Sunday Precept and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Sunday Precept and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 18 March 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Canon 1248 of the Latin-rite Code of Canon Law states that a day of precept is fulfilled by assisting at Mass celebrated in a "Catholic rite." On that basis, would attendance at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy currently fulfill the precept? The Holy See's Ecumenical Directory of 1970/71 specifically allowed this, but no mention is made one way or the other in the current (1993) version. — C.Y., Butler, Pennsylvania

A. here is the full text of the canon:

"1248 §1. A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.

"§2. If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families."

Since Canon 1248 specifically states that the precept must be fulfilled in a Catholic rite and makes no exceptions, some canonists aver that this canon effectively abrogated the privilege granted in the 1970 Ecumenical Directory which allowed this exception.

Therefore the absence of any specific mention of this privilege in the revised "Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism" could be interpreted either as a definitive abrogation of the privilege or simply the recognition of the state of the case after the promulgation of the Code.

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches has a similar disposition, although organized in a different way so as to adapt to the particular situation of the Eastern Churches. Thus Canon 881.1 states:

"The Christian faithful are bound by the obligation to participate on Sundays and feast days in the Divine Liturgy, or according to the prescripts of their own Church 'sui iuris,' in the celebration of the divine praises."

It must be noted that here there is no mention of attending "anywhere in a Catholic rite." This is probably because these Churches are very strongly bound to the participation in their own liturgical tradition.

However, Canon 883.1 does take into consideration the possibility of those who are far from home. To wit:

"As regards feast days and days of penance, the Christian faithful who are outside the territorial boundaries of their own Church 'sui iuris' can adapt themselves fully to the norms in force where they are staying."

In practice this means the following.

A Latin Rite Catholic may fulfill the precept by attending any Catholic Mass from Saturday evening through all day Sunday.
Many, but not all, canonists state that Saturday evening means after 4 p.m.; others say after 12 noon. In some dioceses the bishop has determined the hour by decree, and this is a legitimate exercise of his authority in an area that has not been determined by the Holy See.

The Latin Catholic fulfills the Sunday precept even if the liturgy celebrated was not that of the corresponding Sunday, for example, if he attended a wedding, funeral or even an evening Saturday Mass in a religious community which habitually celebrated its daily Mass in the evening.

He or she may also attend any Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy, making every effort to respect the traditions of each liturgical family regarding such things as posture, fasting and the reception of Communion.

The Eastern Catholic, within the territory of his own Church, should preferably always attend his own rite. Outside of this territory he should do all that is reasonable to attend his own rite. Otherwise, he should attend another Catholic celebration.
In places where several Catholic jurisdictions overlap, such as in some parts of India and the Middle East, Catholics occasionally attend one another's celebrations as a sign of harmony and the common faith.

There are one or two ancient but small liturgical families of which there is a Catholic and an Orthodox branch. In places outside of the traditional homeland where there is a sufficient number of faithful, but an acute shortage of priests, the Catholic Church has agreed to share priests with the Orthodox so as to assure the continued celebration of this liturgical tradition. In such cases both Catholics and Orthodox worship together.

Otherwise, a Catholic does not fulfill his Sunday Obligation attending an Orthodox celebration.

Should a Catholic be in a situation where there is no Catholic Mass available, the Sunday obligation ceases, since nobody is obliged to do the impossible. As we have seen above in Canon 1248.2, the Church highly recommends some alternative form of sanctification of the feast such as a celebration of the Word. This, however, is a recommendation and not an obligation.

Should a Catholic find himself in a situation where there was no Catholic Mass but there was an Orthodox celebration, then the Catholic could attend this celebration as an alternative means of sanctifying the feast, although not in fulfillment of the Sunday precept.

If the laws of the Orthodox Church allow it, the Catholic could also receive Communion (Canon 844.2; Eastern Code 671.2).

A Catholic should always inquire beforehand if this possibility is available. If unable to ask because of language barriers, it is better to refrain rather than risk contravening the spiritual tradition of fellow Christians.

