25 Years Later, St. John Paul II’s Effort to Keep Sundays Holy Is Even More Timely

COMMENTARY: The COVID-19 pandemic has weakened already-poor Sunday Mass attendance, and commercial and recreational activities have conspired for decades to wrest Sunday away from the Lord.

Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass in 1994.
Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass in 1994. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano / Vatican Media)

Twenty-five years ago, St. John Paul II issued one of his most “timely” documents. It has gone largely ignored, which is a great shame, as the fight for the Lord’s Day is being lost all over, in the broader culture and in the Church, too.

Dated May 31,1998 — Pentecost that year — the apostolic letter Dies Domini was addressed to the whole Church on “keeping the Lord’s Day holy.” 

Dies Domini (The Day of the Lord) is more important today than in 1998. The pandemic weakened already-poor Sunday Mass attendance, and commercial and recreational activities have conspired for decades to wrest Sunday away from the Lord. In the United States, for most of the year, it appears to belong to the NFL.

“The NFL owns a day of the week,” the 2015 movie Concussion put it bluntly. “The same day the church used to own. Now, it’s theirs.”

John Paul thought that it was high time to take it back. The Lord’s Day and Sunday Mass — the former includes much more than just the latter — is essential to a Christian life. Without fighting for the Lord’s Day, it may not even be possible to live a countercultural Catholic life. 


Centrality of the Sabbath

The Sabbath was at the very heart of Jewish life. In the Gospels, the Sabbath is the most contested point between Jesus and the religious leaders. His declaration that he was “Lord of the Sabbath” was amongst his most provocative claims.

The Ten Commandments proceed in order of importance; the prohibition on killing is more grave than the one on coveting. Sabbath observance is treated in the Third Commandment — more important than honoring our parents, more important than marital fidelity. Keeping holy the Sabbath is the divinely instituted means of remembering that what is most precious to us — our time — is not wholly ours. It is to be offered to God and regulated by him.

The Sabbath is good for us. That may not have been sensed in ancient times as keenly as it is today, when we are in desperate need to be freed from the slavery of ceaseless work and perpetual entertainment, of constantly being online and in demand.

For the early Christians, formed in Sabbath observance, only a world-changing event could alter their understanding of God and time sufficiently to change Sabbath observance for the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the first day of the week. The resurrection of Jesus was just that, the beginning of a new creation. Just as the first day of the week was the first day of creation in Genesis, now the first day of the week is the day of the new creation, which not only restores what had been lost, but raises it up to a new level entirely. 

“The Resurrection of Jesus is the fundamental event upon which Christian faith rests,” writes John Paul. “It is a wondrous event which is not only absolutely unique in human history, but which lies at the very heart of the mystery of time. In fact, ‘all time belongs to [Christ] and all the ages,’ as the evocative liturgy of the Easter Vigil recalls in preparing the Paschal Candle. Therefore, in commemorating the day of Christ’s Resurrection not just once a year but every Sunday, the Church seeks to indicate to every generation the true fulcrum of history, to which the mystery of the world’s origin and its final destiny leads.”


Day of All Days

John Paul treats Sunday under various titles:

Dies Domini — The Lord’s Day: Celebration of the Creator’s Work

Dies Christi — The Day of Christ: Easter and Pentecost

Dies Ecclesiae ­— Day of the Church: Sunday Mass

Dies Hominis — The Day of Man: Joy, Rest and Solidarity

Dies Dierum — The Day of Days: The Mystery of Time

John Paul emphasizes how the centrality of Sunday is not only about God; It can prompt greater brotherhood and harmony with nature. 

“Through Sunday rest, daily concerns and tasks can find their proper perspective: the material things about which we worry give way to spiritual values; in a moment of encounter and less pressured exchange, we see the true face of the people with whom we live,” he writes. “Even the beauties of nature — too often marred by the desire to exploit, which turns against man himself — can be rediscovered and enjoyed to the full.”

Sabbath rest on the Lord’s Day is not intended for idleness, much less indulgence. Rather, it should be a day for authentic culture. 

“In order that rest may not degenerate into emptiness or boredom, it must offer spiritual enrichment, greater freedom, opportunities for contemplation and fraternal communion,” John Paul writes. “Therefore, among the forms of culture and entertainment which society offers, the faithful should choose those which are most in keeping with a life lived in obedience to the precepts of the Gospel.”


The Weekend Is Not Christian

One concrete step that pastors can take is to banish the word “weekend” when they mean the Lord’s Day. Many bishops and priests speak of “weekend Masses” when such a thing does not exist. Sunday Mass is on the first day of the week, not at the week’s end. The weekend is not a Christian concept. 

John Paul begins Dies Domini with a broadside against the weekend:

“The custom of the ‘weekend’ has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. … Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a ‘weekend,’ it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see ‘the heavens.’

“Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so. The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy, and the ‘weekend,’ understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation.” 

The first step toward “avoiding confusion” is to cease immediately all talk of “weekend Masses” — unless you are talking about First Friday and First Saturday, which are at the week’s end.

It may seem like a small thing, but it is a very big thing. As soon as a bishop or priest says “weekend” — much less writes it on the diocesan website or in the parish bulletin — he is giving priority to work over worship, commerce over communion. That he does so without malice or mischief makes it worse; so immersed is the Church in the world that even how to think as a Christian has been forgotten. The concept of “weekend” is not a Christian one, but its cultural adoption by Christians has weakened a key pillar of discipleship — keeping the Lord’s Day holy.

The Easter season, just concluded, should remind us that Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) is the end of the week. There was a rush to get the bodies off the cross and into the tomb on Good Friday because it had to be done before the Sabbath began at sundown. The women went to the tomb early on Sunday morning because it was their first opportunity to do so after the Sabbath. The Gospels remind us that it was the first day of the week (Mark 16:2, John 20:1). The Lord did not rise on the weekend, but on the first day.

Saturday-Sunday do not for a Christian constitute the end of the week, but the end and beginning. Most calendars reflect that, too; Sunday appears at the head of the week. How we mark time shapes everything that we do, for it is the context in which we do it. Time is the first “thing” God creates. In creating things outside of himself, God introduces a before and an after, which means time has come into being.

The shift in speech and attitude from Lord’s Day to weekend is a move from holy time to secular time. And as surely as night follows day, secular pursuits expand in secular time to squeeze out time that was previously reserved for God; hence the fast-growing new “religion” of children’s sports taking over Sunday morning.

The loss of the Lord’s Day has indeed trapped our culture in a limited horizon so that Sunday is no different from Saturday, or any day off. We trade in something radically other — the worship of the God who is beyond this world — for just more of the same: work, sports, shopping.

We don’t need more of the same; we need more of the One who is different! The Lord’s Day gives us that. John Paul taught as much 25 years ago. Few were listening then. Are any more listening now?