10. Apr, 2018

Hopes of explaining the Sunday Obligation dashed

Opinion: Rejoice and be glad, just not so much for the gift of the Eucharist 

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Churchs actions (Lumen Gentium, LG, 11; Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1324).

It is the source of the Church’s action because the faithful who take “part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount… of the whole Christian life, offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It” (LG, 11) and by communing with Christ are nourished to take part in the Church’s life and mission (The Eucharist: Source and summit of the life and mission of the Church, 2001).

It is the summit of all apostolic activity, because the Sacrament presupposes membership of the Church whose mission is communion (The Eucharist: Source and summit of the life and mission of the Church, 2001).

Hence, the Eucharist can be said to be the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice, so we are obliged to participate (CCC 2181). But what is the motive for participation? Two teachings provide insight (i) the Eucharist both expresses and brings about a union of the faithful calling all to union with Christ (LG, 3) and (ii) this union is a union of love between Christ and his Church (Cardinal Ratzinger, 1994: The reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried members of the faithful).

The key motives for Eucharistic celebration can only be our love for Christ and his Church and our desire to commune with the Body of Christ. Therefore, the Sunday Obligation should be taught according to the motive that is the celebration of the love that unites us.      

Hopes of explaining the Sunday Obligation dashed

In the exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (GE) which is a call to holiness in today’s world, I had hoped that Pope Francis would put in simple terms why the Church teaches that the "Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice" (CCC 2181). Having pieced together the various teachings of the Church (above), it does not seem to have been explained simply enough to date. And without that foundation and confirmation, one could not achieve holiness, rather (and ironically) only a lived Pelagianism.

The pastoral reason for a simplified teaching concerning the Sunday Obligation is simply to encourage the faithful to come to the Eucharist willingly. Instead we teach negatively: As the Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of Christian practice, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin (CCC, 2181).

Instead of promoting Eucharistic attendance, what the exhortation GE says seems to reduce the Eucharist’s significance in one's aspiring to live a holy life. Particularly, “[e]ach community is called to create a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord. Sharing the word and celebrating the Eucharist together fosters fraternity and makes us a holy and missionary community. It also gives rise to authentic and shared mystical experiences.” (GE, 142). The celebration of the Eucharist seems to be reduced to being the community space in which that community experiences the risen Lord and where fraternity and mystical experiences are shared. This could describe any Christian prayer gathering. And that is why my hopes were dashed.

Postscript: A paradigm shift towards fidelity to Christ

Instead of insisting that Catholics are obliged to go to Mass under the pain of sin, could not the Church reflect on the obligation in terms of love and fidelity?

Certainly spouses and all those who have been in relationships can relate to fidelity. Just as infidelity of either partner ruptures the love within that relationship, so it is with those individuals who do not faithfully attend the Sunday Eucharist. Their charity is extinguished by choosing other interests over that of Christ who waits for his beloved spouse, wanting to commune with them regularly. Those unfaithful choices destroy charity and represent mortal sin (CCC, 1855).

In sum, insofar as those who fail to participate do so because their love is not strong enough for them to remain faithful, failing the Sunday Obligation represents a grave/mortal sin.