Take Back the Sabbath

Mom, Dad and the kids hurry in the front door and kick off their shoes.

Three loads of laundry call to Mom from the back room. After that there's the week's grocery shopping. Dad's already at the computer, trying to get in some work on an 11th-hour proposal before hitting Home Depot's power-tool sale.

Daughter hurries right back out for an all-day babysitting gig across town. Son impatiently waits for his buddy to arrive. “Halo III” just came out on X-Box and he's planning to play till he's as bug-eyed as the aliens in the game.

It's Sunday, but the only one doing any resting is Baby, who fell asleep in the car on the way home from Mass.

Is this any way for a Catholic family to spend a day of rest?

Not according to the Code of Canon Law, which says: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass; they are also to abstain from those labors and business concerns that impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy that is proper to the Lord's day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body.”

Most faithful Catholics understand and assent to the first part of Canon 1247 and have little difficulty meeting the requirement.

It's the second part that trips us up, partly because the Church is necessarily vague on this point. After all, some occupations, out of charity, must continue on Sundays. Think of the health-care workers and those who ensure the smooth operation of societal infrastructure, such as utilities and transportation, just to name a few.

But most of the time the second part of the teaching confuses us because we live in a culture that has forgotten what the Sabbath is. Americans know how to go to church — but we don't know how to rest.

Father Tom Milota of Sacred Heart Parish in Lombard, Ill., agrees.

“Americans always have to be doing something,” he says, which is perhaps why the concept of rest is so difficult. The American work ethic is apt to equate rest with laziness.

“But rest is not just sitting down and doing nothing all day,” he says. “Rest should be sanctified. It should reflect the divine intent of the Creator for that day.”

Which is … what, exactly? According to the Church, the purpose of an instituted day of rest is to provide a respite from everyday work (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2172) and time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind and meditation that furthers the growth of the Christian interior life (No. 2186).

In short, the purpose of setting aside Sunday is to promote intimacy with God and growth in holiness. Keeping the Lord's day means taking practical steps to make these spiritual benefits available for yourself, your family and the people around you. Prayerful and careful participation in the Mass is the first step.

But what then? What can Catholics do to sanctify their Sunday — and what should they not do in order to avoid profaning it?

Frank and Laurie Duquette of San Jose, Calif., parents of seven, believe Sunday should be primarily a family day.

“Sunday Mass sets the tone for the rest of the day,” Laurie Duquette says, “and we try to make sure the family stays home or does something all together that day, like going to the beach or even just staying home in the backyard for a barbecue.”

The most important rule for making this happen: no commitments outside the family on Sundays.

When their girls were of babysitting age, this sometimes meant turning down a job, but those kinds of sacrifices were made so the family could simply be together.

Just hanging around with your family may seem far removed from the lofty goal of intimacy with God, but the Church teaches that devoting time and care to our families is an effective means of making Sunday holy (Catechism, No. 2186).

Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy), reminds the faithful that “the relaxed gathering of parents and children can be an opportunity not only to listen to one another but also to share a few formative and more reflective moments.”

Elsie Radtke, director of Family Life Ministries for the Archdiocese of Chicago, recalls a period of time when her family started setting aside one Sunday a month for such reflective moments.

“We tried to pick a special place, such as a park or forest preserve, and everybody had to go off by themselves for half an hour — 15 minutes of spiritual reading, 15 minutes of reflection on that reading,” she says.

Then everyone gathered together to discuss what they had read. “I was amazed at the insights the children had,” Radtke says.

The Church also teaches that “Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm and the elderly” (Catechism, No. 2186). The Holy Father recommends to the faithful that they “devote themselves to works of mercy, charity and apostolate” (Dies Domini).

God's Time

Most Catholics would agree that family gatherings, special devotions and charitable works are great positive steps for keeping Sunday well. But when you start talking about what to avoid, even people of good faith disagree.

“It's a touchy issue,” says Father Milota, who fondly recalls a particular Sunday morning during his final year of seminary at the North American College in Rome. He was carrying a load of laundry down the stairs when he met up with the avuncular rector of the college, who told the young man, “You shouldn't be doing that. It's Sunday, you know!”

“I'll never forget that moment,” Father Milota says. To this day, he encourages his parishioners to do their laundry on Saturday.

Granted, tossing in one load of laundry is hardly going to ruin anybody's Sunday rest. But how much housework is too much?

“There's a temptation to use Sunday as a day to catch up on the laundry and cleaning,” Laurie Duquette says, “but it's a temptation you have to resist.”

“Restoring the Sabbath is not complicated,” says Elsie Radtke, who spoke recently on the topic at the Take Back Your Time Conference at Loyola University of Chicago.

“It's actually very simple,” she adds. “We're not called to be God, but we are called to be godlike — and we can't do that if we never spend time with him.”

Clare Shevahn writes from Winfield, Illinois.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.