And I said, "Well, that's the one thing we've got."
—Deep Blue Something, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The priests call it the 5:35 p.m. Mass, and I’m partly to blame. It’s the weekend’s last liturgy at our parish, and the processional actually kicks off at 5:30. Still, many folks – like me and my family – regularly slink in several minutes later. Oh, sure, we have excuses – a lost shoe, one last bathroom trip, “Where are my car keys?!” – but there’s never any question that we’ll throw in the towel and stay home.

Nope, we’ll go anyway, no matter how humiliating it is to yet again shuffle into a pew after the liturgical ball has started rolling. Or, if some domestic catastrophe prevents us from getting there at all, we’ll re-group and head over to the 7:00 p.m. at another church. All of this fuss about simply getting to Mass leaves little room for interior preparation or composure. Consequently, when we do finally arrive and catch up with the crowd already singing or praying or (worst case scenario) listening to the first reading, we’ve taken on the appearance and disposition of people fulfilling an obligation.

Which, I might add, is exactly what we’re doing.

“If it weren’t for Sunday obligation, I’d sleep in today!” – this thought has occurred to everyone at some point, right? Certainly it’s the case that our kids think that way – or at least mine do. In any event, I know I would’ve thought that way if I’d grown up Catholic, but I didn’t. Instead, I was raised Presbyterian, and while Sunday worship was clearly encouraged – even taken for granted – it wasn’t technically required.

If, for example, you’d been up late traveling on a Saturday night, particularly for a youth group activity, skipping church the next morning would’ve been no big deal. And if you went to churchy worship throughout the week? – like required chapel services at the evangelical college I attended? Then, forgoing Sunday services was easy to rationalize – as if Sunday worship and other church activities were basically interchangeable. “I punched the spiritual clock Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” I used to argue to myself. “No worship overtime for me this week.”

So what’s up with Catholics and Sunday Mass then? You’d think there’d be some wiggle room here, especially for those who are otherwise pious and altruistic. Say, for instance, that I go to Mass throughout the week. Shouldn’t four or five weekday Masses – including four or five receptions of Holy Communion – count at least as much as a single Sunday liturgy? And what if I’ve also been performing apostolic works, leading Bible studies, and spending hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? What’s the big deal about Sunday that makes Mass on that day an obligation?

While Sunday obligation is clearly part of the Catholic DNA, there was little need for it in the earliest days of the Church. The first Christians were raging infernos of faith, and they voluntarily went to great lengths to gather for the Sabbath Eucharist. “When, during the persecution of Diocletian,” St. John Paul II relates, “[Christian] assemblies were banned with the greatest severity, many were courageous enough to defy the imperial decree and accepted death rather than miss the Sunday Eucharist.” Such selfless devotion continues to be the case today in different parts of the world where Christians of various traditions brave very real threats of slaughter when they come together for Sunday worship.

Time and routine, however, tend to dampen human enthusiasm for the things of God, especially when we get comfortable with our temporal situations. “Faced with the half-heartedness or negligence of some,” Pope John Paul explains, “the Church had to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass.” Often it was enough to merely remind the faithful of this duty, but other times required something more akin to a binding mandate.

Such is the case today. Referring to Sundays and holy days, the Catechism reminds us that, unless we have a serious excuse, we are obligated to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days – and it really is a big deal: “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” But all this only begs the question: Why? Is God’s ego so fragile that an arbitrary weekly demonstration of universal obeisance is absolutely necessary? Or, as is more commonly assumed, is Sunday obligation supposed to be for our benefit? Maybe it’s just an extension of the Sabbath rest, and going to Mass on Sundays is appropriate because we’re supposed to be taking a load off anyway.

Far from it. The Church teaches that Sunday obligation is primarily about public corroboration of ecclesial commitment. Here’s how the Catechism puts it:

Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (CCC 2182).

In other words, taking Sunday obligation seriously is one of the main signs of Catholic identity – if not the main sign. Everything else might’ve withered away – spiritual vitality, personal virtue, faith, hope, charity, all gone! – but if you keep showing up at Mass on Sunday, it’s a marker: God still matters. It’s why we see folks at Sunday Mass that we never see at other church activities – the ones who not only arrive a bit late, but sit in the back pews, stay seated for Holy Communion, and leave early. At least some of them must be struggling with their faith, but they’re unable to let go completely – and Sunday obligation is the unbreakable link. In fact, I know this is the case because I’ve been there myself – and I thank God Sunday obligation helped me hang on! While outsiders might dismiss this as residual guilt, getting to Mass on Sundays is nonetheless a tether for those whose faith is waning. Rather than merely a practical codification of the Third Commandment, Sunday obligation can also be the last vestiges of religious fealty: what we creatures, even in doubt and rebellion, owe God the Father at the very least.

And it can be a powerful witness – at least it was for novelist and Catholic convert Walker Percy:

When I was in college, I lived in the attic of a fraternity house with four other guys. God, religion, was the farthest thing from our minds and talk – from mine at least. Except for one of us, a fellow who got up every morning at the crack of dawn and went to Mass. He said nothing about it and seemed otherwise normal.

That “fellow” was Harry Stovall, and it’s noteworthy that Percy doesn’t acknowledge any conversation with him about the Mass or faith, nor anything unusual about him other than his dogged dedication to Mass attendance. Indeed, Percy even specified that his roommate’s “strange behavior” didn’t directly contribute to his conversion at all, and for all we know, Stovall might’ve been going through incredible inner turmoil with regards to his childhood religion.

Regardless, he got to Sunday Mass, no matter what – except on one occasion when Percy and his buddies punked Stovall and caused him to sleep in instead. “You may not care much about your religion,” Percy recalls Stovall declaring, “but don’t mess with mine.” Whether in college or in the Middle East or anywhere else, Sunday obligation and fortitude go hand in hand. It bears repeating: To be Catholic is to get to Mass every weekend, and often that takes guts in a world increasingly hostile to our Church.

And so we pray: Give us courage, God, and get us in the pew this weekend – it’s who we are! Amen.