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Summertime & Sunday Mass

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We are just around the corner from summer vacation. As we all consider and make plans for time away during the summer, it is helpful to revisit the subject of getting to Mass while travelling. In former times, the sense was that if I am travelling then I don’t have to go to Mass. But that is not the law of the Church. However, when Catholics are truly unable to attend Mass on a day of obligation, pastors have the power to dispense them from this obligation for a just cause. Many Catholics have probably never heard this, so I want to give some catechesis on it.

As we know, Catholics are morally obliged to attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. Failure to attend Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation is a grave sin against God, as a matter of justice and love. We owe God our love and we owe Him our worship, and out of love we owe Him the best, most perfect worship possible; otherwise, we give Him less than He deserves and less than we can. The Mass is the sacrifice of Jesus and the only perfect form of worship. That is why Catholics are obliged to participate, physically and consciously, every Sunday. This brings up an important point: watching Mass online does not fulfil this obligation – it never has and never can. Online Mass is available to those who, by no fault of their own, cannot attend Mass. But we must keep in mind that those who are legitimately unable to attend Mass are not obliged to attend. Online Mass doesn’t “fulfil” any obligation because no obligation exists for those who cannot fulfil the obligation. But for those who are able, they must be physically present at Mass to fulfil their obligation – even if they watch 10 Masses online, it doesn’t suffice.  When someone misses Mass without just cause and does so willingly, knowing it is a sin, they are guilty of mortal sin. This is true even if they watch online.  When this happens, one should receive the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion again. This law exists to protect us from falling out of relationship with God, and attending Mass is foundational in that relationship. Keeping the commandments of our faith is part and parcel of loving the Lord. Jesus Himself said to His disciples: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Love is the fulfilment of the law, and love aids us in fulfilling the law. Ultimately, we attend Mass because we love God, and the law protects us from wandering away when the personal desire dwindles.

The obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation applies even when travelling. There may have been a time in the past when going to Mass while travelling was unduly burdensome, but today this is usually not the case. With the internet and various “map apps”, one can locate and get directions to any place at any time, including the Catholic Church nearest to my condo or rental. Simply “being on vacation and wanting to relax” is not sufficient reason to miss Sunday Mass, not to mention that, more than anything, it shows a lack of desire rather than a lack of ability. When making travel plans, look ahead to Sunday and factor in how you and your family will get to Mass. If after investigating, you realize it will be all-but-impossible to get to Mass, your pastor can dispense you from the obligation to attend on that occasion (Can. 1245). By receiving a dispensation, you won’t be guilty of sin. To receive the dispensation, you should:

  • Contact your pastor. Ordinarily, it is best to contact your parish priest, but in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati any Catholic priest may dispense any Catholic from the obligation to attend Mass for a just cause.
  • Tell him the situation. Explain why you think attending Mass won’t be possible. He should help to see if there is some detail or possibility you missed, but if you truly cannot attend, he will grant the dispensation. 
  • Receive his counsel and instruction. The priest may commute the obligation and give a work to perform in place of the obligation. This could be attending Mass on a different day during the week, or some other work of piety.

The priest can also dispense those who must be at work on a specific Sunday and is prevented from attending Mass. If you find yourself in this situation, seek a dispensation. The power to dispense the faithful from certain laws flows from the authority granted by Christ to the Church’s ministers to “bind and loose” (cf. Mt 18:18). A dispensation “looses” a law and the penalty due for breaching a particular law; it keeps us right with the Church in times when we are truly unable to fulfil an obligation; it keeps us honest by requiring us to place our judgement and our particular situation under the judgement of the Church; and it keeps us humble by submitting our own judgement to the authority and care of our pastors. If charity motivates us, we can see how the laws of our faith governing our religious practices are good and life-giving, as well as life-preserving. May God bless you in the week ahead, and may Mother Mary lead you more deeply into the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus. I remain,

Affectionately Yours in Christ,

Fr. Hess

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