Why Aren’t We At Mass?

This past weekend I was dismayed to learn that, once again, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, had effectively been wiped out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, because it fell on a Saturday. A similar abrogation – or shall we say, abomination – occurred back in November, when All Saints’ Day fell on a Monday. Thus although this past Sunday, January 2nd, was only 8 days after Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany was transferred to that day, meaning that both the Solemnity AND Epiphany in this country were ruined by episcopal decree.

Today, of course, is the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church, 12 days after Christmas, though not a Holy Day of Obligation in this country. If in fact you happen to be a member of the Church in Spain however, you are required to attend mass today. In Spain, The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) is a Holy Day of Obligation – known as a “fiesta de precepto” – as of course are all the Sundays of the Year, as well as The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1), and the Feasts of Saint Joseph (March 19), St. James the Apostle (July 25), The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (August 15), All Saints (November 1), The Immaculate Conception (December 8), and Christmas (December 25).

Of course, you might say to me, you could always go to mass on the actual date if you really want to; assuming, that is, that your local parish is offering more than just the crack-of-dawn daily mass most people cannot get to. My response to you, dear reader – and I say this with all Christian love and kindness – would be: give me an acceptable basis for abrogating the precept in the first place. For in all frankness, I have yet to come up with a reasonable and acceptable basis for their actions, myself.

I am not alone in questioning the wisdom of the American Episcopate on this issue. Monday evening I was listening to the most recent podcast of Catholic In A Small Town, and to my great satisfaction Mac and Katherine Barron, the hosts of that (highly recommended) program, brought up this very issue. In fact although I was already in bed and beginning to fall asleep while listening to their show, I subsequently got up and emailed them a lengthy bit of feedback, thanking them for pointing out what I myself feel about this abrogation business. In my own words, which are more harsh than theirs but there you are, this business is a disgraceful, unnecessary, and unhelpful liturgical policy, which should itself be abrogated immediately.

On November 17, 1992, after obtaining the approval of Pope John Paul II, this policy of periodically abrogating the precept to attend mass celebrations on Mary, Mother of God, The Assumption, and All Saints was formally promulgated in the United States. In my opinion Pope John Paul, saint though he may eventually prove to be, was wrong to sign off on this – but more about that later – and the Church in America is worse off as a result. If one of my better-informed readers is aware of the actual rationale behind this decision on the part of the USCCB, please let us know, but I suspect that whatever documents exist on this point are probably the usual mushy nonsense that many of us in our 20s and 30s had to swallow when we were growing up from hippie priests and habit-eschewing nuns.

So I can only imagine the bishops concluded that, since most people do not want and would not go to mass twice in a weekend anyway, that it would be better to reduce the number of sins they were committing by reducing the number of Holy Days they actually missed. This of course assumes that people go to confession with any regularity, which of course hardly anyone does anymore. There can be no other explanation other than a misguided sense on the part of the bishops that they were somehow acting charitably. Unfortunately, this thinking is the liturgical equivalent of a needle exchange.

Unfortunately, by watering down the obligations of the faithful in this area (among others), the bishops have actually contributed to rather than reversed a general climate of dissent, laxity, and irreverence which has been hanging over the Church for quite some time now. Those among their Excellencies who disagree with me, I would invite to drop by any suburban parish church incognito on a Saturday afternoon, and see how long they have to wait in line for confession. I can almost 100% guarantee they will be the only person there, in and out of the confessional in under 5 minutes, and yet when they come to mass on Sunday virtually every member of the congregation will receive the Eucharist. If pressed, the vast majority of that congregation will also admit that they have not been to confession in years, and see nothing wrong with receiving Holy Communion despite their avoidance of the confession box.

Two important parts of being an active member of the Faith are the opportunity to engage in acts of public worship of God, and also to commit acts of personal self-sacrifice. The bishops seems to think it is really a terrible burden for the laity to have to attend mass twice in one weekend. [N.B. Well, if you are attending mass at Holy Trinity in Georgetown that’s actually true, but an issue for another day.] Those who are unable to attend mass due to work or travel obligations despite their best efforts to find a place and time to go to mass are, in effect, “excused” (for lack of a better word) under other areas of Church law, after all.

For the rest of us, would it really be so terrible to have to go to mass on Friday night for the vigil, before heading out to your Halloween or New Year’s Eve party? And what exactly is going on around about August 15th in the United States that would make it impossible for someone to fit in mass attendance twice in one weekend? Even acknowledging the potential impact of Halloween and New Year’s Eve, there really is no excuse whatsoever for abrogating the Feast of the Assumption.

However, as hinted at above, I want to make a very important distinction between disagreement and disobedience. This is a matter of liturgical norms, not fundamental Church dogma. Simply complaining about the number of Holy Days of Obligation or the dates on which they fall and asking the bishops to change their ruling is not, in any way, the equivalent of, for example, a Catholic volunteering for Planned Parenthood. The former is an expression of disagreement, while remaining obedient; the latter, when engaged in freely and with the full knowledge of what Planned Parenthood does, is an act of open dissent.

When we mark the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, we are actually celebrating one of the most important theological teachings of the Church. Jesus Christ is both fully God, Son of the Father, and fully man, Son of the Virgin Mary: two natures in one person. Volumes of learned writing, intense debates, Church councils, and so on went into the evolution of this fundamental aspect of our faith. To push this aside in the name of personal convenience is truly a sad indication of where we have fallen to in the present day from whence we came.

And who is to say that the cure for our present lackadaisical Catholicism is to make everything easy-peasy? Rather, instead of abrogating Holy Days of Obligation, why don’t we add a couple of additional ones? Why not close out the 12 days of Christmas by making the Feast of the Epiphany a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States, as it is in many other countries, for example? We already do as much with Easter and the Ascension.

Despite my going on at what has perhaps proven to my readers who have gotten this far to be a rather unpleasant length, my message to the bishops, and ultimately to Rome, is quite simple. If you sell people short, they will never fail to live up to your expectations. By assuming that the faithful could not possibly be expected to attend mass when asked to do so, the bishops have absolutely sold the faithful short; they should be persuaded to speak to Rome about reversing their position.

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