Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote in Life of Christ1, “The Beatitudes are not ideals; they are hard facts and realities inseparable from the Cross.” In other words, Jesus did not just give commands, but stated what reality is.
- Is the Catholic Holy Mass a command that we must do in order to claim salvation, and an offense to God if we miss it?
- Or is it a reality; that is, the Holy Mass must occur to enable our salvation?
Or are both true?
To answer that, first this essay establishes three points:
1) Great Gaps Now Exist in Christian Understanding: the Real Presence at the Holy Mass, Transubstantiation, and Heaven
In March 2023, the Wall Street Journal published these results of a survey of all Americans:
How often do you attend religious services?
- Never 32%
- Less than once a year 19%
- About once or twice a year 9%
- Several times a year 8%
- About once a month 3%
- 2-3 times a month 5%
- Nearly every week 5%
- Every week 13%
- Several times a week 6%
% who believe in Heaven:
- 73% of all Americans
- 92% of Christians
- 90% of Catholics
81% of all Americans fail to consistently attend services weekly, against only 19% who do. Yet 73% of those Americans believe in Heaven, and (presumably) that they will reach it.
Thus, here’s a gap: On any given Sunday (after subtracting the 19% who attend weekly from the 73% who believe in Heaven), approximately 54% of Americans fail to attend services weekly AND believe they will go to Heaven.
- 36% of Catholics go to Holy Mass at least once per week (41% pre-COVID) [that is, 64% do not]
- 26% of Catholics never go to Holy Mass (17% pre-COVID)
Thus, here’s the Catholic gap: On any given Sunday (after subtracting the 36% who attend from the 90% who believe in Heaven), approximately 54% of Catholics fail to attend Holy Mass weekly AND believe they will go to Heaven.
Then after adding back the 10% of Catholics who do not believe in Heaven, we can safely say that 60-70% of Catholics have dismissed decisive teachings about the Holy Mass and about salvation.
During their childhood, these 60-70% surely received First Communion and likely Confirmation. They probably heard the long-established teaching that not attending Holy Mass weekly was a sin that would result in eternal damnation. For all these 60-70% of Catholic souls, their parents and their parishes made the effort to teach, encourage, and pray for them, for most of their formative years, in hopes they would participate in the Holy Mass every week for the rest of their lives.
Modern Catholics’ lack of attendance at the Holy Mass is not surprising, given this Pew survey released in August 2019. In that survey, approximately 2/3 of Catholics believed the Eucharist merely symbolized Jesus.
This exhibits another gap:
- Only 33% of Catholics believe that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is present in the consecrated Eucharist at the Holy Mass; that is, only a third know that a supernatural perfection transubstantiates into what was matter.
- Yet 90% believe in reaching Heaven, a process by which our matter-dependent, but matter-less, souls can “transubstantiate” (a word I use here for purposes of argument) from holding matter then into the supernatural and perfect realm.
So regarding the belief in the Real Presence of the Trinity at the Holy Mass, note that inconsistency, and pray it may spur people to re-think.
But meanwhile it demonstrates one of the most colossal gaps in Catholic Christian understanding ever.
Point 2: Christ’s Passion and Resurrection are Required for Our Salvation
A brief reminder on the basics: God opens Heaven for us through the bloody Passion and Resurrection of Christ. The essence of Christianity is that God sent His only Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, to be sacrificed and die, so that we can participate in the Beatific Vision. As St. Thomas Aquinas states, “because eternal beatitude surpasses the natural state” (as quoted here https://www.olrl.org/snt_docs/fewness.shtml), only the hand of the Holy Trinity could allow such an immense impossibility. His original painful and bloody Sacrifice is reality; that is, it is metaphysically essential to our salvation.
I summarized the “why” behind that reality in my novel Virtual Eternity, in the words of Dante, the main character’s poet-guide in Heaven, who says,
“The sins of humans were and are so vast that only a perfect, unimaginable Sacrifice, of the Holy Trinity Itself, could counter them, in a way humans cannot comprehend. The worst human sinner needs the most sacrifice, but is the one least able to acquiesce. So, the perfect offering, with the inconceivable surrender of will and the most unthinkable suffering because of creatures’ almost infinite loss of love for their Creator, was and is needed.”
Point 3: The Reasons Why Most People Attend Religious Services and the Holy Mass Are Often Unsustainable
We’ve all heard, and surely often felt for ourselves, these valid and true positive reasons for attending Holy Mass weekly:
- Social: being with friends, family, people of like mind
- Inner meaning and emotional fulfillment, for:
- A means to help us prioritize our lives
- To bring petitions to God
- To learn theology and revelation (through readings and good homilies)
- To fulfill one’s loving obligation to God
- To fulfill the Fourth Commandment
These are all important and well-founded reasons. However, when we feel these, we need to know that they can be replaced. None of them, singularly or in their entirety, suffice to maintain our attendance at the Holy Mass every single Sunday for the rest of our lives - because they can be replaced by other earthly or religious places and occasions.
- A widening gap exists in Christian understanding; that gap does not allow for the Real Presence at the Holy Mass, but does allow souls to universally enter Heaven
- Christ’s Passion and Resurrection are required for our salvation
- People often attend Holy Mass for valid yet unsustainable reasons
The Indispensable Reason to Attend Holy Mass
The reason to be physically present at the Holy Mass stems from our Lord’s direct command, not His suggestion:
- Luke 22:19 “And taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake; and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me.”
- 1 Corinthians 11:24 “And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me.”
When we know this reason, we are likely to attend Holy Mass at least every single Sunday we live on earth.
