From the Bishops Obligation in an Age of Rights: Sunday Mass

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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?

Merely to state that there is a serious obligation to go to Mass on Sundays will convince few, if any. Reminding them that deliberately and willfully missing Sunday Mass without a legitimate excuse is a mortal sin will bring hardly anyone back to the Eucharist. Nonetheless, the Church continues to insist on the serious obligation to attend Sunday Mass because of her maternal concern for our own spiritual well-being.

From the day Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples and told them to "Do this in memory of me," the Church has never ceased to celebrate the Eucharist and to oblige the faithful to participate on Sundays. Each Sunday is the Lord's Day. It is the day of the Resurrection. Christ's resurrection is the central event of all time. On his death and resurrection depends our eternal salvation. When we gather for Sunday Mass, we are present with Jesus at the Last Supper. We are with him on Calvary as he offers his life for us. We are made to share in his Resurrection and are already seated at the banquet of heaven.

Mass is not just a ceremony, a liturgical service or prayer gathering. It is the sacrifice of the Cross made present in our midst. As baptized into the Church, we are given the right to sit at the Lord's table, to be nourished by the Eucharist, which is the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus, and to live even now the gift of eternal life. Choosing to dismiss the obligation of Sunday Mass brings serious harm to our relationship with God and with all other members of the Church. To deprive ourselves or our children of the Eucharist each week is to fail to grow in God's love. But, fulfilling Sunday Mass obligation brings us into a deeper communion with God, with those who have gone before us and with all the faithful. Participating in Mass is more than an obligation. It is a privilege and gift of grace!

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