The Obligation to Attend Mass on Sundays

Author: Fr. Manuel Garrido


Manuel Garrido, O.S.B.

The moral obligation to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice on Sundays dates from the very beginning of Christianity, although it did not become a definite law of the Church until the fourth century. The meaning, the scope and the application of this law have been the subject of much research and study, not to mention considerable controversy, in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The matter can be studied from the vertical point of view, in that there exists the obligation to worship God, and also from the horizontal viewpoint, which involves all the anthropological aspects of every shade and hue. Both of these approaches are legitimate and easily lead to a solution, so long as they are integrated, and the conclusions drawn from each are given their proper place in the scale of values. But trouble begins when the proponents of one approach refuse to recognize the validity of the other. And here, as in so many other manifestations of the Church's discipline, the strength of our faith is all-important, and so is the regulating of all our acts by a truly religious conscience. Something similar happens in hospitals and schools, or in any institution with a set of rules that must be followed. Typical is a fixed schedule for meals, which people with a good appetite find no difficulty in obeying, while those with poor appetites regard it as an imposition to be avoided.

The obligation to attend Sunday Mass exists. It is a commandment of the Church which binds under the penalty of grave sin. It exists for a specific reason and should be known and loved, so that the soul feels a need to fulfill it. The fact that it is a law helps to create a religious consciousness of this need, which, in turn, makes it easier to fulfill the obligation.

Although they refer to another subject, the following words of Msgr. Escriva de Belaguer sum up admirably what I am trying to say: "In direct opposition to the faith which we find a mistaken interpretation of freedom, a freedom with no end in sight, with no objective standards, without law, without responsibility; in a word licentiousness. This unfortunately, is what some people propose, and it is nothing but an excuse to attack the faith." ("Friends of God", no. 32) Like any other society, the Church has her own laws, which should be followed in the light of her proper aims, especially when it is a matter with some bearing on the third Commandment. In order to appreciate a law and fulfill it conscientiously and enthusiastically, it is first necessary to know it properly.

The Day Of The Lord

The Second Vatican Council reminds us that "apostolic tradition of the Church is, from the very day of the resurrection of Christ, to celebrate the Pasch every eight days, on the day which is called the day of the Lord" ("Sacrosanctum Concilium", 106). Modern scientific investigation also proves that this custom is from the time of the apostles.

The first mention of this is to be found in Sacred Scripture is in St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians, written in the year 57. The Apostle refers "to the first day of the week" (16, 1-2) as the most appropriate for the collection for the poorer communities. About two years later the Acts of the Apostles tell of the celebration of the eucharist in Troas: "on the first day of the week" (20, 7-8). Here we are given to understand that the celebration takes place in the evening or the night of the day before. This custom was observed in the Church until the last century and has been restored since the Council. From the foregoing it is clear that in Greece, Galatia, Bithynia, and consequently in Palestine and Syria, during the first half of the first century, the celebration of the eucharist on the first day of the week was a common establishment among Christian communities.

We first hear of this day being referred to as the Lord's day in the Apocalypse of St. John, 1, 9-10: "I was in the spirit on the Lord's Day". In Latin it is called "Dominica" or "Dies Dominicus", a name which is retained in the Latin languages: "domingo, domenica, dimanche, domineca", etc.; while in the Germanic languages the pagan name is retained "dies solis" (sonntag, Sunday), in Russia it is called "voskresenie," after the resurrection of the Lord; the Armenians call it "haruthjan" and "deruni," which means "the Lord's Day."

In Didache, 14, I the Sunday celebration seems obligatory: "On Sundays, get together and break the bread and give thanks, confessing your sins in order that your sacrifice may be pure." This testimony pertains to the second half of the first century. In the second century, St. Justin, writing to a pagan, gives us a striking description of Holy Mass being celebrated every Sunday, referred to by him as "dies solis"; and he goes on to explain that those who live in towns and villages attend this sacred assembly ("Apologia" I, 67). During the same period we have Dionisius of Corinth speaking of the first day of the week as a "holy day" ("PG", 20, 388). From here on we can find numerous descriptions of the Sunday eucharistic celebration and also of the Christians' obligation of participating in the same.

The Early Christians

Nowadays facilities abound for us to fulfill the obligation of attending Mass on Sunday therewith enriching our spiritual life. In the case of the early Christians, both for those of Jewish and pagan origin, it entailed great sacrifices for them to attend the eucharistic celebration, sometimes even the sacrifice of life itself. Thus, the deep-rooted meaning such an obligation had in their lives is very clear.

Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, in a letter addressed to the Emperor Trajan in the year 112 mentions that the arrested Christians "declared that the very fault they were accused of was gathering together" on a fixed day to sing a hymn to Christ who is God ("Epist". 10, 96). About 200 years later 31 men and 18 women were arrested in the same city and brought before the proconsul Anulinus in Carthage on the 12th of February in the year 304. According to the authentic "Acts" of their martyrdom, they maintained the following very impressive dialogue with the Roman proconsul:

—It is true that in your house you celebrated the meeting in spite of the edict of the Emperor?
—Yes, in my house we celebrated the day of the Lord.
—Why did you allow so many people to participate?
—Because they are my brothers and sisters and I couldn't refuse them.
—You should have refused them.
—No, I couldn't have done that because we had to celebrate the liturgy of the day of the Lord.

