Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We also recall our own Baptism by which we were joined to Jesus Christ as a member of His body, adopted as God’s own beloved child, and offered eternal salvation. A very special day for all of us who have been Baptized!
Now it may have occurred that during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays you were travelling, or hosting out-of-town guests, or just very busy and caught up in many holiday events, and because of these conflicts, or poor planning, or just totally running out of energy, you missed attending Mass on one of the Sundays of this season or one of the Holy Days of Obligation (e.g. Christmas, Solemnity of Mary on January 1).
Have you committed a MORTAL SIN??? Well, in spite of what you may remember the good Sister who taught you in second grade telling you, probably not. Let me explain as it was taught to me as a seminarian in moral theology class at the Catholic University of America.
In the Code of Canon Law, canon 1246 ¶ 1 states: “Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are Christmas, the Epiphany, ..., Holy Mary Mother of God ….”
And in canon 1247 we learn that, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass; they are also to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body.”
This is the law, which forms the first Precept of the Church (there are 8 of them; see Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2041–2043 for the whole list.) But how is this law to be interpreted? Well, back in 1969 when the laws for fasting were changed (remember no meat on Fridays?), an official commentary was published about this change in the Vatican newspaper, La Observatore Romano. This commentary announced the principal that “substantial observance fulfills the purpose of the law.” What that means in our case is that there is nothing magical or taboo about Sunday Mass observance. The law that says we must go to Mass each Sunday is given for a purpose, namely to keep our relationship with God and with the Catholic community alive. It is sort of like a sign that says “DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS.” If you walk on the grass a time or two nothing bad happens. But if you make a practice of walking on the grass, pretty soon you will wear a path in the lawn and ruin it. In the same way, if you skip Sunday Mass once in a while nothing terrible happens, but if you continue to do so, soon your relationship to the Catholic community and to God begin to fade. It is the purpose of the law that is the important point.
So if you miss Sunday Mass once in a great while, you still have fulfilled the purpose of the law, and no harm is done. You have NOT committed a sin, and certainly not a serious one.
But what constitutes “substantial observance?” How often can you miss before you no longer substantially observe the law? If you go three Sundays out of every four have you substantially observed the law? I think so. What if you skip Sunday Mass twice a month? That does not sound like “substantial observance” to me, and you are skating on some pretty insubstantial ice. What if you go to church only once a month? That is hardly substantial, and if you are going less than once a month, don’t even bother to try and make the case that that constitutes “substantial observance.”
In any case there is so much all week that puts us down, that depresses us, that discourages us, that temps us to live less than what we are called to be, that at least once a week we need to hear that God the Father loves us, that Jesus understands our situation and freely gave Himself for us, and that the Holy Spirit moves in us to strengthen and guide us. We don’t go to Mass for God’s sake but for ours.