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’” (MD 80).

We, the laity, participate at Holy Mass with the priest in a real and actual way when we unite our hearts to Jesus, our High Priest, with praise and thanksgiving, “pay[ing] God the honor and reverence that are due to Him” (MD 93).

This is forgotten by many of our brothers and sisters. But if we have a firm grasp on the reasons we go to Mass, we can witness in a way that will hopefully cause our neighbors to reconsider their impression of the Holy Sacrifice at our altars. 

It’s about Faithfulness

The Catechism further explains:

“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… Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church” (CCC 2181, 2182). 

We Need God’s Grace

In a 2017 audience, Pope Francis made it very clear that this meme is way off base in light of two thousand years of Christian living. He basically says that one can’t skip Mass and then think they’re in an all right state as Christians. It’s almost as if he were replying directly to this meme we’ve looked at! Let’s close with the vicar of Christ’s wise words:

“It is the Mass that makes Sunday Christian. The Christian Sunday revolves around the Mass. For a Christian, what is a Sunday in which the encounter with the Lord is lacking?

“How can we respond to those who say that it is of no use going to Mass, even on Sunday, because the important thing is to live well, to love our neighbor? It is true that the quality of Christian life is measured by the capacity to love … but how can we practice the Gospel without drawing the energy necessary to do so, one Sunday after another, from the inexhaustible source of the Eucharist? We do not go to Mass in order to give something to God, but to receive what we truly need from him. We are reminded of this by the Church’s prayer, which is addressed to God in this way: ‘although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation’ (Roman Missal, Common Preface IV).

“[So], why do we go to Mass on Sundays? It is not enough to respond that it is a precept of the Church; this helps to preserve its value, but alone does not suffice. We Christians need to participate in Sunday Mass because only with Jesus’ grace, with his living presence within us and among us, can we put his commandment into practice, and thus be his credible witnesses.”

Christ Sustains Us

Don’t let anyone tell you that we as Christians don’t need to go to church on Sunday. It does matter. It matters because we owe our Lord our gratitude and because he sustains us with his very Body and Blood in the Eucharist at Mass. I wouldn’t miss it for the world, and I sincerely hope the same goes for you.

You May Also Like:

Do I Have to Go? 101 Questions About the Mass, the Eucharist, and Your Spiritual Life (book)

TV Mass on Sunday, Cafeteria Catholics, and Finding Happiness When Depressed (podcast)

How to Prepare for the Sunday Readings (video)

Missing Mass and More on the Nature of Sin

About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a cradle Catholic 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.

Featured photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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    • That’s a great question, Martha. I believe you’re referring to certain groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, that maintain we as Christians still celebrate the Sabbath on Saturdays. Such a practice contradicts what was handed on to the Christian faithful during the Apostolic age. For Christians, we celebrate the Lord’s Day, which is on Sunday.

      I actually plan on writing a more in depth article treating that subject in the near future, but for the time being, I think the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a great, basic answer. Sunday is the fulfillment of the Jewish sabbath:

      “Jesus rose from the dead ‘on the first day of the week.’ Because it is the “first day,” the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the “eighth day” following the sabbath, it symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day Sunday:

      “[St. Justin Martyr says,] ‘We all gather on the day of the sun, for it is the first day [after the Jewish sabbath, but also the first day] when God, separating matter from darkness, made the world; and on this same day Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.’

      “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ:

      “[St. Ignatius of Antioch says,] ‘Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death.'” (CCC 2174-2175)

      I hope this helps, Martha, and stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!

  • This article will help me to educate my family and myself how important it is to go to mass every Sunday.

  • I never say I can’t do something on Sunday morning because I HAVE to go to Mass. I say I want to go to Mass and I do. Saying “have to” sounds like a punishment!

    • Yes I agree; I’ve never liked the word ‘obligation’. I go to mass a lot becaue I want to, out of Love not obligation or because of a law/command. And if I dont go to mass on sunday but go on monday, wednesday and friday do I think i’m offending Almighty God !! lol!

      • Denis, I’m not so sure you’ve understood RJ’s point. Nor do I think RJ would agree with your own statement, as I certainly disagree with what you’ve written, as it is not of the same mind as our Lord’s Church.