These martyrs of Bithynia have sometimes been referred to as "the martyrs of the Sunday celebration," and not without reason.

Through the writings of the Fathers of the Church, especially in that of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we can see the changes that took place in these Christians converted from Judaism. This saint, in his letter to the Magnesians says: "...they gave up keeping the Sabbath and began by living according to the Sunday celebration, the day in which a new life was born for us through the grace of the Lord and the merits of his death" (9, 1).

In the writings of St. Justin we can find the same line of thought. Having described the Sunday eucharistic celebration as resembling our Sunday Mass he adds: "We hold this celebration on the ‘dies solis’ because it is the first day, the day in which God created the world, and also the day in which Christ, our Savior rose from the dead". (Apol. 1, 67, 7)

It is observed by Dix and Jungmann, to quote only two of the many specialists on the subject, that the early Christians gave prime importance to the dominical eucharistic assembly, in spite of calumnies that circulated among the pagans and in spite of varied persecutions and sufferings. On hearing certain present-day opinions, and on observing the behavior of those Christians of the earlier centuries, one is inclined to ask if they were not possessed by the devil to face such dangers, or on the other hand, if it is now that the triumph of Satan is manifested in the indifference and coldness with which the Sunday obligation is fulfilled. Is it that we no longer feel the necessity to offer glory to God by attending Sunday Mass, or to nourish our souls with the Word of God and with the body and blood of Christ?

Festive Character

One of the most characteristic notes of the Sunday Mass is its communitary and festive aspect. The Church feels the necessity of gathering the faithful periodically for its liturgical celebrations. Ever since the apostolic times, Sunday has been the day set aside for this meeting, as can clearly be seen in the Acts of the Apostles and in St. Paul's letters. According to the well-known specialist G. Dix, during the first three centuries the word "ekklesia" was used only to express the liturgical weekly meeting, or to denote those who had a right to take part in it. St. Ignatius of Antioch exhorts the early Christians to be responsible in attending and in participating in the Sunday liturgical assembly.

But perhaps the most expressive testimony of this aspect of the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays can be found in the "Didaskalia Apostolorum" of the third century: "teach the faithful and exhort them to be present at Sunday Mass, less they decrease the Church by their absence and deprive the mystical body of Christ of one of its members; they should hear the words of Christ as directed to each one of them in particular: "he who does not gather with me scatters" (Luke 11,23). Because you are members of Christ your only meeting place is the Church. Because Christ makes himself present as promised and communicates with us, you cannot belittle yourselves nor deprive the Savior of his members, you cannot separate or divide his body (c. 13).

The spirit of assembly appears from the beginning to be fundamental in the Sunday obligation. We cannot keep Sunday holy individually even through pious practices. There is no heaven for individualism even though it is the individual that is saved by cooperating with divine grace in this great enterprise.

This mystical presence of Christ in the Sunday assembly referred to in the "Didaskalia has been stressed through the tradition of the Church right down to our own day. This awareness of the presence of Christ, the assembly of the faithful, and all the elements of the liturgical celebration give a festive note of joy that cannot be found in any other gathering. It is not without reason that St. John Chrysostom said: "It is to a banquet that the Lord calls you ... you are invited to rest.... In the Church joy triumphs over grief and heals the wounds in your heart. Oh, heavenly call! Let's hurry! But at the same time let's honor this Sunday meeting by what we are and by what we do." ("In Osiam hom. 1,1)

Excess Of Sunday Anthropology

The Sunday obligation has also been "contested" recently. All the possible and imaginary situations in which one may find oneself in our era have been examined in order to question the commandment of the Church: "to hear Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation." Most of them are mere assumptions, and the Church has always had them in mind and has dispensed of the obligation of hearing Mass in those circumstances. We also have to keep in mind the very many facilities that now help fulfill this Christian duty.

The above mentioned study of the destiny of man in his relation to God has advanced greatly in certain well-defined aspects, but not as a really integral anthropology where the law, the norm, the supernatural value of the spirit, etc. should also be taken into account. Countless pages have been filled about the different aspects of "otium" and "non-Otium" (Negotium=business). Otiosity is considered as a liberating factor: (free choice, free conduct) liberalization of choice of conduct and of purpose. As an expression of freedom it has been used at different levels for the self-realization of the human person. Because of this, it has been considered as a liberalization of the eventual "alienating" characteristic of work, and as a liberating factor in the monotony the constant effort in work calls for, as well as from the negative consequences work produces in the psychology of the one who realizes it.

Reflecting deeply on the above, we find that it is not in opposition to the obligation of hearing Mass on Sundays; on the contrary Sunday Mass offers the possibility of this liberalization in a higher sense than man could ever dream of. The most striking sign of the divine image in man is his freedom. The interior and eschatological freedom should tend to conquer the existential area of man, in which case the Sunday obligation offers a perfect framework with its double aspect: to honor God and to rest from work.

