The ‘Obligation’ of Mass

It’s something that every Catholic knows, whether they were born into the church or arrived there through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

If you’re baptized a Catholic, you are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. It’s a simple and straight-forward notion, not a complicated theological proposition filled with debatable syntax or varying interpretations.

It’s Sunday. You go to Mass.

Except that in study after study on a national level, it seems attendance at Mass has remained constant over the past decade or so — consistently rather low. According to studies by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, only about 25 percent of Catholics in the U.S. make a habit out of going to Mass each week. That means that nearly three-quarters of people who think of themselves as Catholic are not going to Mass regularly.

Perhaps they don’t know what they’re missing.

Perhaps they fail to remember that throughout history and even today in some parts of the world, Catholics have literally risked their lives — or suffered — in order to attend Mass and participate in the Eucharist.

Perhaps they don’t understand that attending Mass each Sunday is not just something our church calls us to do, it’s what Jesus wants us to do.

Perhaps, as Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said late last year, those missing Mass don’t understand they are missing the chance “to encounter Christ in the most profound way possible.”

Attending Mass, he noted, provides Catholics with the opportunity to participate and interact with the community of the faithful, to “gather with the parish family and to strengthen one’s immediate family.” Attending Sunday Mass, the cardinal said, provides “a living legacy to our children and grandchildren.”

Here’s something else: A small-but-regular percentage of that 25 percent of Catholics who attend Mass apparently can’t seem to get to the event on time. Week after week there are dozens of people who arrive late — some even get to the church after the homily has begun.

What they’re missing — and what those who don’t attend at all are missing — are important parts of our weekly worship that, when taken as a whole, provide us with a chance to begin our weeks anew, with a sense of re-connection with our church, our faith, our God.

Now consider something else: Consider the people of Haiti who, even before the earthquake struck two years ago, were living in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Recently two groups of people from the Archdiocese of Louisville visited that torn-asunder nation once again (and The Record will have stories about their visits in future editions).

Father Charles Walker, pastor of St. James Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., visited Haiti a couple of weeks ago along with two parishioners Lois Shinkle and Melba Kindervater. They viewed some of the rubble left behind by the January 2010 tremblor, and they visited St. Mark Church in St. Mark, Haiti, 60 or so miles north of the island nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince.

Father Walker had visited the nation of Guatemala four times, he said, and thought he’d seen remarkable poverty in that central American country. “But Port-au-Prince and most of Haiti makes what we saw in Guatemala look like Oxmoor Woods,” he said. “It’s a pretty deplorable situation.”

In the face of those conditions, though, Father Walker and his parishioners saw something else that was remarkable. They saw the faith of a people who would not be bowed by their poverty or by tragedy.

“Golly, you wouldn’t believe the faith and joy of the Catholic folks that we met,” Father Walker said. “They come dressed in the best clothes they have, and at the 6:15 a.m. Mass they have at St. Mark’s every morning, they have 200 people or more there every day. On Sundays they are packed into a 900-seat sanctuary and are standing in the door.”

And most of them get there on foot; some walking a great distance.

In fact, the church bells begin ringing each morning, calling worshipers to Mass, at 5:15 a.m. because so many have to walk so far.

Lois Shinkle has made 13 trips to Haiti over the past decade or so, and every time she is astounded by the faith of the Haitians she meets.

“These are people who, if they’d given up completely on God, you could understand because of what they’ve been through,” she said. “But they’re just the opposite. They are faith-filled people and you wouldn’t believe how they fill their churches.”

At St. Mark’s, there’s “a choir for every Mass,” she added. “And when they sing, they sing in full voice and the walls echo and reverberate. These are very outgoing and compassionate people, and we could learn a lot from them.”

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to stay in bed or in front of the TV rather then attending Mass. Think about the people of Haiti.


Glenn Rutherford

Record Editor

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