From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Obligation for our own good

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Oct. 3, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

A recent newspaper article announced the fact that Washington State ranks as the 49th most-unchurched state in the Union. That’s nothing to be proud of, I would think. The ranking makes for a rather puzzling observation when other surveys indicate that 80-90 percent of the general population confesses belief in God.

But “unchurched” doesn’t measure some shapeless opinion or belief to which there is no accountability. “Unchurched” is a sociological definition used to describe the lack of explicit affiliation with an identifiable denomination or faith community. Some expand the definition to include the measure of whether or not a person participates in a worship service on a regular basis.

When our State’s ranking is coupled with the high probability that Catholic adults (and, by association, their children) nowadays attend Mass only a third of the time (results of yet another survey), a statement of some kind is being made which cannot be ignored.

Other things like shopping, family outings, televised sports events, and the kids’ expanding schedule of activities seem to take increasing precedence over the traditional observance of the Lord’s day. It’s interesting to look for the factors which may contribute to this development, particularly within a Catholic community whose historical hallmark has been attendance at Sunday Mass.

Some would like to blame the “changes in the Church” which resulted from the tumultuous ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The last time I checked, however, the Church’s teaching that attending Mass still is obligatory. The law of the Church has not changed.

What has changed seems to be people’s image of God and a lessening sense of personal responsibility (even in a culture which champions such things) disguised as free choice. It’s easy to relate to law (church or civil) as an obligation from outside authority which demands certain behavior or restricts personal freedom. A good number of Catholics seem to have discovered the fact that God does not strike them dead for not attending Mass. I even did a survey at Mass one Sunday to confirm the theory: 100 percent of the people I surveyed said that they knew no one whom God had zapped for missing Mass!

My guess is that people have experimented with this theory and found it to be true. It’s almost like a dare – first one Sunday, then another, and then another. A slippery slope, if you will. It isn’t long until fear of an angry God is gone and the safety lines are discarded as the person dances in their new-found but false sense of “freedom.”

Missing Mass doesn’t seem to make any difference to God. Or at least it could be asserted that God doesn’t do anything about it. What happens on Judgment Day, of course, may be another matter! But even then, an image of a loving, merciful God somehow isn’t congruent with a Divine Overseer who keeps track of such presumably trivial matters like Mass attendance.

God is not the loser in all this; we are. And so are all those adults and children we influence by the example of our lives – or just by being the “wheels” that don’t deliver them to the church doors. By the way we live unchurched lives we may well actually teach atheism, or at least reduce the Christian faith tradition to a matter of personal choice, pleasure or convenience. The obligation is not for our control but for our own good.

The obligation to attend Mass on Sunday has an historical beginning point, but its foundation is not to be found in legislation given by hierarchical authority. Rather, it is to be found in the very dynamic of God’s saving love made known in human history. God’s love, which calls us into being, sets us free to make our own choices – even to be atheists – but it does not let us alone. God speaks to every human heart and calls us to a personal saving love manifest in human history in the person of Jesus Christ. That love calls us into fellowship and community. Through the ministry and sacraments of the of the Church God’s salvation continues to touch people. To be Christian is to be part of a concrete, visible community of saved and redeemed people. It is more than a set of beliefs or intentions of the heart.

In the fullest sense of faithfulness to Christ, one cannot be Chris-tian outside of community. Following Jesus entails being a people which recognizes, celebrates and communicates God’s saving presence in the world.

In our Catholic tradition, that dance of life focuses always on the celebration of the Eucharist, where we have the privilege of uniting ourselves with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Unless we negligently let it become so, the Mass is not the same as a religious ritual which may or may not entertain us, or where a certain number of people gather together for the same mega event. As one spiritual writer after another reminds us, the Eucharist is the summit and source of our lives. It defines us, giving us our identity as well as our mission.

We are God’s people, who are formed by his Word and who, in union with Christ, are instruments of God’s transforming grace at work in the world. If God and that privileged collaboration in God’s saving love is not what makes life exciting and worthwhile, what does? A jet ski? A football? A television program? What a trade-off! To the extent that we separate ourselves from Mass – especially when it is swapped for trivial pursuits and passing pleasures – we die. God doesn’t. We do.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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