Published with the ecclesiastical approval of Archbishop Jerome Listecki, “The Gift of Sunday” is a theological reflection that explores the preeminence of Sunday worship in the life of the Catholic. Its accompanying study guide can be used for personal or group discussion. Over the next three issues, experts will help us address different questions contained within the study guide. To read “The Gift of Sunday” and its study guide in their entirety, visit archmil.org/Sunday-Initiative/Reflection.htm.
Holy day of obligation. The belief that there are days on which we owe God particular attention, in the form of attending Mass, seems to run counter to everything so prized by secular American culture: the will of the individual and his own discernment of what is right.
In many ways, we have become a people disconnected from obligation.
“I think in our current culture, no one seems to like the idea of owing anybody anything — be that God or neighbor,” said Fr. Nathan Reesman, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini and Immaculate Conception Parishes in West Bend. Fr. Reesman has written extensively on modern culture and its interaction with the divine in his blog, In Exile. “We have the idea in America that the highest possible value is my personal preference and freedom, no matter what.”
Additionally, a view of God has emerged in recent years that depicts the creator as someone who “doesn’t demand anything of us — he serves our needs, rather than the reverse,” Fr. Reesman noted. This version of God also goes beyond simply encouraging his creatures to form their own consciences — he defers to their judgment.
And so when the Catholic Church compels the baptized to, as Canon 1247 in the Code of Canon Law states, “participate in the Mass … (and) abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God” it can sound overbearing at best, and dictatorial at worst.
“We hear ‘obligation’ and we think ‘This is impinging upon my sense of options, which I want to be unlimited,’ and so we run away from the word,” said Fr. Reesman. “We’re afraid of feeling like we’re tied down, in an era when no one wants to be tied to anything.”
Yet the God of Scripture is certainly One who does make demands of his people. From Abraham to David, to the Blessed Mother and Joseph and beyond, those who are in friendship with God are obliged to offer sacrifice to him in the way he has prescribed. And just as surely, God has woven a need for periods of rest into every aspect of nature — not only will our bodies break down without it, but so will our souls.
And so, in its essence, our Sunday obligation offers us a wondrous opportunity not only to replenish ourselves spiritually and physically, but to simultaneously reconcile ourselves to our Creator. To quote “The Gift of Sunday” text: “This duty to worship is linked to the pattern of rest that God placed into the created order. For the Christian, Sunday is the day of obligation and worship because it is the day of rediscovery of love, by us the creatures, for God our creator who has blessed us so abundantly.”
Confronting and overcoming our modern discomfort with obligation requires a submission not just to God’s will and his commandments but also to his wisdom. God is our creator, who knows the innermost workings and needs of our souls on a level we can never comprehend. In the same way that parents have requirements of their children for the well-being of that child, anything that God asks of us is ordered to our own benefit.
And so, just as all sin is nothing more than a separation from God and a sickness that takes hold in the soul, so does failing to fulfill our obligation separate us from God and the rest he wishes us to take.
“All of the commandments simply mirror what’s already inscribed in nature,” said Fr. Reesman. “What is damaging is when we don’t give God what we owe. All we have to do is look around to see that things are kind of awry, and the remedy for it has been written in the fabric of creation and in our very being.”