August 7, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Do I have to go to Mass?

John F. Fink(Twenty-sixth in a series)

You’ve probably heard it, perhaps even said it: “I don’t have to go to Mass every Sunday to be a good Catholic.”

Or perhaps it’s more along the lines of, “I have a close relationship with God, pray privately and try to do good for others. I just don’t get anything out of going to Mass.”

While more Catholics today claim to be interested in spirituality, the number of those who regularly go to Mass keeps declining. Spirituality has become a private matter, divorced from the institutional Church.

Certainly private devotions, including periods of meditation or contemplation and the reading of Scripture, are to be encouraged. But one cannot be a true Catholic only privately. Catholicism has always been, and is meant to be, a communal religion.

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he prayed “Our Father,” not “My Father,” and he asked God to “give us our daily bread,” “forgive us our trespasses,” “lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from evil.” Even when we pray that prayer in private, we are uniting ourselves with other Christians.

Catholic prayers directed to Mary follow that example. In the Hail Mary, we ask her to “pray for us sinners,” and in the Hail Holy Queen there are plural nouns and pronouns.

A Catholic community is the people of God gathered around the person of Christ and sharing in his Spirit. The Church is the people. It has Christ as its head, the Holy Spirit as the condition of its unity, the law of love as its rule and the kingdom of God as its destiny.

All of us need some quiet time alone to develop our individual spirituality, but that must not replace joining others for worship. We humans are essentially social by nature, and going to Mass is what we Catholics should do precisely so as not to be alone.

There are two great commandments, not one. The greatest is to love God, which we can do privately and individually, but the second is to love your neighbor as yourself, and it cannot be done without other people being involved. One of the reasons for going to church is to pray for, and with, some of those other people.

St. Paul taught in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians that we Christians are the Body of Christ. The body is not complete if some of its members are missing from the community.

There is a time and a place for private prayers, and a time and a place for communal prayers. We must stop trying to figure out what we can get out of going to Mass, and concentrate more on what we can contribute by our presence and active participation in worshiping God.

The purpose of going to Mass is to give adoration and praise to God—to give, not to receive. If we do that, we probably will quickly learn that we are also getting more out of going to Mass. †

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