* * *

Follow-up: Sunday Precept and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy [4-01-2014]

There were several commentaries from readers regarding the March 18 column on the Sunday precept.

One reader asked at what age the precept begins, as someone had told him that even young children were obliged to attend. This information is incorrect. Children are obliged after reaching the age of reason, which in the common estimation is usually around the age of 7. This is also the apt age for receiving first Communion.

Another reader doubted the correctness of an "evening" Mass after 12 noon. He commented:

"In your recent post for March 18, 2014, you mentioned that Holy See has not established a time before which anticipated Masses should not be celebrated. However, Canon 1248 states that the obligation for Mass is satisfied in the evening of the preceding day. The legislator uses the word 'evening' ('vesper' in Latin) and not 'afternoon' ('Post meridiem'). The time of 4 p.m. comes from Pius XII in his apostolic constitution 'Christus Dominus,' 14-24: 'Rule VI. If the circumstance calls for it as necessary, We grant to the local Ordinaries the right to permit the celebration of Mass in the evening, as we said, but in such wise that the Mass shall not begin before four o'clock in the afternoon …' Perhaps the canonists still debate this point, but I think there was a statement by a Pope on this matter."

I personally find the arguments favoring after 4 p.m. as the proper time more convincing, and certainly more appropriate. But the question is not closed, and the Holy See has thus far not corrected any bishop who has decreed the noon limit.

I also think that the argument from Pius XII is off-topic. The venerable Pontiff was decreeing the possibility of evening Masses, on a Sunday or feast day. Before his time, evening Masses were not allowed, since the Eucharistic fast was from midnight. Pius XII reduced the fast to three hours in order to allow Mass to be celebrated for those unable to attend in the morning. The 4 p.m. time falls into this logic so as to ensure the respect of the three-hour fast after lunch.

A Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic also questioned my position, based on the Ecumenical Directory and the Eastern Code, that attendance at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy did not fulfill the Sunday obligation:

"I am a Ruthenian Greek Catholic. I read your interpretation of the Eastern Code of Canon law as saying that I am bound to attend a Latin Church if there is no Greek Catholic Church available. As I read the Code of Canon law for the Eastern Churches, it says only that I am obligated to attend the Divine Liturgy.

"I don't see how you get from that, that I must attend a Novus Ordo Mass if a Catholic Divine Liturgy is unavailable. By the plain wording of the law, I am only obligated to attend the Divine Liturgy. Why can't I do that at an Orthodox parish instead of going to a Western Catholic parish? Please show me a law or a ruling on the law for the Eastern Churches that says Divine Liturgy only means a Divine Liturgy or a Mass in a Catholic parish. I simply do not see that in the Eastern canon law. It seems as if the promulgators had meant to say that, they would have. No offense, but your simply saying that does not prove anything to me. I would like to see something authoritative."

I would say that the norms for the Ecumenical Directory apply to all Catholics irrespective of liturgical family. If it no longer considers attending an Orthodox Divine Liturgy as fulfilling the Sunday obligation, then this applies to all.

However, as I mentioned in the article, there are exceptions, and in this I naturally defer to the particular laws of a Catholic Eastern Church which may allow for this possibility.

Secondly, the Eastern Code applies to more than 20 Catholic Eastern Churches. In this case the term "Divine Liturgy" does not refer to the Byzantine rite but in a generic way to any one of the Eucharistic celebrations of an Eastern rite, some of which use other terms to describe the celebration. In this broad sense a Roman Catholic Mass is also a Divine Liturgy.

Finally, I did not say that Eastern Catholics are obliged to attend a Roman Catholic ordinary-form Mass if their own rite was unavailable. I said that he should attend a Catholic celebration. If they cannot attend their particular rite, then they can attend any of the 20 or so Eastern Catholic rites, the Roman rite in the ordinary or extraordinary form, an Anglican-use celebration if available, or even the Ambrosian rite (if in Milan, Italy) or the Hispanic-Visigothic rite (if they happen to be in the Cathedral of Toledo in Spain at 10 a.m.).

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