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Should Sunday Mass be obligatory?

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In the earliest centuries of the Church, there was no stated rule making Sunday Eucharist mandatory -- because there didn't need to be.

Father Kenneth
Doyle

Q. I have always thought it would be better that if the Church undid the rule by which we are obliged to attend Sunday Mass under pain of mortal sin. That way, I believe, more people would come to church.

I myself attend weekly, but attendance in our parish has dropped so drastically that we have cut back on the number of weekend Masses. I know people who would be active members if it were not for the rule of mandatory attendance. (Somerset, New Jersey)

A. The obligation for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass under penalty of grave sin is a precept of the Church, a specification of the Third Commandment to "Keep holy the Sabbath." It could therefore be changed by competent Church authority, but I believe that is unlikely to happen.

A bit of history is helpful. In the earliest centuries of the Church, there was no stated rule making Sunday Eucharist mandatory -- because there didn't need to be. This was what Christians did: As a matter of course, they gathered on the first day of the week -- in the beginning in homes, later on in simple Church structures -- in celebration of the resurrection and to be nourished by Christ's risen body. They continued to do this through years and years of persecution and at the risk of their jobs and even their lives.

It was only in the fourth century that there began to be any written rules about church attendance, and this happened first through regional Church councils. Much later, when the first Code of Canon Law was written in 1917, that obligation was defined as a universal rule.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 apostolic letter "Dies Domini," noted that at first no written rule was necessary due to the "inner need felt so strongly by the Christians of the first centuries," and that "only later, faced with the halfheartedness or negligence of some," the Church felt it necessary to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass (No. 47).

To be sure, over the 52 years I have been ordained a priest, Sunday Mass attendance has fallen sharply. But it seems unlikely to me that Church leaders would cede to this trend by lifting the obligation -- especially since the original reason for the rule was that some had fallen away from regular practice.

To your belief that more Catholics would come to Mass if the obligation were lifted, I have not seen any studies that would document this or refute it.

I would hope, though, that Catholics who do attend now are motivated not as much by a mandate but more by the good things that happen at Mass: They can be instructed by the word of God, inspired by the presence of other Catholic Christians at prayer and -- most of all -- strengthened by receiving the Lord in the Eucharist.

(Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.)

Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service

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