I consider myself very fortunate to have attended Catholic grade school as I was growing up. The school did exactly what it was supposed to do in my life: be a supplement to my main teachers of the Catholic Faith, my parents. Due to this, I was able to participate in Holy Mass three days a week. The first was on Sunday, again for the all school Mass on Monday, and then each grade would go to Mass for a third time on a certain day of the week.
Sometimes, the altar servers would get called out of class to serve morning Masses or funerals as well. So in addition to spending time with our Lord, I was also able to get out of class a few times! The reason I recount all this is because I was recently reflecting on something an old classmate of mine said sometime around middle school.
I remember walking back to class after the all school Monday Mass when my friend mentioned that he missed Mass on Sunday the day before, so he was glad he could make up for it at school. His comment made me incredulous because in my family missing Mass on Sunday was just not an option. I asked him to clarify, and he told me that he usually just went to the school Mass on Monday to make up for missing on Sundays. I knew something wasn’t right when he said this, but as a ten year old, I just moved on and asked my parents about it when I got home.
Why Should We Go on Sunday?
That moment has stuck in my head for years because it illustrated how lacking in catechesis many of us are. And of course I’m not referring just to my old classmate, but his parents and all parents who ought to pass on the Faith to their children. In this context, Sunday Mass wasn’t seen as something important, but as an add-on, if we get to it. Indeed, as we saw a few weeks back, participating in Mass on Sunday is an obligation for all Catholics. In a comment to that article, I was immediately reminded of what my classmate had said all those years ago:
“I’ve never liked the word ‘obligation’. I go to Mass a lot because I want to, out of love not obligation or because of a law/command. And if I don’t go to Mass on Sunday but go on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I don’t think I’m offending Almighty God!! lol!”
As is typical in our culture, “obligation” is seen as a dirty word. However, this is a term we as Catholics should embrace. There are several things we can reply to regarding the brief comment above. Oftentimes, short assertions such as this one are the most difficult to reply to. A brief quip can do a lot of damage, necessitating an extended response. But let’s take a look at what’s off base here. What should our reasons for going to Mass be? Is God really offended if I purposely miss Mass on Sunday, even once or twice? The Church has the answers to these questions.
A False Dichotomy
Initially, consider that each of us have obligations in our life. This could be an obligation to obey our parents or superiors: an obligation to do our job or specific tasks at work, an obligation to provide for and nurture our families, an obligation to be loving toward our spouse. The list can go on and on. The next thing to consider is this: is it possible to love doing any of the things that I just listed? Is it possible to find these experiences enjoyable or fulfilling?
If I love my parents, I want to make them proud, and I might even enjoy doing hard work that makes things easier for them. Same would go for my job; it’s certainly possible for one to say “I love my job!” The point here is that doing something out of love does not exclude the possibility of that thing being obligatory in some way.
Just to Be in the Lord’s Presence
We should want to give a witness to others on Sundays, saying that we want to go to Mass, and that we have such a wonderful opportunity to partake in the Mystical Supper of the Lamb. But the moment we say “we have to” do something in our current culture, that thing that we do is cast in a negative light. We have this erroneous idea, thinking we can’t enjoy something that we must do or are required to do. But this is a false notion. We as Catholics don’t see things in an “either/or” way, but in a “both/and” way. We should participate in the Mass because we are both obligated to do so and because we desire to do so of our own volition and free choice.
One thing heard in some Catholic circles is that a Holy Day of Obligation is really a “holy day of opportunity”. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. How awesome is it that we get to participate in the Holy Sacrifice not once, but twice in the same week?! It’s very difficult for many of us to get to daily Mass because of school and work schedules. But when a Holy Day like the Assumption or All Saints’ Day rolls around, we find many more options for Mass available. And why would we not want to avail ourselves of the chance to be in our Lord’s Presence during that time at Mass?
For the Love of God and Neighbor
At the same time, however, we can’t allow ourselves to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is still an obligation that we have as baptized Christians to participate in the Mass of that Sunday and that Holy Day which fall during the same week. To participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass each Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation is one of the Precepts of the Church. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (emphasis mine):
“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
Obligation and Desire
We are called to greatness; to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). So the bare minimum includes participating in Mass each Sunday and Holy Day. If we’re not even doing that, then can we really say we are devoted disciples of our Lord? Can we really say we are devoted to the same Lord who said, regarding the Mass, “Do this in memory of Me”?
Here’s another example from my own life, this time in the role of a parent. I have three boys five years of age and under, 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 as Catholic Christians must both fulfill our Sunday obligation and participate in the Mass out of deep love for our Lord Jesus. You can’t do one without the other.
If You Love Me …
So to say that one goes to Mass out of love, not obligation, or because of a law/command completely misses the point. This makes some kind of false division between love and law. That mentality contradicts the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Consider these direct statements from our Lord:
“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.”Matthew 5:17
As Jesus is our king we are not exempt from the law or his commands. In fact, Jesus says we love him only if we keep his commands. Monday or another day of the week does not fulfill that obligation. The Church, which is one with Christ, is clear:
“The 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
Being an Instrument of God’s Will
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 show our Lord how deeply we love him. St. Augustine puts it beautifully when he compares the Old Law to the New Law:
“Accordingly, by the law of works, God says to us, ‘Do what I command you’; but by the law of faith we say to God, ‘Give me what You command.’”
When we love someone, we would do anything for them. How much more so with God? If our earthly father would be offended or disappointed in us for not following the commands he has justly asked of us, does it not follow that our loving Father in heaven would be offended if we willfully disobeyed him? But since we as Christians are now living according to that “law of faith”, we should all willingly be asking God to make us become an instrument of his will. To be an instrument of his will means to desire what he commands.
To Encourage One Another
The false dichotomy presented between obligation and desire must come to an end. Even if we don’t like the word “obligation”, we as Christians must at least recognize that we’ve been given a duty by God to carry out his commands in spreading the gospel to the world. The first way we do that is by living an authentic witness to the gospel. That includes being a part of the Eucharistic assembly each Sunday, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”Hebrews 10:23-25
Harmonizing with Christ’s Heart
We meet together on Sunday, the day of the new creation, to celebrate all that our Lord has accomplished for us. We have no reason to be afraid of that word “obligation”, or even of the words “command” or “obedience”. The person who keeps those commands of our Lord loves him, and as we grow in that love we desire ever more to please our Lord; both for his glory and for the sake of his pilgrim Church on earth. Let’s make Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on our Lord’s words in John’s Gospel our own:
“With these words [John 14:15-17] Jesus reveals the profound link between faith and the profession of Divine Truth, between faith and dedication to Jesus Christ in love, between faith and the practice of a life inspired by the commandments. All three dimensions of faith are the fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit. This action is manifested as an inner force that harmonizes the hearts of the disciples with the Heart of Christ and makes them capable of loving as he loved them.”
We must love as our Lord loved, that is, through a life devoted to living out the commandments of God our Father in heaven.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic 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 JL Wong on Flickr