Pastoral Reflection

Where Are All the People? (2)

In fulfilment of God’s third commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy”, the Catechism reminds us that: The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.  For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation [Sundays and holydays] unless excused for a serious reason.  Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

I often think back to my school days and the old “penny catechism” much of which we had to learn by heart.  It may not have been the best teaching method in the world, but at least we knew what was what.  What are kids learning of their faith in Catholic schools today?  I honestly don’t know.  They seem to be taught more about other faiths than about their own.  How many Catholics today have a copy of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church and dip into it from time to time in order to keep fresh in their minds what they “signed up to” at their baptism?   

One of the things we used to know, and were taught as one of the basics of our faith, was to do with the Sunday obligation.  Going to Mass on a Sunday wasn’t optional but obligatory, and it still is.  I remember remarking to a youngster once that I hadn’t seen them at Mass for a while to which the answer was: “I’ve had a lot of homework”!  The concept just wasn’t there that we are supposed to be at Mass every Sunday and that it should be a priority regardless of anything else.  There was no apparent awareness that deliberately missing Mass is seriously (mortally) sinful and a matter for confession before we can receive communion again.  Is no one – parents, teachers, priests – teaching these things anymore?  It’s also the case that other activities are commonly organised for Sunday mornings thus creating an unfair conflict of interest for our children.  Sunday is also meant to be a family day and children shouldn’t have to be making choices between family and other commitments.  There shouldn’t be other commitments. There are six other days in the week for such things and we have got to ensure that Sunday remains special – a day for God and for family – and isn’t simply regarded as just another day. 

Of course, a further problem is that, unlike years ago, these days young children often have to rely on parents to take them to church, and so if parents decide not to go for some reason then their children don’t go either, and it doesn’t take much for practice to stop altogether if going to Mass isn’t being taught as the priority that it should be.  I think I’ve mentioned before that if my Dad was on the right shift he would ride his bike to church with me, at that time still a youngster, sitting on a little wooden seat on the crossbar.  Just as we set off one Sunday I somehow managed to get my foot caught in the front wheel and I went over the handlebars and the bike and my Dad landed on top of me.  While he took his bruises back to the house, I set off to walk the mile to church because it was Sunday and I knew I had to go to Mass, bloodied knees or not. 

What is of particular concern to me at the moment, is the fact that it is now more than a year since we have been able to gather for Mass, fully vaccinated, and without the earlier Covid restrictions that were in place, and yet a very noticeable number of people come to Mass some Sundays but not others, or are still missing from Sunday Mass altogether – and it seems to be the same in parishes everywhere.  We were only excused our Sunday obligation during the worst of the pandemic when our churches had to close and even after they reopened in the case of people who were at particular risk or were shielding.  The situation was serious enough that it required the Church to make an “extra-ordinary” change to its practices in order to keep people safe and to conform to the restrictions that had to be put in place, otherwise, obviously, no one has the authority to suspend or change God’s command-ments!  And so we are now once again obliged to keep every Sunday holy by going to Mass, resting from servile works, and keeping it as a day special to God and to our families.   

If, sadly, that aspect of obligation is necessary, then the reality is that if we deliberately miss Mass on Sundays or holydays, “unless excused for a serious reason”, we are committing a mortal sin.  For some reason it seems to have become politically incorrect to mention mortal sin, but, whether we like it or not, it can be the consequence of certain deliberate actions and choices that we carry out when we ought to know, and do, better.  And so, for example, making a deliberate choice not to go to Mass on a Sunday or a holyday (of obligation), or our choice of activities the evening before that may prevent us from getting up and going to Mass on Sunday morning, would be seriously (mortally) sinful and require a visit to confession before we can receive communion again, and that’s just how it is, politically correct or not.  Of course, a child missing Mass who is dependent on their parents to take them to church wouldn’t be the child’s sin, but it might be their parents’ who have an obligation towards their children in that regard.   

The thing is that this isn’t a decision we can make for ourselves, rather it’s a matter of fulfilling God’s commandment and a precept of the Church, and hopefully from the time that we were children we have learned the importance of keeping the Sabbath (and holydays) to the point that there shouldn’t need to be the aspect of obligation because the Sunday eucharist should be so important to us that it has become a priority in our relationship with God and in our personal spiritual and sacramental lives as Catholics.    

My particular problem as a priest is not only being aware of the number of people who are missing from Sunday Mass, but the fact that from time to time they will reappear and receive communion having, to the best of my knowledge, not been to confession first – if they should have been.  Of course part of the problem is the mobility, these days, of parish populations and that people often go to Mass wherever it’s convenient, and to priests elsewhere for confession. One solution would be for people to worship and celebrate sacraments in their own parish and with their parish priest who, in that sense, has primary spiritual care and concern for them.  In a situation like this, all I can do, for example, is hope that things are as they should be.  I can’t be responsible for the situation if they’re not, but not knowing, and fearing the worst, is a cause of some concern to me.  The best I can do is to write something like this and hope the message somehow gets across to those who need to hear it, but, of course, they probably won’t be at Mass to pick up and read a copy and so the situation remains unresolved. 

Sadly it’s a situation that, if anything, is getting worse as a consequence of more and more Catholic children not attending Catholic schools and therefore not being taught the rudiments of their faith.  This also won’t make for popular reading, but “parents being the first educators in the ways of faith” have got to fill that faith vacuum – and not just in terms of Catholic practice, but also Catholic teaching.  I wonder to what extent it is happening, because if it isn’t then with every generation Catholic knowledge and practice becomes lost by degrees and stages. 

There was a time when teachers from parish schools would at Mass on Sundays, which made it possible to make a note of any children who might not be, and on Monday morning they would want to know why.  Also holydays of obligation were traditionally school holidays so teachers and children would have the opportunity to go to Mass.  It also meant holydays were popular as days off and so we grew up knowing and remembering the dates.  Because they are now treated just like any other day, it has become all too easy for people to forget to go to Mass, or that work schedules conflict with Mass times and as a result they, and the obligation involved, go by the board.  Yet another practice being lost by degrees and stages.

And so, to repeat:  The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.  For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation [Sundays and holydays] unless excused for a serious reason.  Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

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