A couple months ago we had unexpected freezing rain on Sunday morning. On the way to Mass I saw a car that had slid off the side of the road. When I arrived at church, I pressed the brake pedal and my car just kept going, gliding down the icy road right past the entrance to the parking lot.
The roads were very treacherous, and not surprisingly Mass attendance was a fraction of what it usually is. As I looked around the mostly empty church, I started thinking about the phrase “Sunday Obligation.” I haven’t heard that term mentioned in quite a while. Our Church has a very clear teaching on the issue of Sunday Obligation, which not surprisingly, goes something like this: on Sundays Catholics are obligated to go to Mass. See, that isn’t so complicated, is it? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it’s a “grave sin” not to attend Mass on Sunday (or Saturday vigil Mass).
Now, of course, there are valid excuses for not attending Sunday Mass, such as illness, infirmity, family needs that can’t be helped (such as caring for a sick child), and employment responsibilities—but only when all other options have been exhausted. And obviously treacherous weather conditions are a valid excuse, too.
When I was a kid the nuns taught us that the word obligation comes from two Latin words, obli, which means “you had better,” and gation, which means “get to Mass or I’ll whack you with this ruler!” OK, maybe they didn’t exactly phrase it that way, but we got the message.
However, nowadays modern Catholics use a more sophisticated definition, deciding that the word obligation really means: “If I feel like it.” A lot of folks don’t even need the illness, employment, or icy road excuses. They simply declare, “I’m not going to Mass cuz I don’t feel like it.” And that’s that.
As I sat in the mostly empty church that icy morning, I wondered if Masses on sunny days in the near future would be as sparsely attended, since the trend continues to go in the wrong direction.
Why is Mass attendance plummeting, at least here in America? (Western Europe is even worse, by the way). In recent decades, I can’t remember any Church official boldly proclaiming that the term Sunday Obligation really means what it says.
After years of being accused of being “too authoritarian,” it seems the Church decided to take a different approach, beginning during the tumultuous 1960s. Instead of proclaiming, “You are OBLIGATED to go to Mass on Sunday!” the Church offered a new, gentle Mr. Rogers-like tone: “We hope you’ll want to join us at Mass on Sundays.”
Well, this is certainly a more gentle approach, but frankly, it ain’t working. Maybe it’s time once again for a bit firmer message. Not quite the authoritarian ruler-wielding nun approach, but maybe something with a tad more backbone, such as: “If you don’t go to Mass on Sundays, don’t blame me when Jesus kicks your butt!”
Yeah, OK, that’s not quite the correct tone either, is it? There’s got to be a way to communicate once again the clear message that the Sunday Obligation is a real thing, and there are truly eternal consequences for blowing off Mass each week. We really have to try something different. I mean, precious souls are being lost for all eternity.
Maybe there is a compromise somewhere in the middle, an approach that is both firm but gentle, urgent and yet loving. I’m thinking of a ruler-wielding Mr. Rogers. “Won’t you be my neighbor? Won’t you join me at Sunday Mass?” Whack!