I always enjoyed old movies when one of the characters turned to another and said that he is “much obliged.” It seems so polite, and it made me think differently about the notion of obligation, which too often sounds like a dirty word filled with distasteful burdens. I have been thinking about obligation as I reflect on the current lifting of the obligation to worship at the Eucharist on Sundays because of the restrictions of COVID-19 since last March.
What got me thinking was a beautiful letter by Cardinal Robert Sarah, approved by Pope Francis, which is entitled “Let Us Return to the Eucharist with Joy.” Here is the link: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-cardinal-robert-sarah—let-us-return-to-the-eucharist-with-joy-58368. Like a parent who yearns to do everything possible for the good of her child and so sees parental obligation as something to be quickly and joyfully embraced, so the time honored Sunday obligation of an adult Catholic to participate in the Mass brings us joy. While I am not announcing any change in the current lifting of the Sunday Mass obligation due to COVID-19, I know that we need to begin to prepare for our opportunity to return to public worship as soon as we are able to do so safely.
I have been worried that the experience of COVID-19 and the use of live streaming might dampen the enthusiasm that should be ours to come together to worship in the Holy Eucharist each Sunday. As I have celebrated Mass at the Cathedral and in other churches, I also have been very encouraged. It just feels so good to be back celebrating the Holy Eucharist in person and to invite full and active participation of all.
The November edition of “Conversations with Archbishop Kurtz” in its third segment features an interview with Dr. Karen Shadle, Director of Worship for the Archdiocese. It is only nine minutes long and worth your viewing at www.archlou.org/conversations. (It will begin airing on November 1.) Karen speaks of the root of the word obligation as coming from the old Latin, obligare, which means to bind yourself to something. Like the word religion or even ligament, the LIG in obligation refers to a binding that brings about something good.
I also went back to the “Code of Canon Law” to look at the notion of obligation. Canon 1246 describes Sunday as “the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church.”
Canon 1248 addresses exceptions. Unlike the normal exceptions envisioned in the canon, which deals with the absence of a priest, COVID-19 has given us two important exceptions. The first is the potential frailty of an individual because of age or infirmity, and the second is the simple lack of availability because of the restrictions on the number of people permitted safely in a church. The Code goes on to recommend strongly that the faithful concentrate on the Liturgy of the Word or on the readings of Sacred Scripture if they are unable to attend Mass that day. A second opportunity is to devote oneself as a family or a group of families to prayer.
So often, we talk about the domestic church as the family. Perhaps the COVID-19 experience will bring about a silver lining in renewing the opportunity to restore a regular routine of the reading of Sacred Scripture and prayer devotions within each family. Traditionally the season of Advent has done that with Advent wreaths and Advent calendars.
I met with our archdiocesan Priests’ Council recently to speak about the experience in our parishes during these COVID-19 days. In preparation for this meeting, I shared a survey with pastors. I was gratified that more than 80% responded and that about 80% of parishes either had provided or continue to provide some opportunity for live streaming or taping Masses. These creative efforts are necessary during this time of great restriction. While these restrictions remain necessary and while people who are in a vulnerable position must restrict themselves from the Mass for their own safety, we will discuss at the November Priests’ Council meeting creative ways to return to the Eucharist with joy.
A big thank you to all of the faithful, parish leaders and our priests and deacons for your sterling living out of your faith over these six months in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions. We know that the obligation or the binding to Sunday Mass is not simply an external requirement. Rather, it speaks to the very heart of what it means for us to worship with our whole being and to worship together in Christ Jesus. Thank you for helping us return to the Holy Eucharist with joy.