On Easter Sunday this month, just as on Christmas, our churches will be filled with people. Alongside those who are “regulars” every Sunday will be many people attending Mass for the first time in weeks or months — perhaps since last Christmas.
Regardless of when they do come, I hope they know I’m delighted to have our churches full, and I’m happy they are with us. They always are most welcome, even when it is only on “big holidays.”
I am reminded, however, of a concern I have had for some time. What once was an absolute among Catholics of all ages — regular and faithful attendance at weekly Sunday Mass — has somehow diminished in importance and priority with too many of us, or has been pushed aside by new cultural and business pressures that have altered our traditional belief in Sunday as the Christian day of worship and rest.
I also worry that many, judging by attendance trends, have wrongly come to believe through misinformation or myth that their presence is no longer required by our church, that Mass is now optional. As well, I wonder whether families are hemmed in by other activities, from children’s’ sports to work to that Sunday-morning visit to the mall.
Recent national studies of Mass-attendance trends by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found, sadly, that only about one-third of U.S. adult Catholics surveyed reported attending Mass every week, with a general decline in that number over the past three decades or more. It is worth noting that the CARA study by Dr. Mark Gray found the recent sexual-abuse issues in the church have not been a major factor affecting attendance.
The Holy Father also is concerned about attendance trends. Most recently, he told a group of visitors to Rome in January that attendance at weekly Sunday Mass is not only mandatory, but also crucial to the well-being of Christians. “To participate in Sunday Mass,” he said, “ … is not only an important obligation but, first of all, a profound need of every faithful.”
Times and attitudes certainly have changed. I quite vividly recall as a youth having no question or doubt that Sundays would find my family at Mass. Perhaps times were less challenging: fewer people worked on Sunday then, and far fewer stores and services were open. Malls had not yet been invented. Super Sunday, movies on demand, MTV and “24-hour news” were yet to come. In addition, the church made it quite clear then that not going to Mass on Sunday was a sin.
For the record, as the pope clearly has pointed out, the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and on Holy Days is still very much a part of our church’s precepts. Contrary to myth or misconception, the reforms of Vatican II did not alter this important obligation.
From the Catechism (1389): “The Church obliges the faithful to take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days and, prepared by the sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season. But the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily.”
To be sure, the church has actively sought to assist people in fulfilling the Sunday obligation. Now many of us joyfully attend the Saturday-evening Mass of Anticipation as a fulfillment of our Sunday obligation. In addition, in our own diocese and elsewhere, great effort has been made to vary the times of Sunday Mass so that people who work or have scheduling conflicts can still attend. For example, many, many of our churches offer early Sunday Masses, and we have several late-Sunday-afternoon or Sunday-evening Masses in our parishes.
All of this discussion raises the good question: Just why are we obligated? Why is it so important we attend?
To answer that question, we must look to Sunday, which has long been held — from the time of the Apostles — as “the Lord’s Day.” Not only is this the day we believe God rested and embraced his entire creation “and saw that it was good,” but also the day of Christ’s ultimate triumph for all of us in the Resurrection.
“It is Easter which returns week by week, celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death, the fulfillment in him of the first creation and the dawn of the ‘new creation,’” John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letter, Dies Domini (“Day of the Lord”). “It is the day which recalls in grateful adoration the world’s first day and looks forward in active hope to the ‘last day’ when Christ will come in glory and all things will be made new.”
And so every week we celebrate Easter. Every Sunday we are reminded of and relive the great sacrifice Jesus made for us. Every Sunday we remember our loved ones lost. Every Sunday we look to the grief-free, tearless “New Jerusalem” for which, as the priest prays at Mass for all the faithful, “we wait in joyful hope.”
Of course, I do not want you to have to go to Mass just because I say so or the church mandates it, albeit rules are rules and have good reason behind them.
I would prefer that you will hunger to go and that nothing will keep you away.
I pray you will be so nourished and fed spiritually, so strengthened by the Eucharist for the trials and pressures of work and life that you cannot wait to share in the public worship of the community.
And I pray you will go with a new generation of children, your children or your grandchildren.
As Our Holy Father wrote in Dies Domini, “Re-discover Sunday. Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ!”
In this time of Lent, this time of reflection and new beginnings, I encourage all to recommit yourselves to remember in some substantial way the Day of the Lord, to attend Mass faithfully, to invite others to come with you and to discover anew the joy of your faith and the richness, depth and beauty of the Mass.
Peace to all.