Quoting Msgr. Escriva de Balaguer, we have already referred to the mistaken interpretation of freedom with no objective standards and with no end in sight. It must be remembered that this freedom which many seek on Sundays as time spent in diversion and amusement, also has its rules and aims: for example the traffic rules, which, when obeyed, help us to attain our aim, whereas, if they are ignored, the contrary will occur.

The same can be said when the Sunday obligation of hearing Mass is looked at from a theoretical level based on biblical theology, or as a legally binding precept. The suggestion of having a weekly liturgical precept (and not necessarily the Sunday precept) does not really solve anything; merely reducing it to an inner obligation without the binding force of a law, means ignoring the nature of the law, and thus, too, all that has been said so far. It is striking to note that, in some communities where the Sunday precept has been questioned, they have reached a point where the eucharist is celebrated without due respect or dignity. On the other hand, some groups have always given the Sunday celebration its full liturgical meaning, and this has produced extraordinary effects in the lives of the faithful.

The Voice Of The Church

The obligation of hearing Mass on Sundays, being a precept of the Church, could be altered or changed by the competent hierarchy of the Church; but the Church has not done so. On the contrary she has been over-generous in offering facilities for its fulfillment, and by simplifying the rites and offering a greater abundance of biblical and liturgical texts, she has exhorted that the eucharist be celebrated with the maximum power of pastoral efficacy. All the existing problems were studied by the bishops in the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless in n. 106 of the constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium" Sunday has been underlined as a day in which the faithful gather "so that by hearing the Word of God, and taking part in the eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, resurrection and glorification of the Lord Jesus, and may thank God." And they add: "Hence the Lord's Day, is the original feast day and it should be proposed to the faithful and taught to them in such a way that it may become in fact a day of joy and freedom from work."

The instruction "Eucharisticum Mysterium" of May 25, 1967, having put forward the theological meaning and apostolic origin of Sunday, goes on to say: "In order that the faithful may willingly fulfill the precept to sanctify this day and should understand why the Church should call them together to celebrate the eucharist every Sunday, from the very outset of their Christian formation Sunday should be presented to them as the primordial feast day, on which, assembled together, they are to hear the Word of God and take part in the Paschal Mystery. Moreover, any endeavor that seeks to make Sunday a genuine day of joy and rest from work should be encouraged." (AAS, 59 (1967), pp. 539-573, no. 25).

Later, this document insists that the celebration of Sunday Mass, whether it be with the Bishop, in the Parish Church, in other churches or approved places, nourishes and gives expression to the sense of community in the faithful.

Paul VI stated in the question of the obligation of Sunday Mass to bishops from the central regions of France visiting him in Rome "ad limina apostolorum" on March 26, 1977. Among those present were the bishops of Bourges, Sens, Tours, Blois, Chartres, Moulins, Nevers and Orleans. From the context of the Pope's message, it is clear that they had brought up the problem of the Sunday gatherings of the faithful without the presence of a priest, in the rural districts where the towns and villages lack pastors, as a certain aspect of the unity of life and of prayer which would not be advisable to discontinue. The Pope made it clear that he understood the reason for these meetings and their advantages, from the point of view of the responsibility of those who participate and the vitality of the faithful. He knew that in certain regions those meetings were favored. Then he added: "proceed cautiously, without necessarily multiplying the number of those meetings, as if it were the best solution.... On the other hand, the aim has to continue being the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass, the only true realization of the Pasch of the Lord." (Paul VI, "Teachings to the People of God", 1977)

During the same year, in the National Eucharistic Congress in Pescara, Italy, the Pope once again insisted, in words that reveal the importance he gave to the Sunday precept: "How could we make both pleasing and binding a religious duty that every week both finds us united and praying ... in order to celebrate this blessed and continuous memory of the Pasch of salvation—the Sunday Mass? Such a Congress cannot fail in the restoration of the behavior that once again reveals itself as the "hinge" of our religious life; it should point to the beginning of the return to the faithful and loving observance of this vital precept." ("ibid". pp. 420-421)

Once again, the following year, at the beginning of Lent, the Pope spoke about the importance of the distribution of the days of the week, in such a way that, on Sunday the Christian imposes on himself some fixed religious observance. He quoted no. 106 of the constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium" already cited and added: "We will do well in always considering this standard as all-important in our religious and social customs." (1, 1978, p. 17)

This is the way to be followed. The old Spanish liturgy used to admonish our forefathers: "Sunday is a day of light and of life. On that day, Christ, the life of the faithful, rose from the dead. Let us celebrate it with solemnity in order to deserve a blissful peace."

[Fr. Garrido worked as an expert in the Second Vatican Council. At present he teaches Liturgy in the Faculty of Theology Norte de Espana and is also professor of Dogmatic Theology and Liturgy in the Monastery of the Holy Cross (Valle de los Caidos, Spain). He is the author of several books on liturgy.]

Catholic Position Papers, Series B—Number 22 March, 1982—Japan Edition Seido Foundation for the Advancement of Education, 12-6 Funado-Cho, Ashiya-Shi Japan Original articles published in these Papers may be reprinted without prior permission, if credited to CPP. Copies of all reprints would be appreciated.