This year All Saints Day is not a holy day of obligation. I have to confess, I’m a little sad about that.
I’m sad because, absent the threat of sin, most people won’t go to Mass.
Too cynical a way of putting it? Maybe. But am I wrong?
Human nature being fallen, there’s a certain legalistic streak in each one of us, and the most common form of legalism is minimalism. Ever asked yourself, “How late can I show up at Mass for it still to count?” Or calculated how many minutes into Mass communion is likely to be so that you can squeeze in one last donut before heading out the door? Come on, admit it. I have, too. (The donut had sprinkles.)
Minimalism, to be sure, beats just ignoring the rules, but nonetheless the Gospel warns us against it (see the Sermon on the Mount). In heaven, presumably, with all our instincts and inclinations restored to perfection, we won’t need to be reminded of rules because all our actions will spring from the purest love.
But most of us aren’t there yet, and the Church, in deference to human nature, has drawn a few red lines, one of which is Mass attendance on Sundays and holy days of obligation. This is interesting because most of the other “red lines” the Church draws for us are in the form of negative commandments (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery).
If understood in the wrong way, emphasizing these negative obligations can make the Church at times seem like something of a killjoy. There are lots of positive things the Church wants us to do, too, so many they can’t be numbered: donating to flood relief, visiting Aunt Wilma in the nursing home, complementing mom’s new hairstyle. But few of these carry the weight of obligation in the sense that omitting them would be a grave offence. But Sunday Mass attendance does (see the Catechism #2181).
This should cause us some reflection, first into the nature of obligation, why we have rules to begin with, why red lines instead of just recommendations; and then into what it is about Sunday Mass that makes it more than a recommendation.
First of all, why do we have rules? I’ve been reading a lot of Alasdair MacIntyre recently, and his explanation is a good one, if a bit academic. Moral rules, MacIntyre says, are not externally related to living a good life; they are partially constitutive of a good life. In other words, being the sort of person who doesn’t kill, steal, or commit adultery is simply part of what it means when we say someone is a good person.
An analogy to the discipline of scientific research might help. The practice of science has certain norms and conventions—certain rules—that define it. One of those is that you derive data from experiments. If someone were to publish a study based on data that he simply made up, we could say that he had violated the rules. We would even say that by doing so he was no longer doing science at all. Making up data is not science.
I should point out that just sitting around not violating moral rules is not enough to live a good life, which is why MacIntyre says we need virtues. But for now, hopefully, it should be clear that the prohibitions—the negative obligations—of the moral law are not arbitrary or even all that negative; instead they are part of what it means to live a good life, just as deriving data from experiments is part of what it means to do science.
And this insight should give us a way of understanding the Church’s positive obligation of Mass attendance. It’s part of what it means to be a Catholic.
“But,” someone once asked me, “I’ve started to do a lot of volunteer work—doesn’t that mean I can skip Mass every once in a while? I mean, do I really have to be that anal about it?”
The thing is, Christianity is not at root just a moral system. It’s not just about following the moral rules and making the world a better place. All of those things are important, necessary even, but they aren’t enough.
The Christian vision of the good life is union with God. And I don’t care how many envelopes you stuff in your volunteer work, you’re not going to achieve that on your own. You probably won’t even live up to the law’s negative obligations. I certainly haven’t.
Union with God, perfect love, is not something we can achieve on our own, but it is nonetheless achieved for us by Jesus on the Cross. And that’s what Mass is. For Catholics, Mass isn’t just teaching time or community time or self-examination time, though it includes all of those things. Mass is being present at Christ’s self-sacrifice. It is being at the Last Supper. It is standing at the foot of the Cross.
Being a Catholic means realizing, like the Good Thief on the cross next to Jesus, that we are sinners, but also realizing who Jesus is (Luke 23:39-43). It’s pleading, with our whole lives, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” At Mass we are in the place of the Good Thief, as Jesus offers himself to the Father for us. And we are there to hear Jesus’ reply: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If we really understood Mass for everything it is, we wouldn’t need a sense of obligation. But we do; at least I still do. Still, it’s worth recalling, especially if the obligation seems sometimes like a drag, that it’s not an arbitrary rule; it’s part of what we mean by “salvation.”
A Jesuit friend once reflected on the term “holy day of obligation.” He pointed out all the Catholics throughout the world who aren’t able to attend Mass because of persecution, sickness, or geography, and he concluded that we should really start referring to “holy days of obligation” as “holy days of opportunity.” Our emphasis should be on gratitude for being able to celebrate Mass together.
So here’s my suggestion for next Monday. This year November 1 is not a holy day of obligation.
Make it instead a holy day of opportunity.