Why is Sunday Mass attendance obligatory?

Eamonn Clark, STL

For reasons I won’t yet share on these pages, I have been studying the situation of the Church in Ireland with intense interest in the past few weeks. It is not too healthy.

One of the deeper challenges seems to be Sunday Mass attendance. In Dublin, the rate of faithful weekly attendance is, I have heard, at about 1% of nominal Catholics – so about 10,000 out of Dublin’s 1 million. It is better elsewhere, but the numbers are overall pretty grim.

In days past, one was a social outcast for NOT going to church on Sundays. Now, it is almost reversed. What happened?

While each individual soul has its own complex story to tell, the phenomenon as a whole is actually relatively simple. There was exterior cultural pressure to act in such-and-such a way, with little to no rationale given as to why it is actually good to act thusly, and subsequently there was no understanding of the character of the obligation. Then, when the scandals began to break in the 1990’s, enough people found a suitable excuse to stay home; the cultural pressure was gone, and so the pews were emptied.

But even among those who remain, there is not necessarily much of an understanding as to why they are showing up – or at least, why it is their duty to show up. I read about an elderly couple who had been faithfully attending Sunday Mass for their whole lives suddenly decided to stop going. Why? Because the mass schedule changed, and it conflicted with their preferred lunch time.

No doubt anyone in the Western world can identify a similar phenomenon on Christmas and Easter when suddenly people show up for sentimental reasons. “It’s our family tradition.” Well, okay, but just like the Pharisees, one is not saved by their traditions, however nice they may be. One is saved by fidelity to the Lord.

Mass attendance is one of the five precepts of the Church – Sundays and other particular days of obligation (i.e. Assumption, Christmas, etc.). These precepts are mere “ecclesiastical law,” or “Church law,” but they rest immediately on Divine law. The precept to attend Mass corresponds to the Third Commandment – to keep holy the Lord’s Day. The precepts are grave obligations. To neglect them without a serious reason constitutes a mortal sin.

The virtue to which the Mass precept corresponds is religion – the habit of offering to God what is His due (in proportion to what we can give, as of course God’s due is infinite). Religion is a part of the broader cardinal virtue of justice, which is about rendering to others what they are owed.

The principal thing done at a mass is not singing, or gathering, or being preached to, or normal individual or communal prayer. It is not even the reception of the Eucharist, which can be done outside of mass, just as all these other actions can be. The principal thing done at a mass is an act of sacrifice, an offering to God made by the priest who celebrates the liturgy. (This was made clearer by the offertory prayer in the old rite – now the offertory does not mention sacrifice as explicitly… “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer You,” etc.) There are secondary purposes of the Mass, but this is the primary one: the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross is re-presented by the consecration of the Eucharist and its consumption by the priest.

God demands our presence at this sacrifice of His Son so that we can participate in its offering, in a moral sense. While we do not directly offer the sacrifice as the priest-celebrant does, we do so indirectly, not only by presenting the offerings of bread and wine (things which laity, not priests, would normally work to produce), but also by merely being intentionally present at the sacred action; our intentional presence (“being there because of the thing which is happening”) indicates our consent to and affirmation of the sacrifice being made. It is the highest act of justice which is available to us – there is nothing greater we can offer than Christ, and nobody greater to offer to than God.

Thus, God demands that we participate in this supreme act of justice, at least on Sunday, the day specially commemorating the Lord’s victory over death (or at least on the evening before), and on other particular days as determined by the Church, unless there is some sufficiently grave excuse. (Positive commandments bind conditionally, negative commandments bind absolutely.) A good general rule of thumb is that to miss Sunday Mass for a reason which one would also miss the work that is regularly necessary to provide adequately for one’s family (i.e. a serious illness, attending to some family emergency, an extremely inconvenient distance, etc.) is without sin. The less serious one’s reason, the more serious will be the sin.

It is also possible to obtain a dispensation from Sunday Mass. Bishops or even pastors can dispense all the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass, as we saw en masse during Covid, but it is also possible to obtain and individual dispensation for a particular situation. For instance, a family is taking a vacation where it would be mildly inconvenient to attend Sunday Mass. Their pastor can dispense them entirely or commute the obligation to some other pious action – perhaps attending mass on the day before they leave, or the day after they return, or praying a rosary on Sunday. (People should make more use of this right – and perhaps pastors ought to teach more about its existence.)

A challenge to readers: invite someone back to Mass. Now you can probably explain the obligation better if asked.

What are motivations you have heard for missing mass? Did the person seem aware of the sacrificial element of the Mass? Comment below, and be sure to subscribe!

5 thoughts on “Why is Sunday Mass attendance obligatory?

  1. I had a really challenging conversation with a disaffected thinker and blogger whom I deeply respect. They publicly discussed their decision not to attend Mass. To badly paraphrase, he felt the Church had been abusing him and taking him for granted. When he attended, the homilies were liberal and contrary to his tastes. During covid, a priest literally ran away from a little girl trying to give him a hug. These and many other things, he felt he had been devoting himself to the Church and the Church had not been bearing worthwhile fruit–he takes the “by their fruits you shall know them” scripture as a perhaps over-emphasized litmus test, and believes the fruits of the Church are rotten and belies a rotten tree. Several commenters, with varying degrees of forcefulness, discouraged his continuation in absence from Mass and invited him back and explained that it was an obligation, and he said something to the effect of having paid his dues and that he doesn’t encourage anyone to follow his example this is just the decision he felt was best. He took a fair amount of flak for his decision, which I fear did not endear him to return to faithful sunday service.

    If he were to stumble upon this I don’t know that he would agree with how I have characterized the discussion, but I can at least say with certainty that he would be unmoved by the prospect of attendance at Mass being a grave precept of the Church.

    I wish I could point you to the conversation, it made me very sad but he was determined. This man is very aware and has been very devoted in the past but has succumbed to despair, it seems to me. This specific case gets at a deeper issue than mere misunderstanding the importance of Mass. I don’t know the remedy.


    1. It’s difficult, similar with sex abuse victims. You have to get them to see that Christ didn’t do anything bad to them, and that He has given them a difficult cross for them to carry and be sanctified and glorified through. Pointing to the sufferings of Christ – not just in the Passion, but His whole earthly life – can perhaps be helpful. If the point is conformity with Christ, then contradictions and mortifications are the name of the game.

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  2. Scoot, I think you’ve missed the most important point of the article. Not the precept, but the two paragraphs beginning “The most important thing done at the Mass…” . I have been a Catholic for decades and have seldom seen this explained so well.


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