But is there even more than a command to memorialize it?
Yes, because the Holy Mass is the “True” Sacrifice. That is, once per week, on the Lord’s Day, we are called:
- To be present for the real, unbloody Sacrifice of the Second Person of the Trinity for our salvation, and:
- To memorialize it
- To give thanks for it
- To honor and praise God for it
- To experience it
- To realize its forgiveness of sins
- To consume it, and obtain all the related benefits from doing so (see the last half of John 6)
For over 1500 years, Christians nearly universally agreed on those points. The following is infallible doctrine from the Council of Trent (1562)2, quoted in part in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995)3, #1366 and #1367: (emphasis added)
ON THE SACRIFICE OF THE MASS. The Council of Trent, Twenty Second Session, Doctrine
Being the sixth under the Sovereign Pontiff, Pius IV., celebrated on the seventeenth day of September, MDLXII
He, therefore, our God and Lord, though He was about to offer Himself once on the altar of the cross unto God the Father, by means of his death, there to operate an eternal redemption; nevertheless, because that His priesthood was not to be extinguished by His death, in the last supper, on the night in which He was betrayed,--that He might leave, to His own beloved Spouse the Church, a visible Sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody Sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit…
…In this divine Sacrifice which is celebrated in the Holy Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross…
…For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different.
Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange notes4 that Protestants removed this belief in the “True” Sacrifice. Although they agree that Christ was killed only once at Calvary, they reject the truth that Christ established the Holy Mass as a sacramental Sacrifice, a sign; that is, a reality of salvation no matter how humans may assign meaning to it – a True Sacrifice.
He traces this dogma of the Holy Mass True Sacrifice within Tradition, at least back to St. Augustine, to St. Thomas Aquinas, then through great Thomists like Cajetan and the Carmelites of Salamanca. He states:
“Is Christ immolated [sacrificed/killed] in this sacrament? And the answer commonly given is that of Peter Lombard, which is based on these words of St. Augustine: Christ was immolated once in Himself, and yet He is daily immolated in the sacrament… Hence in the Holy Mass there in an immolation, not as a physical immolation of Christ’s body, for that body is now glorified and impassible, but a sacramental immolation… By efficient causality, this sacrament makes us participators in the fruits of our Lord’s passion.”
So the Holy Mass is not a memorial alone, but also a True Sacrifice. The next question then: if the True Sacrifice of the Holy Mass ended entirely everywhere on this planet, would salvation end as well?
Consider the words of St. Leonard of Port Maurice5: “Ah, indeed, if it were not for this most holy victim, once offered for us on the cross, and now daily offered on our altars, we one and all might renounce all hope of heaven and look on hell as our final destination. Yes, assuredly, were it not for this ever blessed victim hell, hell should be our portion!”
Again, for 1500 years after the True bloody Sacrifice, almost every Christian believed this: that the Holy Mass occurs not only to recreate the suffering in the original event for purposes of memory and the other reasons listed above, but in order to continue Christ’s work in the salvation of souls.
So, when Christ is daily sacrificed at the Holy Mass, that act has the same salvific purpose as the original True Sacrifice that enables it.
Returning to Point 1: Between 50-60% of Catholics believe in Heaven without attending the Holy Mass, and thus not knowing or understanding that the Holy Mass itself is part of the inseparable means by which God allows our souls entrance into Heaven.
Returning to Point 2: We as Christians know that the Passion at the first Good Friday and the Resurrection at the first Easter were essential to that salvation. The original True bloody Sacrifice worked. Our Lord’s words to the Good Thief, who Jesus promised paradise, and who never experienced a Holy Mass, prove that. That the original True Sacrifice enables our salvation is reality; that is, it is metaphysically essential to our salvation.
Returning to Point 3: But being present at the True Sacrifice of the Holy Mass also is a direct link to our salvation.
A Command and a Reality
Why is skipping Holy Mass on the Lord’s Day a mortal sin? That is, does failing to be present for the unbloody True Sacrifice during one 7-day cycle potentially eternally separate us from God? If so, why?
Answer: Yes, because of all the following, each weighted in some mysterious combination we do not know:
- Rules: Because we were disobedient, and
- Rejection: Because we offended God and chose not to love Him, and
- Reality: Because being present for the unbloody True Sacrifice within a seven-day period is a real necessity to cause and enable the human and individual salvation; that is, it is metaphysically essential to our salvation
In other words, the Holy Mass itself, along with and only made possible by the original True Sacrifice of our Lord, is a primary cause of our general and personal salvation. When we individually fail to be present at a “one and the same” True Sacrifice on the Lord’s Day, we are repeating the error committed by 10 of the 11 remaining Apostles, who prioritized other earthly things and missed the True Sacrifice (although ultimately not the Resurrection).
After Easter and Pentecost, those 10 of 11 did experience the True Sacrifice. Like us, they participated in the Holy Mass, finally present for the Perfect and True Sacrifice that brings about our salvation.
But to simplify even more, putting aside all the theology and moral theory: When we experience the True Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, we receive Grace, which is the opportunity to return to God the love He God exhibits in that True Sacrifice.
1. Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ, Doubleday, 1958
2. The Council of Trent: The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Ecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth, Dolman, 1848 [Online: https://documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1545-1545,_Concilium_Tridentinum,_Canons_And_Decrees,_EN.pdf]
3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, 1995
4. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, CPISA, 1946
5. St. Leonard of Port Maurice, The Hidden Treasure of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Moore and Murphy, Dublin, 1861 [Online: https://archive.org/details/TheHiddenTreasure1861/page/n25/mode/2up?q=altars]