Oct 4, 2017
On Jan. 20, 1961, President Kennedy concluded his inaugural address, the first ever televised in color, with the stirring challenge: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy's rally cry for duty to one's country was not unique. At the 1916 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Warren Harding, later to be elected president, said, "We must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation." And, even before that, in 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the famous American jurist said, "It is now the moment . . . to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return." All these leaders appealed to the sense of duty to rouse their fellow citizens to action.
However, in the last 40 years, the sense of duty has been gradually vanishing from the American scene. Voting in a national election hit a 20-year low in 2016. Adults under 30 years of age are less inclined to have a sense of civic duty than their peers a generation ago. Today only 28 percent of Americans say volunteering is "a very important obligation." And, tragically, only a fourth of young people feel an obligation to keep informed about world and national events.
In the past, the idea of obligation and a sense of duty were widely accepted. For many centuries, Cicero's De Officiis (On Duties) trained young people on practical ethics. It was the moral authority during the Middle Ages. In more recent times, the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked, "No one will ever write anything more wise." But, for the last generation, the word "obligation" has slipped away from public discourse. Politicians and world leaders prefer to talk more about rights than obligations or duties.
In an age that prioritizes rights over obligations, many seem to be placing their right to leisure, their right to shop, their right to recreate or their right to do as they please over and above their obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Encouraging people to participate in Sunday Mass or Mass on Saturday evening to fulfill their obligation to worship God as mandated by the Third Commandment falls on deaf ears. Because of our cultural context, the word "obligation" has very little impact. So, then, how do we share with others the irreplaceable value of Sunday Mass?