Missing Mass for No Reason

Q: I was visiting relatives over Easter, and sadly they do not attend Mass. I went to Mass, and reminded them that missing Mass was a mortal sin. They said, “Oh, that was in the old days. Missing Mass is no longer a mortal sin.” What do you say? Please give me some ammunition.

Rather than just approaching this question from the angle of “missing Mass is a sin,” we should first call to mind the importance of the Mass. Each Sunday, we gather together as a Church with hearts filled with joy to worship Almighty God. We remember and profess our Faith once again in the mystery of our salvation: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, suffered, died, and rose for our salvation. The saving actions of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday coalesce in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Vatican Council II asserted, “For it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our redemption is accomplished,’ and it is through the liturgy, especially that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church” (no. 2).

Moreover, at Mass, each faithful Catholic is fed with abundant graces: First, we are nourished by the Word of God — God’s eternal truth that has been revealed to us and recorded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We then respond by professing our Holy Catholic Faith as presented in the Creed, saying not simply “I believe” as a singular person, but “we believe” as part of the Church.

Second, if we are in a state of grace, then we have the opportunity to receive our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. We firmly believe that our Lord is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, and that we receive His body, blood, soul and divinity in Holy Communion. Not only does the Holy Eucharist unite us intimately with the Lord, but also unites us in communion with our brothers and sisters throughout the universal Church. The Holy Eucharist is such a precious gift! In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church), Pope St. John Paul II underscored this point: “The Eucharist’s particular effectiveness in promoting communion is one of the reasons for the importance of Sunday Mass” and then, quoting his own apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, “It is the privileged place where communion is ceaselessly proclaimed and nurtured. Precisely through sharing in the Eucharist, the Lord’s Day also becomes the Day of the Church, where she can effectively exercise her role as the sacrament of unity” (no. 41).

With this in mind, no one should simply think of attending Mass as fulfilling an obligation. To attend Mass is a privilege, and any faithful Catholic should want to attend Mass. Our perspective should not be, “I have got to do this”; rather, we should think, “I get to do this.”

Nevertheless, because the Mass offers such precious gifts, provides the nourishment of great graces, and unites us as a Church, we do indeed have a sacred obligation to attend Mass. Remember that the Third Commandment stated, “Keep Holy the Sabbath.” For the Jewish people, the Old Testament Sabbath was on Saturday, marking the “day of rest” after creation. For Christians, we have always kept holy Sunday, the day of the resurrection. Just as creation unfolded on the first day of the week with God commanding, “Let there be light,” Our Lord, the Light who came to shatter the darkness of sin and death, rose from the dead on that first day marking the new creation.

Given how precious the Mass is plus the Old Testament precedent which was rightly adapted by the Church, the Code of Canon Law (no. 1246) proscribes, “Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.” Moreover, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (no. 1247). Therefore, the Catechism teaches, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit grave sin” (no. 2181), and grave sin is indeed mortal sin. Pope John Paul II, repeated this precept in his apostolic letter Dies Domini (Observing and Celebrating the Day of the Lord, no. 47, 1998) and again in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church, no. 41, 2003): “The faithful have the obligation to attend Mass, unless they are seriously impeded.”

Of course, serious circumstances arise which excuse a person from attending Mass, such as if a person is sick, has to deal with an emergency, or cannot find a Mass to attend without real burden. A pastor may also dispense a person from the obligation of attending Mass for serious reason. For instance, no one, including Our Lord, expects a person to attend Mass who is so sick he can not physically attend Mass or may pose a threat to the health of others; there is no virtue in further hurting one’s own health plus infecting everyone else in the church. Or, in the case of a blizzard, like this February, a person must prudently judge whether he can safely travel to attend Mass without seriously risking his own life and the lives of the others. When such serious circumstances arise which prevent a person from attending Mass, he should definitely take time to pray, read the prayers and readings of the Mass in the Missal, or watch the Mass on television and at least participate in spirit. Keep in mind when such serious circumstances arise, a person does not commit mortal sin for missing Mass.

In examining this question, a person must really reflect on how valuable the Mass and the Holy Eucharist are. Every day, faithful Catholics in the People’s Republic of China risk not only educational and economic opportunities but also their very lives to attend Mass. In mission territories, people travel many miles to attend Mass; an African missionary told me that some of his people walk 10 miles to come to Mass on Sunday, and then have to walk 10 miles back. They take the risk and they make the sacrifice because they truly believe in the Mass and Our Lord’s presence in the Holy Eucharist.

When a person negligently “bags Mass,” to go shopping, catch-up on work, sleep a few extra hours, attend a social event, or not interrupt vacation, the person is allowing something to take the place of God. Something becomes more valuable than the Holy Eucharist. Sadly, I have known families who could conveniently walk to the church but chose not to attend Mass; ironically though, they sent their children to the Catholic school. Yes, such behavior really is indicative of turning one’s back on the Lord and committing a mortal sin.

God must come first in our lives. On Sunday, our primary duty is to worship God at Mass as a Church and to be nourished with His grace. The Didascalia, a third-century writing, exhorted, “Leave everything on the Lord’s Day and run diligently to your assembly, because it is your praise of God. Otherwise, what excuse will they make to God, those who do not come together on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and feed on the divine nourishment which lasts forever?” Yes indeed, what excuse will they make?

Editor’s note: This article is courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

image: Kapa1966 / Shutterstock.com

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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  • George H. Morgan

    A shift in my thinking on the subject came when I was in grad school at the Missouri School of Mines & Metallurgy, at Rolla, Missouri, during the1958/59 term, where a missionary priest instructed: “Don’t think of our faith as a burden”. Up to that time I had thought mainly of all the “Shalt Nots” as a burden. That instruction changed my thinking and I have always remembered that Great commentary above.

