Friday, July 31, 2009

Sunday Obligation

Must Catholics Attend Mass Every Sunday?

An Article by Scott Windsor

A short and simple "yes" is in order for that question, though it's a bit deeper than that. What are the ramifications for a Catholic who does not attend Mass every Sunday? Will a Catholic go to Hell if they miss Mass? Well, let's start with some background here first.

What is Sin?
Sin is anything opposed to God and is offensive to God. Let us look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Edition) says: (hereafter CCC)
CCC 1850 Sin is an offense against God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight." Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become "like gods," knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus "love of oneself even to contempt of God." In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.

Are there different kinds of sin?
Yes, the Catholic Church uses the terms "venial" and "mortal" to distinguish between the two types of sin which exist. Scripture tells us there are sins which lead to death and there are sins which do not lead to death, let us look at that passage:
1 John 5:16-17 16If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.

17All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

Thus a sin which is "not unto death" is what we call a "venial" sin. A sin which is unto death is what we call "mortal" sin. Let us look at the CCC on the matter of the gravity of sin:
CCC 1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,129 became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

CCC 1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

CCC 1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:

When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.130

CCC 1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."131

CCC 1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother."132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

CCC 1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

So we can see the different types of sin and their relative gravity, let us move on to the next question:


What Can Send Someone to Hell?
First off, no man, not even the Catholic Church sends anyone to Hell - in fact, not even God "sends" anyone to Hell. If one goes to Hell, they go there of their own accord. Mortal sin is what sends someone to Hell and as stated above, it must be a grave matter, with full knowledge and deliberate consent. If a person is unaware of the gravity of the sin then they may not be culpable (responsible) for the sin. I need to stress "may not be culpable," for final judgment is left to God. Only God knows the heart and the full intent (or lack thereof) of each individual. Each individual will be held accountable on "the Last Day" for all their works, good or bad (Rev. 2:23; 2 Cor. 5:10).

What is the Sunday Obligation?
For Catholics it is obliged that we attend Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation. Code of Canon Law (hereafter CIC) says:
CIC Can. 1247 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.
Therefore it is Church Law which prescribes participation in the Mass (we participate by being there celebrating with our fellow Catholics). It must be noted, this is not just for Sundays, but also for the Holy Days of Obligation as set by one's local ecclesiastic authority. This brings us to one of the first questions asked:

Will a Catholic Go To Hell If They Miss Mass?
Being Church Law, this constitutes as a "grave sin" to deliberately avoid attending Mass on any Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. It is a mortal sin if done with full consent (you know it is Sunday and decide to do something else other than going to Mass). Thus "just missing Mass" CAN be enough to send someone to Hell. Again, we must stress - only God judges whether any given person goes to Heaven or Hell and deep down, every Catholic knows their conscience and knows if they are being honest with themselves when it comes to deciding whether or not to participate in Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation.

Are There Exceptions? What If I Have To Work on Sunday?
Well yes, there are exceptions. If you must work on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation then you can be excused from your obligation - however - all effort should be made to not miss Mass on these days. If you can trade shifts or, better yet, not be in a job which requires regular Sunday scheduling that would be preferable and should be desirable for faithful Catholics. If you had the opportunity to get out of work and chose not to, that could be culpable - talk to your confessor.

Another valid reason can be sickness. If you are too sick to attend Mass then you should not go, especially if your sickness is contagious. Similarly, if you're the parent of a sick child and need to stay home to care for your child, that too can be excusable.

So, If I Miss Mass For A Good Reason, What Should I Do?
Just having a valid excuse for not participating in the Mass does not let you "off the hook" so to say. If you must miss Mass, then you should try to set aside time alone or with your family to devote to God.
CIC 1248 §2. If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.

One More Thing, What Are The Holy Days of Obligation?
Well, this is set by one's regional authority. In the United States, the following are the regular Holy Days of Obligation which are not already Sundays. Local bishops can also add more to this list - they cannot subtract from it - though some feast days are moved to a Sunday in some diocese.

  • Holy Thursday (Thursday before Easter, varies each year based on Easter)
  • Good Friday (Friday before Easter, varies each year based on Easter)
  • Holy Saturday (Saturday before Easter, varies each year based on Easter)
  • Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday, varies each year based on Easter)
  • Assumption of Mary (August 15)
  • All Saints Day (November 1)
  • Christ the King (Last Sunday of Liturgical Year, Sunday before the First Sunday of Advent [formerly December 11])
  • Immaculate Conception (December 8)
  • Christmas (December 25)


I hope this has helped answer your questions. If you have more, feel free to join me in the ACTS Forum - where we encourage honest questions which are asked with respect. ACTS isn't always real busy (and wasn't at the time of this writing) so if you'd like to participate in a more active forum, ACTS also hosts the Catholic Debate Forum, and you can participate or just read along there as well.

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