February 13, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Attendance at Sunday Mass is a profession of faith in the Resurrection

Some people suggested that I devote one of my columns to the subject of attending Mass on Sunday.

Attendance at Sunday Eucharist has declined, and it should be a cause of grave concern.

The importance of attending the Eucharist is demonstrated by the long-standing Catholic Church requirement that we attend Sunday Mass—and that willfully choosing not to is sinful. It doesn’t get more serious than that.

So what has happened? Why does the Church consider this weekly Mass attendance a grave matter? Is this a moral duty imposed by the Church simply as an arbitrary institutional requirement? Is the decline in Mass attendance of recent origin? Why is Sunday important?

It is helpful to begin to respond to these questions with a look at why Sunday is given such importance in the Catholic Church.

Recently, I happened across a succinct reflection on the topic by Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time). He wrote: “Christians are Sunday people. What does that mean? Before we ask ourselves how we ‘observe Sunday,’ we have to consider what we Christians actually celebrate on Sunday.

“The real and first reason for celebrating Sunday lies in the fact that on this day Christ rose from the dead. In doing so, he inaugurated a new age. For the first time, someone returns from the dead and will not die again. For the first time, someone has broken the bonds of time that hold all of us in captivity.

“But Jesus did not pass quickly into heaven. He did not simply shed time as one might shed a worn-out garment; on the contrary, he remains with us.

“The feast of Sunday is, therefore, above all, a profession of faith in the Resurrection. It is a profession of faith that life is good.

“Very early in the history of the Church, Christians asked themselves: ‘Why did the Lord choose this day? What meaning did he intend to convey thereby? … Sunday was the first day of the week. It was therefore the first day on which God created the world. … Sunday is the first day of the week, the day of creation. That means, then, that Sunday is also the day on which we give thanks for creation” (Co-Workers of the Truth, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1992, pp. 333-334).

If we consider our redemption, Christ’s victory over sin and death, of decisive importance, then it makes sense that we would mark Sunday Mass as a truly important act of thanksgiving for this ultimate truth about our lives.

If we are grateful for the beauty and wonder of our created life in this world, then the celebration of Sunday as the day of creation also makes sense.

Not to take Sunday celebration seriously suggests that we are deficient either in the knowledge of our faith or we don’t appreciate our fundamental need to be saved from sin and death or, for whatever reason, we don’t care because other things are more important.

In realistic recognition of the limitations of our human nature, the Catholic Church takes our need for salvation seriously so much so that she teaches that to ignore this need jeopardizes our personal victory over sin and death. And so the Church takes the possibility of our loss of salvation so seriously that she asserts that Sunday observance is a serious moral obligation.

With the eyes of faith, wanting to give thanks for the salvation that Jesus Christ won for each of us is surely enough motivation for going the extra mile to gather at Sunday Eucharist to say thank you. The enjoyment that the beauty of creation gives us is another reason for gratitude.

There is a third important reason to participate in Sunday Eucharist: We need the grace of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord on our journey through life. It’s why he gave us the Eucharist. We need the weekly strength the Eucharist gives us. Considering our human limitations, we simply can’t go it alone without divine help.

So why is there a decline in Mass attendance? Some say because the moral obligation can be satisfied on Saturday evening as well as on Sunday causes confusion. Why the change? Because the feast of Sunday begins with Vesper time, that is, evening time, the day before. Saturday evening Eucharist is a celebration of the Sunday.

I think the main reason for the decline, besides unfortunate ignorance of the importance of the Eucharist, may be the materialism of our culture.

Spiritual values are eclipsed by the desire for convenience rather than sacrifice. Is this why some parents who sacrifice to send their children to Catholic schools skip Sunday Mass?

We need to pray about the decisive importance of Sunday Eucharist. There is a lot at stake. †

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