Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Keeping our Sunday obligation
by Father Jan Larson
(From the May 20, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
A reader recently asked me why it seems that so many Catholics don’t come to the liturgy each Sunday, since the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “those who fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” The Catechism does indeed make the obligation clear, and the reason for the obligation is that “the Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.” The Sunday Eucharist is what constitutes us as a Church; it is our foundation, that which holds us together, and that which best expresses who we are and what we do as a covenanted people.
At the same time, it is important that we don’t take a statement out of its context, whether it be a text from the Bible, a catechism, or any other source. The context of a given statement is what gives the statement its fuller meaning, and often its more accurate meaning. Even Church law (canon law) requires that laws must be interpreted according to the text, as well as according to the context. Thus such texts cannot be properly understood when divorced from the history of such texts, from similar statements found elsewhere, and from all the human and historical elements that required the statement to be made in the first place.
For example, just a few decades ago female altar servers were not allowed, and women were required to keep their heads covered in church. These rules emerged centuries before within a context that gave these rules meaning and that made sense to people. But over the centuries the original context was lost, and the rules no longer made sense to the community, and so the rules were quietly set aside.
We can say with certainty that the Sunday obligation is not going to be set aside, nor would we want it to. At the same time, when we see the obligation within its full context, we realize that the law is not a great burden, and that a person who misses a Sunday or Holy Day Mass is not necessarily committing a mortal or grave sin. The context of the law explains it. The Catechism also states that “serious reasons” may excuse us from the obligation. Only two examples are offered: illness, or the need to care for an infant. When in doubt, people may even ask their pastor for a dispensation from participating in the liturgy on a given Sunday.
We must also be careful to understand mortal or grave sin in its proper context. Simply doing something serious, like missing our participation in the Sunday Eucharist, does not necessarily mean we have committed a mortal sin.
The Catechism states the traditional conditions that must be met before someone commits such a sin. The action must be grave matter, something serious. Second, mortal sin requires full knowledge of the sinful character of the act. Third, there must be a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Unintentional ignorance can diminish the seriousness of the act, or even disqualify it as a serious sin.
The Catechism also mentions feelings and passions “which can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.” This might seem to some to be overly technical, but it begins to be clear that judgment about another person’s degree of sinfulness is complex, and best left to the person and to God to discern, perhaps with the help of a spiritual guide or confessor.
What ought to concern us most are the reasons why we should never want to miss the Sunday liturgy.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)