Q: I recently heard of someone who left the Church over the teaching that failure to attend Mass on Sundays through your own fault is a mortal sin. He said the Orthodox don’t have such a strict teaching, nor do the Protestants for that matter. Why is the Catholic Church so demanding on this?
A: As I mentioned in an earlier column, it is not the Church that is so demanding, it is God Himself when he gave the Israelites the Third Commandment.
On top of that, our own understanding of who God is and of how much he loves us demands that we worship him through Sunday Mass as a bare minimum.
The Third Commandment given by God to Moses was very strict: “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people” (Ex 31:12-14).
The punishment of death for failing to observe the Sabbath makes it clear that God regarded this commandment as very serious.
Fortunately today the Church does not invoke the death penalty for those who miss Mass on Sundays!
Some 1200 years after Moses, at the time of Our Lord, the Jews still took very seriously the Sabbath obligation, as is clear from the many accusations against Jesus himself for failing to observe it (cf. Mt 12:1-2, 9-14; Mk 2:23-28, 3:1-6).
Then also, when we realise who God is and how good he is to us, we want to worship him and to do it in the way Jesus taught us, through attendance at the celebration of the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19).
Thus if the Church declares that it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sundays through our own fault, it is not an arbitrary imposition but rather a reminder that the obligation is serious in itself.
The early Christians took the Sunday Mass obligation very seriously, even when it involved a serious risk. In 303 AD, during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, a group of 49 Christians, including a Senator, were arrested while gathered in a home for the weekly celebration of Sunday Mass in Abitene, a north African city in present-day Tunisia. They were taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Among the testimonies is that of Emeritus, who was not afraid to say that he received Christians into his home for the Eucharist. When the Proconsul asked him: “Why have you received Christians in your home, transgressing the imperial dispositions?” he answered: “We cannot live without Sunday.” It is as if he had said: “We cannot live without Sunday Mass.”
The 49 were subsequently put to death.
The writer of the account in the Acts of the Martyrs commented on the Proconsul’s question as to whether these Christians had taken part in the Eucharistic assembly: “O foolish and ridiculous question of the judge! As if a Christian could be without the Sunday Eucharist, or the Sunday Eucharist could be celebrated without there being a Christian! Don’t you know, Satan, that it is the Sunday Eucharist which makes the Christian and the Christian that makes the Sunday Eucharist, so that one cannot subsist without the other, and vice versa?”
It should be remembered that at that time the Church had no precept requiring attending Sunday Mass. It was simply engraved on the hearts and minds of Christians that they could not let Sunday pass without attending the celebration of the Eucharist, even when it was exceedingly dangerous to do so.
Attendance at Mass on Sundays should be the same for us today. It is an essential aspect of our identity as Catholics. There is no true Christian life without the Sunday Eucharist, whether or not the Church declares that missing Mass through our own fault is a mortal sin. The least we can do is set aside one day a week for our God, and one hour for Sunday Mass.
Another testimony on the importance of Sunday Mass in the early Church comes in a homily of St John Chrysostom (ca 349-407). Preaching on the feast of some martyrs, he lamented that nothing would keep some Christians away from the circus – think of football, in today’s terms – while they were careless about attending Mass: “And at the circus, without a roof above them to keep off the rain, the crowds stand there crazy, the rain pouring down on them, and the wind blowing it in their faces, and they think nothing of the cold or the rain or the distance, and nothing will keep them from going there, and nothing will keep them at home!
But to go to the Church a shower, or the mud on the road, is a serious obstacle!” (In M.F. Toal, The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol. 2, p. 137)