What is My Obligation on Sundays and Holy Days?
Most Catholic Christians have heard that the “Sunday obligation” involves going to church on Sundays and holy days “of obligation” (that is, those special days that should be treated like Sundays). They may also have heard that this obligation is a Christian adaptation of the commandment given by God to Moses to “keep the Sabbath day holy.”
In fact, Church law is a little more specific about what Catholic Christians should do on Sundays and holy days. Canon 1247 of the Church’s set of laws offers this rich description of what is expected of us. Here is an English translation of the Latin original (with italics added):
“On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and activities which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”
So it’s not just a matter of getting yourself into a pew on Sundays and other holy days. The challenge offered by the Church is to participate (fully, consciously, actively, as the Second Vatican Council put it) in the act of worship on these days. We come not simply as observers but as participants, taking on those rights and responsibilities proper to people who are baptized and share fully in communion.
Further, we should do what we can on these days to make sure we are prepared to participate this way, by setting aside anything that keeps us from giving ourselves fully to this central act of worship. This doesn’t mean that we have to give up soccer practice or Sunday afternoon football or a cookout with friends, but it does mean that we need to keep things in perspective, in balance, so that Sunday Mass receives its proper attention. Also, the Church encourages us to relax, to slow down and take things easy, as much as we can, knowing that the Lord is in control and we can let go of some of our ordinary anxieties and worries, at least for one day.
St. Joseph parishioner Gordon Truitt holds a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He has been involved in liturgical renewal at the parish, diocesan, and national levels for more than forty years.
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