Friday, August 16, 2013

Go to Mass!

Q: Is it a mortal sin to skip Mass on Sunday or a holy day of obligation?

First, let's define our terms.

By "mortal sin," the Catechism says:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

1) it is a grave (i.e. serious) offense;
2) it is done with full knowledge (i.e. you knew it was wrong);
3) it is done with full consent (i.e. you weren't compelled). 

By "skip Mass," we mean choosing not to go to Mass even though there was nothing preventing you from going (e.g. work, illness, being 2,000 miles from a Catholic church, etc.).

By "Sunday or holy day of obligation," I think we all know what that refers to.

Second, let's examine our proposition: does the proposed action meet the conditions for mortal sin? If we answer positively for all three, then yes.

Condition One: is attending Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation a serious matter? Let's consult the Catechism. Please pay attention to the first part, as it tells us the reason for the conclusion that follows.

2181 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, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

You are never more Catholic than when you go to Mass. As the Second Vatican Council tells us, the Mass is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11). It is the highest point we reach in our lives on earth as Christians, and it is the main wellspring from which we draw the gift of God's grace, His very life, which enlivens us and strengthens us and makes us holy. No other moment in Christian practice compares with uniting our worship of and prayer to God to the sacrifice of His Son as re-presented on the altar at Mass. This is our spiritual nourishment. And just as it is harmful to us to forgo bodily nourishment, so, the Church informs us, it is harmful to us (i.e. sinful) to forgo our spiritual nourishment. Skipping Mass is like skipping a week's worth of meals. To commit a mortal sin is to cut yourself off from God's life and grace through your action: there is no clearer way of cutting the lifeline than refusing our nourishment. God commands us to worship Him not because He needs it, but because, as I have just been saying, we need it; and the Church legislates this for the same reason. This is serious, which is why the Church judges it a grave sin.

Now, whether one "deliberately fails" in this matter will be determined by the other two variables of the equation, but let us acknowledge that Condition One, the nature of the act itself, is fulfilled.

Condition Two: if you were to skip Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, did you know that you have a duty to attend Mass on those days? I think you'd be hard pressed to find a Catholic of any degree of devotion who won't admit that you "should" or "ought to" attend Mass on Sundays, "ideally." Keeping the Third Commandment by celebrating the day of the Lord's Resurrection is something that's pretty well engraved into our minds. And the phrase "holy day of obligation" is pretty unambiguous; the term "optional obligation" is just contradictory. Now, it's possible that a person could run into someone they trust, e.g. a priest, nun, friend, etc., who tells them, "Well, you don't have to go every Sunday, it's not that big of a deal, as long as you're a good person and you believe in God," or something to that effect, and that person acts on that in good faith. That person's culpability could be lessened in that case: "I trusted them and they led me astray!" But I think most folks know what they're supposed to do. For most of us, Condition Two is met.

Condition Three: if you were to skip Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation, that is, choose not to go to Mass when you had the ability to go, were you doing it with full consent? Was there anything constraining you from attending? Were you being forced to work through every available Mass time? Were you too ill either to get up or such that you didn't want to risk infecting other people? Did you have to take care of young children or the sick or elderly? Were you being held hostage by terrorists, aliens, or Jehovah's Witnesses? No? Then we've met Condition Three.

There are many people, I dare say, who meet these three conditions. Every Christmas and Easter we see churches filled to two or three times their normal capacity by Catholics who don't usually attend during the rest of the year. Now, I cannot know any of their particular circumstances or knowledge of their own actions; I don't know what may be keeping them from Mass every other Sunday and holy day, so I could not say, "They are all in mortal sin," nor is it my place to. My purpose here is not to scold, but to inform. We have a serious responsibility and a wonderful opportunity in attending the sacred liturgy. Go to Mass if you can. If you haven't been to Mass for a while, go to confession, and receive the gift of God's forgiveness. God is waiting there to give you Himself. What more could you want?

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