Covid 19 Mass Obligation
Below are taken from the May 23rd and May 30th bulletins:
My dear brothers and sisters, the Lord be with you! Last week the Bishops of Ohio announced that the obligation to attend Sunday Mass will recommence with the cessation of the pandemic protocols on June 2nd. That means that all Catholics in the State of Ohio will be required to attend Mass for the weekend of June 5th and 6th. Their letter will be included with this bulletin as well as our bishop’s guidelines for liturgical norms come June 2nd. In the rest of this letter, I want to address why we are obliged to attend Mass and under what conditions we may miss Mass.
“Keep holy the Sabbath.” For us Catholics the Third Commandment includes a specific obligation to celebrate the Eucharist. Since the earliest days of the Church, the Body of Christ came together on Sunday to be nourished by the Word of God: both in the Scriptures and in Holy Communion. Although it would take a few centuries for this obligation to be codified into law, it existed from the moment that Christ established the Church, i.e. Pentecost. Through Baptism we no longer live merely human lives, but each of us lives out the adopted life of Jesus. To keep living that divine life we need Christ, and we receive Him in abundance at Mass. Whether we receive Holy Communion or not, our common worship sustains us in Christ’s life on this earth. No substitute for this practice exists on this earth since our liturgy is a participation in the life of heaven.
The obligation to attend Mass builds on the obligation to set aside a day for rest in God. Just as Jesus is both God and Man, Mass is both a human and divine action. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mass allows us to love and be loved in a way that exceeds our human capabilities. Nevertheless, all of Sunday is meant to be a day given over to God such that we refrain from unnecessary work and attempt to imbue the whole day with prayer.
When the bishops of our state dispensed the faithful from attending Mass in 2020, they did so to protect the public health. Initially including a complete cessation of public worship, that dispensation continued even after the churches were reopened for public liturgies. Just as we are not obligated to attend Mass when we are sick, the whole of our community was exempted from the obligation for the sake of public health.
Some may be confused by this thinking, so let’s examine it in more detail. The Church (and more generally speaking, God) never asks us to do the impossible. For example, last Christmas many of us could not physically come to Church because of the snow. Even if the obligation had been in effect, this physical barrier to attendance made the obligation no longer binding. Likewise, when our health become so infirm that we cannot get ourselves to church, the obligation is not in effect. The homebound have never been required to attend church on Sundays since they cannot. What of those who must work to support their families? Now that we have a seven day work week, some of us will have to work on Sundays. Again, God does not ask the impossible, such that those who must work (not those who choose to work out of convenience) are allowed to miss Mass to support themselves and their families.
Convenience, however, does not remove the obligation. Golf, grocery shopping, going out to eat, etc: these are not reasons to miss Mass. Right leisure is a wonderful thing and has its place in our lives, but we must put God first. To do so requires us to respect how God has decided that we worship Him.
I am very glad that technology had advanced to the point that live streamed Masses and our own YouTube Channel were possible during the pandemic. These marvels allowed many of us to continue to keep holy the Sabbath as we awaited the pandemic to abate. It has abated, and these practices will continue but only for those who are not obligated to attend Sunday Mass.
As the bishops remind us in the letter, those with severe health issues are usually exempt from attendance at Mass. Simply being afraid to come to Mass for your health, however, is not a reason to stay at home. Whether our leaders should have dispensed with the public mandates months ago or should wait several more months is now a moot point. It’s happening now, and we have to make peace with that. Part of that is acknowledging that different people will continue to behave in different ways without malice.
“The benefit of the doubt” means that we attribute to people the most generous motive for acting in the way that they are. Whether masks are obligated or not, we are obligated to think as well of others as we can. This requirement will be challenging for a lot of us who will want everyone to act like we do. With patience and courage we can walk this path together.
I am looking forward to seeing many more people in church. All of us go through trials in our lives, and this pandemic has certainly been one for us. Let us pray that we continue to move forward with the gentleness and hope that God desires for us.
Father, when can fear exempt one from coming to Mass? If I am afraid of getting sick, do I have to attend Mass on Sundays?
In order to answer this question, let’s distinguish different kinds of fear. There are two spectrums that characterize a fear: our own fearfulness and the potential harm of what we fear. I regularly spook my secretaries by appearing behind them without making a sound. That momentary fear is not much and it passes quickly. We can also have a fear that persists and incapacitates us in general or from some particular activity. For example, a friend of mine gets vertico so he does not ride on roller coasters. In these two cases, it is our own fearfulness that precludes us from acting normally.
Sometimes, however, it is not that we are experiencing an acute fear, but that we have discerned that an action is too risky for us. For example, imagine that you went to a bar with a friend, and your friend had too much to drink. Would you drive home with him? Would you let him drive home by himself? I hope not. The risk of an accident is enough to warrant the extra expense of a cab or an uber.
With these two categories of fear described, let us apply some moral analysis. If someone experiences an acute internal fear, that fear renders them unable to act. In moral terms, it makes their inaction involuntary. Accordingly, anyone experiencing such fears would not be obligated to come to Mass since they lack the ability to come to Mass. Likewise, if someone has concluded that attending Mass would be too dangerous for themselves (or a family member whom they care for), he would also not be obligated to attend Mass. Hopefully, over the next couple of months it will become clear that attending Mass is safe and that body of evidence will help alleviate both kinds of the above fears.