Mass: A Privilege, Not an Obligation

Ever since Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Christians have risked their lives to attend Mass. Even today, priests travel under cover to celebrate Mass in Muslim and Communist countries. Yet, at the same time, many baptized Catholics don’t even bother to go.

Why will some die for the Mass while others don’t think it’s worth their time? The difference is in understanding what it offers us. At World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI tried to convey this understanding. “Dear young people,” he addressed the crowd, “the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: It is Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist.”

It would seem that is a promise too good to be true, and yet, it is the beauty and power of Jesus Christ, coming to us in the Eucharist that is at the core of Catholic worship. It is the reason people have died for their faith.

Surpassing All Others
The Mass is also known as the liturgy, a Greek word that means “a public work” or “a work on behalf of the people.” It is the highest form of prayer. The Vatican II document Sacrosanctume Concilium explained, “Every liturgical celebration because it is an action of Christ, the priest, and of His body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal it’s efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”

Yet, it’s hard to fall in love with someone or something that you don’t even know. And how much do most of us really know about the Mass? Two books that offer understanding of this great gift are Do I Have to Go? 101 Questions about the Mass, the Eucharist and Your Spiritual Life by Matthew Pinto and Chris Stefanick and A Biblical Walk Through the Mass by Edward Sri.

Do I Have to Go? is especially suited to young people who like to question authority. Using the Q & A format, answers are given to challenges and curiosities. For instance, the question is posed, “Why do I have to worship God?” After all, isn’t He big enough to be above all that?

Readers learn that Scripture states: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 26-28). The authors point out: “When we fail to worship God, we start putting all sorts of other things in His place, making them our ‘gods.'” They offer three main reasons for going to Mass: worshiping God brings us holiness and happiness; it is a just thing for us to do because we owe it to our creator and redeemer; and for love for God.

In Do I Have to Go? the authors explain that on this side of eternity, the Mass is the richest encounter we can have with God. “Because it fuels us to live out our purpose (i.e., knowing, loving, and serving God), the Mass gives us the grace we need to live life to the full (see Jn 10:10)–not just an average human life, but a life full of grace, which is a share in the inner life of God himself.”

Understanding Deepens Our Experience

In A Biblical Walk Through the Mass, Sri reveals the Scripture and traditions from which Mass developed. He begins at the beginning–the sign of the cross. This is something every Catholic has done thousands of times, and yet, how much do we know about it? When we make the sign of the cross, “…we enter a sacred tradition that goes back to the early centuries of Christianity, when this ritual was understood to be a source of divine power and protection,” Sri states. “In making the sign, we invoke God’s presence and invite him to bless us assist us and guard us from all harm.” That’s powerful and brings new meaning to something that has become rote to many.

So goes Sri’s book. Through explanations of what we are doing during Mass, it magnifies the meaning and increases the love. For instance, when the priest begins with, “The Lord be with you,” we learn, “The liturgical greeting also expresses the profound reality of God’s life dwelling within our souls by virtue of our baptism. With these words, the priest is praying that the divine life that we received may continue to grow within us.”

Sri breaks down each part of the Mass and explains its meaning. That  makes it possible to us to overcome our tendencies to simply “go through the motions” of the Mass, so that we actually enter into its riches and actively participate in it. He also includes the new translation of the Mass with an explanation of why it is being changed to better reflect the original words used during the time of Christ and the apostles.

As Catholics, we believe that God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to redeem the world through his sacrifice. The Mass is more than just a memorial; it is a representation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, making it “present for us here and now” (CCC 1366).

The Catechism describes the Mass as the “source and summit of Christian life” (CCC 1324); Jesus told us, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:14-20). So we do. From its very beginning, the Church has been faithful to this command of Jesus by celebrating the Mass. He gave us this gift so that every generation until the end of time could have a direct encounter with him in the Eucharist. But to experience it, you have to be there. It’s not that you have to go, but rather you get to go.

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • dennisofraleigh

    NOT an obligation? Oh dear. I must be using an outdated edition of the CCC. Mine says (CCC#2180)”On Sundays…the faithful…are bound to participate in the Mass.” Please let me know what new, updated edition of the CCC you are using that says Catholics can opt not attend Sunday Mass without fear of having committed a grave sin (CCC#2181).

  • patti

    Dear Dennis,

    When I said, ” It’s not that you have to go, but rather you get to go,” I was not speaking in legalistic terms. I was referring to your state of mind. Rather than looking at it as an obligation, you should consider it is a gift that you are blessed to receive. Yes, Catholics are obligated to attend Sunday Mass, but my point was that if we view it as an obligation instead of an opportunity, then we are missing the boat. And I don’t mean the literal boat, the figurative one.

  • tajd


    Nice response to Dennis, I understood exactly what you said and your meaning – I have said it many times to my five children. It’s all about your attitude toward the Mass that God will appreciate. Too many people now-a-days want to play the “gotcha” game when reading or listening to someone else. They need sometimes to pause and reflect before they speak or write. Maybe this is one of those times for me – but, I just coul not hold back. Great article.