Mass as nourishment, not as obligation

Most Catholics know we are supposed to attend Sunday Mass every week and observe various holy days of obligation throughout the year. It’s an obligation, however, that many do not observe. As my parish priest joked years ago when the pews of our sleepy rural parish were unexpectedly full, “There must be nothing going on in Tweed [Onterio] today.”

I suspect part of the reason so many Catholics ignore the Sunday obligation is, counter intuitively, the very word “obligation.” Our culture is not one that deals well with concepts like duty and obedience. The words “I was just following orders” is synonymous with mindless compliance, while the character of the “dutiful wife” or “obedient child” tends to be the subject of ridicule or pity.

As a result, we end up with a divide within the Church. On the one hand, there are those who attend Mass only when there is an important event, when it happens to be convenient or when they are especially in need of divine help. On the other, you have Catholics who dutifully obey the precepts of the Church — but who too often look down on those who don’t.

For a long time, I was a member of the latter camp. When I was first received into the Church, I was an enthusiastic, often daily recipient of the sacrament. I went to Mass because I loved the liturgy and found great consolation in receiving Christ in the Eucharist.

Over time, however, I become scrupulous about ever missing Mass even for the best of reasons, and my perfect attendance record increasingly became an opportunity for self-congratulation. Worse, it became an opportunity to judge others who attended only on occasion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that there are conditions that validly excuse a person from their Sunday obligation. Illness, isolation, lack of access to transportation, the obligation to care for ailing relatives, and the care of infants are among the reasons why a person might be unable to attend (cf. No. 2181).

If we think of Mass attendance as a kind of spiritual badge of honor, these excuses can seem to be just that: excuses. Loopholes for the lax. After all, any really dutiful and faithful Catholic would find a way to get to church unless they were taken hostage on a Saturday night or found themselves unconscious in the back of an ambulance Sunday morning.

Only when I found myself in a situation where attendance at Mass every Sunday become a practical impossibility did I realize how absurdly presumptuous my judgment had been. In a subtle way, I had come to see my reception of Christ’s gift as a personal accomplishment, almost as a favor I was doing God.

Bread of life

The Sunday obligation is not a chore the Church exacts from her faithful children but a manifestation of her maternal concern. We are called to Mass every Sunday in much the same way children are called to the dinner table every evening.

Mass attendance
* The shift in attendance between 1995 and 2000 reflects a change in the method used to collect the data.

When the Church tells us that we are obliged to attend, she is telling us how often we need to receive sacramental nourishment in order to remain spiritually healthy. Choosing to skip Mass for trivial reasons is a mortal sin because it is a kind of willful self-neglect. It’s like a businessman who chooses to deprive his body of adequate food because meals cut into the time he has to maximize his profits. Being unable to attend for good reasons is not sinful, but it is a privation, like a mother who skips meals because she only has enough to feed her children.

Christ’s body is true bread, and the sustenance which we receive in the Eucharist is even more important to our well-being than physical food. Indeed, physical hunger is ultimately a sign that helps to illustrate our spiritual needs.

After Christ feeds the multitudes in John 6, the people he has fed go looking for him the next day. When they finally track him down, Christ reveals their motives: “You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat” (Jn 6:26).

The experience of being satisfied with food after a long day clearly made a deep impression. No doubt some of these people were poor and rarely had enough to eat. Others were dreaming of a world in which the Jewish people would once more be fed directly by the hand of God, as they were in the wilderness under Moses (cf., Jn 6:31). For them, the multiplication of the loaves did not merely point toward the relief of physical hunger but also toward political liberation from the power of Rome. The manna of Exodus had freed the Jewish people to escape the flesh-pots of Egypt. Thus, bread represented both nourishment and freedom.

When Christ answers them, he tries to guide their thinking away from short-term physical and political hopes. “Do not work for food that perishes,” he tells them, “but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). Later, he clarifies: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).

Mutual obligation

Everyone knows it is necessary to eat in order to stay alive, and if we don’t have enough food, it causes health problems. It is the same with the Mass. This is where we come in order to receive the life-blood that nourishes our souls and prepares them to be born to eternal life.

When a person misses Mass for serious reasons, Catholic Tradition offers ways of observing the Sabbath until it is possible to return to the sacraments — emergency rations for the soul, if you will. Individuals and families are encouraged to participate in the Liturgy of the Word and to set aside time for Sunday prayer. An act of spiritual communion can also be made anywhere and at any time by turning one’s heart toward the tabernacle and inviting Jesus’ real presence in the sacrament to spiritually nourish and sustain the soul.

Parish communities should also help absent parishioners return to the Mass. One of the risks of seeing attendance as a personal accomplishment is that it can blind us to the fact that access to the Eucharist is achieved through community.

Consider, for example, the story of the Wedding at Cana — a Gospel passage redolent with Eucharistic symbolism. Here we find that there isn’t enough wine to go around. Some of the guests are going to be excluded from full participation in the joy of the wedding celebration.

Mary’s solicitude at Cana shows us that we can enable others to participate by being aware of their needs and offering assistance. The hosts of the wedding know they are running out of wine, but they don’t know who to ask for help. They have no idea Christ is on hand, able to work a miracle.

People within a parish community might want to attend Mass regularly, but they might be unsure how to ask for the support they need. An older person who has lost their driver’s license might feel uncomfortable asking for a ride. A single mother caring for a chronically ill child might be embarrassed to admit she can’t afford a babysitter Sunday mornings.

Parishioners can imitate Mary by taking a friendly interest and getting an idea of what obstacles are preventing folks from attending more regularly. People who are afraid of asking for help are often grateful for a simple, gracious offer of assistance.

If we see the sacrament as a gift, and ourselves as conduits through which others are enabled to receive it, we can both avoid the silliness of spiritual pride and also help to build vibrant Eucharistic communities where everyone is able to enjoy the bounteous generosity of God.

Melinda Selmys writes from Ontario, Canada.