Sunday Mass Obligation Was a Casualty of 2020
COMMENTARY: While public controversy focused on whether the government considered worship an ‘essential activity,’ the far more important question is whether the Catholic faithful consider Sunday Mass as ‘essential activity.’
For many years now, the Sunday obligation — observed by a minority of Catholics — was in the intensive care unit. It died this past pandemic year. A resurrection is not on the horizon.
The Code of Canon Law is clear enough: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (1247). A minority of baptized Catholics observe that; in many countries, it is a tiny minority.
Leave aside those of the baptized who have had no religious upbringing or formation; it is likely they do not even know of the Sunday obligation. Yet many of those who would consider themselves practicing Catholics do not consider Sunday Mass to be a canonical obligation, much less mandated by the Third Commandment, which ranks higher in importance than “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Before the pandemic, the Sunday obligation was in poor shape. Then, for good reason, bishops the world over suspended the Sunday obligation. It could hardly be otherwise; with public Masses canceled, churches closed or operating at much-reduced capacity, the obligation would not have been in force anyway. Canon law does not oblige the impossible, which is why, for example, the sick, hospitalized and homebound are not obliged by Canon 1247.
The formal suspension of the Sunday obligation thus changed very little. Yet the experience of the pandemic changed the default settings. Whereas before the default for an observant Catholic would have been to go to Sunday Mass, the pandemic changed that default toward not going, especially in those areas where people were encouraged not to come to church if they were elderly, sick, caring for the sick, in contact with the sick or worried about becoming sick themselves.
It followed, then, that parish priests reported, after the churches reopened, that parishioners who had come to daily Mass for decades were remaining at home to watch Mass online. Churches limited to 50%, 30% or 20% capacity had plenty of room left over on Sundays. Many pastors who were worried about how to register people for Mass to abide by the reduced-capacity requirements quickly realized that it was not going to be a problem. While public controversy focused on whether the government considered worship an “essential activity,” the far more important question is whether the Catholic faithful consider Sunday Mass as “essential activity.” The formal suspension of the Sunday obligation promoted, unintentionally, a shift in the default setting toward Sunday Mass as not essential, or optional.
During this past year, countless statements about the pain of going without Sunday Mass have quoted the fourth-century Martyrs of Abitene: Sine dominico non possumus (“We cannot live without Sunday”). Yet it is evidently possible for far too many Catholics to get used to living “without Sunday.”
The formal suspension of the Sunday obligation has meant that, for a time, the Church has taken the view we must live without Sunday. It is not that there were viable alternatives, but the effect remains. It is certain that bishops are eager to lift the suspension of the Sunday obligation, but whatever residual culture of Sunday obligation existed is not coming back. It was sick before; it is dead now.
A few canons after the Sunday obligation, the Code of Canon Law shifts from feast days to fast days. Canon 1250 specifies all Fridays and the entire season of Lent as “penitential days.” Canon 1251 speaks of “abstinence from meat or some other foods according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops” on penitential days.
Even among priests, let alone the faithful, there is little familiarity with what those “prescripts” might be. Practically, Friday abstinence from meat became a generalized Friday penance, of which abstinence from meat was one option. Friday penance has now become optional altogether. I do not permit Friday meat in my chaplaincy, but that requires introducing students to entirely new thinking. I have been served meat on Fridays at apostolic nunciatures, watched bishops scarf down bacon and eggs on Friday morning, stood in line behind priests in Friday buffet lines where a meat option was available and much availed of, been at Catholic schools were the cafeteria serves meat on Friday — or even Ash Wednesday.
Nothing prevents a Catholic from abstaining from meat on Fridays — and nothing mandates it either. But that recommended and highly venerable practice long ago disappeared as a default setting in Catholic culture, and, with it, the obligation for a Friday penance was also forgotten. The same happened in 2020 regarding the Sunday obligation; we will see that play out in 2021.
Of course, many Catholics will go to Mass on Sundays, particularly in those initial months after life begins to return to normal. Yet it will mainly be viewed as a preferred option, not thought of as an obligation mandated by the Third Commandment and specified by ecclesial authority.
The first decision will be taken by bishops, on when to end the suspension of the Sunday obligation. That will come, sooner or later.
The second decision will be for parishes, on whether they will end their livestreams, as Pope Francis did once churches in Italy reopened.
The third decision will be for parishioners, on whether they will return. That, too, remains to be seen. A great many will not. A massive evangelical challenge will remain.
A principal challenge for 2021 will be to get Catholics back to Mass after a year of lockdowns, closures and restrictions. But it will be an uphill climb, as the pandemic killed off whatever remained of that mainstay of a previous Catholic culture, the Sunday obligation.