  • Ann Couper-Johnston

    In an age that is so secularized, where other people’s priorities are so different, we need good teaching, so that people understand what the Mass is.

    I was once at a local ecumenical meeting where it was proposed that we all make the sacrifice of abandoning our preferred tradition and instead going to an ecumenical service together; the idea was that we would give preference to the ecumenical over our loyalty to what we were used to doing and preferred. For that reason it would be the only service at that time (possibly for the whole day). I was just about to get up and say that, as a Catholic, I could not just go AWOL without a by-your-leave; when I came into the Church I had taken on certain obligations, by which I was bound, and one was to go to Mass. While I was still thinking what to say our assistant priest (like me a convert from the Anglicans, and an Oxford graduate with the gift of the gab) stood up and said that he could not just omit a Sunday morning Mass; people were obliged to come and should have every opportunity to do so, especially at a time when many actually did. He also remarked that he did not have a hotline to the Vatican to ask for a dispensation. (I think the idea of the service may have come from the fact that there was, exceptionally, a dispensation for those attending ecumenical services on Pentecost Sunday in the millennium year. The meeting was a year or two after that.)

    The implication that you would have to get the necessary dispensation from the Vatican had me sitting up and taking notice. I’ve never been in the military, but I imagine it is only very serious offences that get dealt with the top brass. I had thought the parish priest would be the one who could.

  • Joe Channon

    I don’t feel much different after any one Mass than I did before that Mass, but after thirty years – about one thousand five hundred since I converted – I have some sense of the magnitude of the changes the Mass has brought to me. I never knew what I was lacking, what I was hungry for, and as the years go by I think I know it more and more.. We have three lifelong disabilities in our household. I am so grateful that I can read the readings and pray the prayers when some circumstance keeps us at home. But those days make me appreciate my Sundays at church even more. God keeps us going – and keeps us going to Mass.

  • Adam Hovey

    I remember when I was sick once and I had to miss Mass and I felt so badly I could not receive the body, blood, soul and divinity of our dear Lord

  • bringiton

    Dr. Brant Pitre does an excellent job of revealing how the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New…and it’s all very relevant to the Mass. If priests would teach it like he does (!), we’d be fighting to get into a Mass! Instead, we have priests who assign 10 year olds as regular lectors for Sunday Mass…who need their mothers standing by to help them pronounce words…and you can bet everyone in attendance is getting something from that–NOT!!!

  • bringiton

    Sorry, George, I didn’t mean to direct my post to you…it is just a regular post.

  • John Keating

    And based on the fact that you commented on this article without reading it, I gather you also said, “Just because I don’t go to school doesn’t mean I can’t learn reading comprehension at home with Reading Rainbow.”

  • Del Sydebothom

    To say some act is a mortal sin is not necessarily to say that the person who has done that act is in a state of mortal sin. That’s a bit of a different subject, though. More important to remember is that no layperson is capable of celebrating Mass by himself at home. Praying out of the Missal does not the Mass make. Without a priest, there is no Mass. A priest is an integral component of the definition of the Mass.

  • Jenn

    I thought Sunday was a day of rest??

  • Jenn

    another thought….GOD IS EVERYWHERE…HE is not just in a brick and mortar church….

  • Jenn

    every hear of HOME SCHOOLING???

  • Therese

    Is this where someone patiently explains to you about the sacrifice of the Mass on the altar and your presence being necessary for you to participate? Is this where someone explains the Real Presence to you? “God is Everywhere” is just a New Age mantra for “I’ve got better things to do with my time than worship God in the way God wants me to worship him.” Fine. YOU WORSHIP GOD IN YOUR WAY AND I’LL WORSHIP HIM IN HIS WAY.

  • Therese

    IMHO you need to do some more thinking – and possibly some studying of the Catechism.
    You’ve exposed your true self with the “day of rest” comment. It’s really all about you and your comfort, not worshiping God.

  • Margarett Cahill Zavodny

    If you do not attend Mass, you cannot receive the graces which come from the Mass; these graces help your faith increase, giving you the strength and courage to face daily struggles. The Eucharist, Christ Himself, is the greatest gift you can receive on earth. Why would you reject His grace and the Gift He so wants to give you? Sunday is a day to rest in God’s presence, receiving His Gift and His grace.

  • Margarett Cahill Zavodny

    God the Son is most especially present in the Eucharist in Church, in the Tabernacle and on the Altar. He is not present in the way out in the woods; you cannot receive the Body,Blood,Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the middle of the forest!

  • Jenn

    that is not true….its not all about me and my comfort…I never said that…but I will continue to say that God is EVERYWHERE

  • Phillip

    Maybe next time around say…”Oh, well do you want to go with me anyway, we can go out to eat after at (insert place they like to eat)…”

  • KathleenWagner

    It’s a day on which we’re required to attend Mass unless we’re literally too sick or crippled to get there. Don’t talk nonsense. The Sunday obligation is a FACT, even though “God is everywhere”. God IS everywhere, and on Sunday, you’re supposed to be in church.

  • Jenn

    Jesus never said one has to go to Church…GOD IS EVERYWHERE

  • RandallPoopenmeyer

    Your god sounds very very selfish. I work all freaking week, can’t I get a day to myself? God said nothing about having to be in a special place to worship him. I can worship him from the comfort of my own home and he is humble enough to accept it.