        RJ rightfully gives a witness to others on Sundays, saying he WANTS to go to Mass, because he’s right; to say “we have to” do something in our current culture has a negative connotation. We think that we can’t enjoy something that we must do or are required to do, but this false.

        Take for example the role of a parent. Are you a father, Denis? I have three boys under 5 years of age and I love them very much. They have an unalienable right to be cared for. Therefore, I have an OBLIGATION, a duty, to care for them. But because I love them so much I also WANT to do this. We need to stop with these “either/or” dichotomies because that’s not what the Church is about. It is both/and: we as Catholic Christians must BOTH fulfill our Sunday obligation AND participate in the Mass out of deep love for our Lord Jesus! You can not do one with out the other.

        You say you don’t participate in the Mass because of a law or command, but this makes some kind of false division between “love” and “law”. Sadly, Denis, that mentality contradicts the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. Look what he tells us in His own words:

        “If you love me, you will keep my COMMANDMENTS.” (John 14:15)


        “Think not that I have come to abolish the LAW and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17)

        Jesus is our king, Denis. We are not exempt from the law or His commands. In fact, Jesus says we love Him ONLY if we keep His commands! I do find it disconcerting that you would laugh out loud about the Sunday obligation of Mass. Monday or another day of the week does not fulfill that obligation. The Church, which is one with Christ, is clear that “[t]he Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life. ‘Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.'” (CCC 2177)

        This is a command of our Lord Jesus’ and is not optional. But we see that by following the law of the Church, and by keeping these commandments, we absolutely DO LOVE Jesus. I hope to expand on this more in a future essay, as I do not have the space here to go much further in depth. Suffice it to say, Denis, that the Sunday (not Monday, Wednesday or Friday) precept to participate in the Holy Mass is not optional for a disciple and lover of Christ. I encourage you to read Scripture and the Catechism, as keeping our Lord’s commands shows our love for Him.

  • What would you say to someone who felt it was okay to substitute a daily mass (say, Thursday) for the Sunday obligation? They’re still going to Mass, just not on Sunday.

  • I struggle with this issue. Catholic Mass on Sunday has changed over my lifetime and no longer am I happy with it. I can give you the exact official position of the Church on the subject. What it amounts to is that I do not count!! I need to yield to the authority of the Church!! The Church knows better than I what is good for me! However, the liturgical music in all the churches I have in my area is so awful that I cannot find God in the service at all. In my area they even chant the “Prayers of the People.” Instead of worshiping, I am angered to the point of tears. I hate it. Mass on weekdays is reverent and non-distracting. Mass on Sunday fills me with rage. God’s commandment was to love him with all heart and soul and keep him first. Why can’t the Church offer an alternative Mass to those of us that do, indeed, love Him but cannot find Him at all in church?

  • Nicholas – I thought your article made a lot of good points. However, I think you are totally off the mark when it comes to why attendance is so low at church. Just to give you perspective, I am 55 years old and have been in bible studies for 30+ years. I’ve been leading bible studies at my church for probably 15+ years. All of the, what I will call the mainline churches, have seen drops in their attendance. It is not unique to our Catholic Church. When you say that if Catholics knew that Jesus was really present in the Eucharist churches would not be closing down, I believe you are sadly mistaken. The reality is, especially in this country where we have three car garages, people don’t care whether Jesus is present in the Eucharist are not. What people truly do not understand is what Jesus did on the cross and the consequences if you do not truly believe in what he did on the cross. Our society teaches that if you are a good person, you will go to heaven. Most people do not believe there is a hell. This is why many of the mega churches are overflowing because they preach the message of “just be a good person” and God will reward you, which is the prosperity gospel. People do not want to hear the word surrender. In other words, if you surrender your life to Christ and believe that he paid for your sins on the cross you will be saved. It does not mean your life will be easy. In a country that is very prosperous, people do not want to hear that message. Our grandparents and / or great-grandparents who were poor immigrants to this country understood that message. Until we as Catholics get more bold about talking about our faith to the people around us as to what Jesus did to save us and that its not enough to just be a “good person” we will continue to see a decline in our pews. Often times, just as in the old testament, God has to bring us to our knees before we repent. Maybe that is in the process of happening with our country.

  • This was a great article. It was well written and contained so many answers to questions that we all hear so many times. Thank you for sharing.

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