The Most Important Things in Life Are Obligatory
March 2018By James F. OCallaghan
James F. OCallaghan is a retired Foreign Service Officer who served in South America, Italy, and Africa. He lives in Maple Valley, Washington. His articles have appeared, among other places, in First Things and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has published two novels, No Circuses and The Man Who Saw Things, as well as a collection of poems, stories, and essays, Altar Boys, Demons, and More.
Our Latin Mass parish is distant, so my wife and I sometimes attend a local parish where the number of people at Mass seems to be steadily declining. The priests are not to blame; they are kindly and try hard to inspire. But perhaps unknowingly, or just inevitably, they contribute to the present state in which attendance at Mass is considered optional.
I dont remember when I first heard a priest say, Thank you for coming, but I remember thinking it a strange thing to say, as if the congregation had done him a favor. Equally strange is the Good morning with which the Mass begins. The phrase is social, as if the celebration were to be understood as a festive occasion rather than a solemn sacrifice in fulfillment of the commandment to keep holy the Lords Day. In the latter case, no one expects thanks for simply showing up.
Childhood memories can be treacherous. When not flatly wrong, they are often framed by the uninformed thoughts of a child. Nonetheless, I remember clearly when Sister Margaret, speaking for the pastor and hence the bishop and hence the pope who is the Vicar of Christ, said we were obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Further, in the Mass, the same chain of authority prescribes every prayer and gesture. She never said anything about our enjoying Mass, though she did insist on our participation: Dont daydream about baseball and such; get your head into it. Contemplate the mystery and the gift.
That sense of obligation seems a thing of the past. Georgetowns Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) estimates that Mass attendance among self-identified adult Catholics fell from 55 percent in 1965 to 22 percent in 2016. Why did the sense of obligation weaken? One can argue this or that angle; such arguments have been carried on for years. It is enough here to note that it has weakened. In place of the lost sense of obligation, many well-meaning priests apparently hope to attract people by making the Mass seem enjoyable. Some priests have even begun referring to holy days of opportunity.
This nearby parish is welcoming: Do we have any visitors today? the priests often ask of those gathered. Theres a lot of singing, mostly of songs intended to make you feel good about yourself On Eagles Wings, for example songs that are light years away from Gregorian chant. The sermons are usually well crafted, with anecdotes and humor and some theme that may stick with you for a while, such as that by nurturing anger we hurt ourselves. Many people like these things. So far, so good, though the varieties of liturgy with or without guitar accompaniment or hand-holding at the Sign of Peace, recitation of the Apostles or Nicene Creed implicitly deny their own importance; new things may replace them next week. In any case, the CARA statistics show that these things dont go far enough. They dont suggest that worship is an overriding obligation. Mass comes across as merely one more option in a consumerist culture of limitless choice no more grave or necessary than any other available option. A Catholic whose conscience has been formed in todays ecclesial atmosphere of encouragement and welcome wont feel guilty about skipping Mass, and he wouldnt presume to judge anyone else for preferring golf or a football game on Sunday mornings.
The important things in life are not optional. We have to earn a living, stay faithful to our spouses, care for our children, pay our taxes, drive carefully, etc. In part, we know these things are important precisely because theyre obligatory.
Regarding religious observance, obligation is a large part of the act itself, and the benefit. An obligation fulfilled over the years becomes much more than a duty. Both having the obligation and meeting it form our character. This is true even of our jobs: We go to work because we must earn a living, but once we feel we are needed, the requirement itself brings satisfaction and a sense of dignity. Similarly, but on a far deeper plane, understanding that God wants me in church reinforces my sense of being Gods creature. We might not think of that, but it does and all the more so on days when we dont feel like going. The obligation is a blessing.
Can this sense of obligation be restored? I hope so, but it will be an uphill fight. Priests could begin to talk about it once again. Sermons dont touch on personal sin much these days; social injustice seems to be the only topic meant to inspire any sense of good, old-fashioned Catholic guilt. Nonetheless, the clergy could try. If people began again to understand that missing Mass for no good reason is a mortal sin, they might make a greater effort at consistent (even weekly!) attendance. They might pass this habit on to their children. No preaching would be required at that point. My father was silently eloquent on the topic, driving us 40 miles on gravel roads to Mass when we were on camping trips. Its what we did on Sundays, period.
Come join our faith community in celebration is a refrain commonly heard at parishes these days. But when one feels no obligation, one treats this invitation like, well, an invitation. Invitations have an RSVP line on which one may express ones regrets for not attending. In the case of the Mass, regret doesnt begin to describe the loss.
DOSSIER: Liturgy, Liturgical Rites & Devotions