The third commandment from the Decalogue states: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) In order to fulfill this prescript, the Catholic Church invites the faithful to attend Sunday Mass. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that, “Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people.” (#2176) But is this obligation to keep the day “holy” and to participate in “Sunday worship” limited merely to our attendance at Mass?
I remember visiting another diocese and, having to concelebrate a Mass before catching a flight home, I went to the earliest morning Mass. Nothing was sung; everything was simply recited. The priest only preached for a few moments and chose to pray to shortest Eucharistic prayer. The entire Mass was about 30 minutes. Afterward, speaking with the sacristan, she told me that was her favorite Mass because it “freed the rest of the day up.” Could it be said that giving no thought again to the Lord for the rest of the day, that they had made the day “holy?” In the strict sense, yes, she had fulfilled her moral obligation, but we know that the Lord always demands more from us, not less. He does not do so because he is a cruel taskmaster but because he knows that abiding in him through prayer and worship is when we are most free.
With loving care, the Catholic Church professes the duties of the Christian on Sundays (and other holy days of obligation). We are to avoid work because we have a duty toward worship, joy proper to the Lord’s Day, performing works of mercy and the relaxation of the mind and body. (CCC #2185) Being excused from these obligations and duties arises when family needs or social service needs to be fulfilled.
In determining whether an activity is licit on Sunday, one should consider whether it participates positively or negatively in the admonition toward worship, joy, mercy and rest that is obligated from us through the Third Commandment. Certainly, spending time with one’s family engaging in sport or even watching it (the Packers have been a particular penance as of late), can certainly be an activity that fosters unity in the family and is a welcome rest from the toils of the week. But the cultural practice common today of rushing from one tournament or another can be incredibly detrimental to the rest due a family.
When I was in seminary, I had a friend who would wake up on Saturday mornings before the sun rose. He would get up and pray and go to the earliest Mass. While everyone else was lounging around, enjoying their coffee, he was running loads of laundry and cleaning his room. While we were out enjoying a day in the city, he would be doing his reading, homework and correspondence from back home. It would usually take him the entire day. But by the evening, he was the envy of the seminary. On Sunday mornings, he would rise leisurely for prayer and get ready for Sunday Mass. Afterward, he would idly enjoy lunch, chatting with friends. In the afternoon, he was always around for sports or to watch a movie. His room was clean, his work was done and he was ready for the week.
I have always enjoyed his example. I think a lot of our failure as Christians to keep the Sabbath holy and to make it a day for “Sunday worship” is because we treat our Saturdays like we used to treat our Sundays. I get it. When it is the end of the long week, who does not want to sleep in and have a restful day? But time and again, don’t we just find ourselves leaving all of the work, stress and anxiety of the week to Sunday?
When we think about whether we can play sports on Sunday, we are really asking: How do I keep the Sabbath holy? The Church tells us that we need to take time for worship at Sunday Mass, but beyond that, we are invited to rest with one another as a family, to share in the joy of the day and to be available for works of mercy. The discernment for each one of us means being open in our prayer to the Lord’s invitation for more. Two things can exist simultaneously: I can enjoy this activity which is a good part of my life, and yet it might not be compatible with making the Sabbath “holy.”
Finally, a positive approach to the question should also include an examination of what I could be adding to my day. Could we pray the Rosary together as a family or pray Vespers in the evening? Perhaps we could all prepare brunch together or bring food to someone in our parish who is homebound. Ultimately, the more that we pour into this day, the more we shall receive from the Lord.