Dear friends in Christ,
A few weeks ago Bishop Walkowiak extended the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation through November 23. He did this at least in part because our churches continue to face occupancy restrictions; although we are no longer restricted to a certain percentage capacity (we had been limited to 25%), we are still required to maintain social distance of 6 feet between anyone who does not live in the same household. Therefore, given the size of our church, we are still limited to about 100 people at indoor Masses. The bishop said in his recent letter regarding the dispensation: “I grant this dispensation to ensure that anyone who needs to stay home to protect the common good do can do so in good conscience.”
Please note that, if you are ever ill, you are dispensed from the Sunday Mass obligation. In fact, if you are ill and might be contagious, you should NOT come to Mass. This is an act of charity to everyone else. Also, if you have to stay home to care for a sick family member, you likewise do not have to come to Mass. These apply all the time, even when there’s no pandemic.
Regarding the Sunday Mass obligation, I think, or at least hope, that there remains in the minds and hearts of Catholics that Sunday is the Lord’s Day and as such should be celebrated by going to Mass (although distressingly the percentage of Catholics who do regularly attend Sunday Mass has declined from roughly 75% in the 1950s and early 1960s to perhaps 20-25% today – which is a topic for another letter). The Mass is the primary prayer of the Church – given to us by the Lord (although developed throughout the last 2000 years by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit). God has given it to us; we did not invent it or create it ourselves. It is the primary way by which God desires to be worshipped by us (but of course not the only way), and it is the primary way by which He gives Himself to us (though again of course not the only way). It is our understanding as Catholics that keeping the Third Commandment – keep holy the Sabbath – includes attending Sunday Mass (or the Sunday Vigil Mass on Saturday evenings). Intentionally failing to attend Mass on Sunday without a good reason, such as illness, is under normal circumstances a serious sin. And if we have committed a serious sin, we ought to receive the sacrament of reconciliation – the sacramental forgiveness God desires to give us – before receiving communion again. This doesn’t mean however that if we have intentionally skipped Sunday Mass for no good reason, that we should continue to skip Mass until we have gone to confession – absolutely not! If we are in a state of serious or mortal sin, we should continue to come to Mass, but refrain from receiving communion until we’ve gone to confession.
So, you might wonder, if we have an obligation under the third commandment to come to Mass on Sunday, how can the bishop dispense us from this obligation? How can it be a sin one day to not attend Mass, and then suddenly not a sin another day? We have to go back to Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:18).” In other words, God has given His Church this incredible power to “bind” and to “loose” both on earth and in heaven.
But how are we to understand this verse? Does it mean that the pope or the bishops can just arbitrarily create or abolish laws and decrees based on their own whims? Certainly not; we ought to make the assumption that things like dispensations from Sunday Mass and other such decrees coming from our bishops are made for a good reason and with good intentions, as long as they are not direct violations of God’s commandments. We may or may not agree with all of them, but we should still respect the authority granted them by the Lord, again presuming that they are acting with good intentions. Our bishops and even our pope, like all of us, are not perfect, and sometimes make mistakes or may not use the best judgment. So we ought to pray for them – as I ask you to pray for me and my brother priests – so that they will be guided in all things by the Holy Spirit and that they will make wise decisions. Remember these words of Jesus: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more be demanded of the person entrusted with more (Lk. 12:48).” Our bishops have been entrusted with a great deal, and as Our Lord says, much will be demanded of them. They need our prayers!
Pandemic or no pandemic, it’s important that we keep holy the Sabbath. Because Sunday is the day on which Our Lord rose from the dead and triumphed over sin and death, each one is like a little Easter. It is a special day and should be treated as one, rather than just another day to run errands, do chores, get things done. Unfortunately, more and more Sunday has become just another day. It is no longer the day of rest that it used to be. Because shops are open, it has become one of the busiest retail days of the week, and many people have no choice but to work that day. Children’s sports have become ubiquitous on Sundays, and sometimes take the place of Sunday worship.
But human beings really do benefit from a day of rest. What if Sunday were actually different from the other days of the week once again? Rather than constantly running ourselves ragged with no break in sight, we could rest and recharge, getting ourselves ready for the coming week. God gave us the Sabbath not only as a day to worship Him, but also for our own benefit.
How should we keep holy the Sabbath? Pope St. John Paul II wrote an encyclical called Dies Domini on the Catholic understanding of what it means to keep holy the Sabbath. It should not be understood in a legalistic sense as it was in the Jewish Law. Rather, it should be a day of prayer, gathering with family and friends, enjoying good leisure and rest. First and foremost, it is the day on which we should gather as a community of faith to worship the Lord through the Holy Mass. Again, the bishop has dispensed Catholics from the Sunday Mass obligation if they are particularly vulnerable to Covid. But if you are doing everything else you would normally do and are not part of a vulnerable population, I would encourage you to make the effort to come to Sunday Mass again if you have not done so already.
Holy leisure can include anything that you find enjoyable, relaxing, refreshing. Some wonder if doing yard work is or is not acceptable on Sundays. Since we do not have a legalistic understanding of the Sabbath, I would reply that if yard work is something you enjoy doing, then there’s nothing wrong with doing it on Sunday. However, if it is just one more thing you feel you have to get done or check off your list, and you don’t happen to find it very enjoyable, then try to leave it for another day.
Sunday should also be a day of prayerful reflection: perhaps reading the Bible, doing some spiritual reading, praying as a family, and so on. It can also be a good day to learn more about our faith and as such is an appropriate day for catechesis or religious instruction.
Even if we are unable to go to Mass on Sunday or have been dispensed from our Sunday Mass obligation, these are things we can and should do to keep holy the Sabbath. This is a very countercultural way of living, and as such it’s not easy to do. There are many unspoken societal pressures and expectations that push back against this way of living. It can be very easy to treat Sunday like any other day of the week. But as difficult as it might be, it’s important that we give Christian witness to the world that there is another and better way of living.
If all Catholics and indeed all Christians were to live this way, how different would Sundays be! How different would our society be! Certainly it would become more centered on the Lord and on doing His will rather than ours. My prayer is that Sunday will once again become a day of rest and worship of the Lord.
Sincerely in Christ,