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I'd Like to Say: Sunday Mass Is More Than Obligation
By Martin Pable, O.F.M.Cap.
"Remember to keep holy the sabbath day" is numbered among the Ten Commandments. So why aren't more people at Sunday Mass?


Positive Values of Obligation
Three Gifts Given at Mass
Erosion of Obligation
Making Mass More Appealing
Sunday Mass and Discipleship
Counting Heads in Church on Sundays


I have been privileged to help out with weekend Masses at many different parishes—urban, small-town, rural—in various parts of the Midwest. Everywhere the lament is the same: Where have all the people gone? Our churches used to be full. We’ve dropped one (or two) Masses because attendance was so low.

National polls and surveys confirm the anecdotal evidence: Since the 1950s, attendance has plummeted from 70 percent of baptized Catholics to about 35 percent.

It is not difficult to summon “the usual suspects” to explain this phenomenon: People’s lives are busy. Some work on weekends. Many Catholics, especially younger ones, have simply dropped out of the Church. Others are turned off by boring homilies or insipid music. Some feel alienated or marginalized: women, homosexuals, those divorced and remarried.

All true enough. But I would like to suggest another underlying cause for the falloff: loss of a sense of obligation. In our time, it seems to me, the very word obligation has suffered the same fate as the word faithfulness in the time of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Faithfulness has disappeared; the word itself is banished from their speech” (Jeremiah 7:28). In a culture that worships freedom, obligation does not play well.

But let’s think about that: Isn’t obligation simply part of being human? The dictionary defines obligation as “something by which a person is bound to do certain things and which arises out of a sense of duty; the act of binding oneself by a promise.”

Obligation is a truly noble concept. “A sense of duty” and “binding oneself by a promise” are profoundly human characteristics. Obligation makes possible all manner of human transactions: promises, contracts, verbal and written agreements. “I give you my word” is a beautiful way of saying, “I accept my obligation to follow through on what I have promised.” Human life would be simply unbearable without a sense of obligation.

I find it interesting that people often have strong, self-imposed obligations about a variety of behaviors. They oblige themselves to a diet, to an exercise program, to watch certain television shows (and to tape them if they have to miss one), to a book study or bridge club. But somehow they don’t make the connection with religious practices.

Positive Values of Obligation

I do not want to return to the old negative ways of heavy-handed, guilt-inducing approaches to obligation. That would only be counterproductive. I believe we can proclaim obligation as a positive, life-affirming form of Christian discipleship.

Human relationships depend for their sustenance on the making and keeping of promises. It is only a short step from there to the biblical notion of covenant. God’s promise of unfailing love is matched by our response of faithful obedience to God’s vision of “the good life.” We bind ourselves to the living out of God’s commandments in love (see Psalm 119).

The covenant theme continues and deepens in the New Testament. In Baptism the child’s parents are reminded that they are undertaking the responsibility (obligation) of forming their child in the Christian faith, and they answer that they are willing to do so. In Confirmation the young person receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In response, he or she agrees to take on the role of disciple and witness to Christ. In matrimony each spouse assumes the obligation of faithful love and lifelong fidelity to one another.

And clearly, the concept of obligation is evident in the Eucharist. Jesus’ command at the Last Supper was “Do this in memory of me.” So the whole Church is obliged to remember, to offer, to celebrate the covenant love of Jesus as he gave his very life for us. But that action of eucharistic celebration will not touch us unless we are physically and psychologically present. What is so wrong, then, with claiming that “we have an obligation to participate in the Sunday Eucharist”?


Three Gifts Given at Mass

But aside from obligation, let’s reflect on some of the other positive values of participating in Sunday Mass. For one thing, we hear the Word of God proclaimed and explained week after week. Yes, we can read the Scriptures and commentaries on our own, but how many of us will do that on a regular basis? As disciples we need to be nourished spiritually on God’s Word. Attending Mass every week assures us that we will at least be at the table when the food is served.

And how much more does that apply to the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood? The haunting words of Jesus remind us: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53). Friends, lovers, spouses all know that being present to each other, sharing life with each other, is necessary for the health and growth of the relationship.

“Communion” is the beautiful word that describes the primary effect of the Eucharist. Without it our relationship with Christ will wither for lack of nourishment. When I hear confessions of people who have been away from the sacraments for a long time, I always say, “I’m so glad you’re here. Tell me, what brought you here today?” At least half the time, the penitent will say something like, “I missed the Eucharist!”

A second positive value of Sunday Mass is that we get to worship as God desires. It is clear from the Scriptures that God wants us to pray as individuals; but it is equally clear that we are to pray and worship as a community of believers. Neither the Israelites nor the early Christians would think of separating themselves from the covenant community or from their common worship. That would be tantamount to spiritual death.

And I propose a third reason to affirm the obligation of Sunday worship. It is a crucial way of reclaiming a precious value we are in danger of losing in our culture: the Sabbath rest.

In our fast-paced, postmodern world, Sunday has become just another day, indistinguishable from the rest of the week. It is no longer a “holy” day. It is a day to catch up on tasks left undone during the week, or to cram in some leisure activity. Less and less is Sunday a special day, a day set aside to honor God.

Moreover, we have lost the sense of “sabbath rest” in general—time to relax, to nourish our spirits, to attend to relationships with families and friends—as an important aspect of living holistically. So attendance at Sunday Mass becomes like a postscript, an afterthought, something to do if it fits into the schedule for the day. I don’t think we want that to happen.

Erosion of Obligation

For a long time Catholics in this country accepted the notion that God could ask certain obligations of them. One of them was to participate in the Mass on Sundays and “holy days of obligation.” How did that sense begin to slip away? No doubt there were a number of causes. But from what I observed in the 1960s and ’70s, the process began in a well-intentioned but misguided way.

Some religion teachers in Catholic high schools and CCD classes were telling students that they should come to Sunday Mass because they want to, not because they have to. At the same time, some preachers were giving folks in the pews a similar message: “If you’re here only because it’s an obligation, that’s not good enough. You should come here because you want to.” The same ideas were appearing in Catholic magazines and adult-education classes.

The message was not wrong in itself. But, depending on the manner in which it was given and the disposition of the hearers, the results were not positive. People could easily conclude, “To be honest, I don’t want to be here, so I’ll stay away. I guess it’s not an obligation anymore, anyway.” And when students went on to college and observed how many of their peers absented themselves from the Sunday Eucharist, they fell into step. (As a side note, cultural anthropologists have noted that humans are nearly as “mimetic” as most animal species. That is, they easily imitate the behavior they see around them. In other words, they succumb to peer pressure.)

Making Mass More Appealing

Even if this analysis has some validity, it does not excuse us from making significant efforts to make the Sunday Eucharist more meaningful and attractive. We need to make our parish communities more inviting and welcoming.

Presiders can make greater efforts to be personable and to connect with the needs and concerns of people in the pews. We need readers who have taken the Scriptures into their hearts so as to proclaim them with passion. Homilies must relate the word of God to the daily lives of listeners. The great eucharistic prayers ought to be prayed, not merely recited. We need to choose music with words that speak to the heart and melodies that are easily learned.

At the same time, the Church will have to continue efforts to regain credibility as an institution. Among other directions, this would include reaching out with healing to victims of clergy sexual abuse, involving laity of both genders in ministry and in policy-making, doing a much better job of explaining Church teaching on human sexuality and encouraging dialogue with theologians and scholars, rather than repressing them.

Sunday Mass and Discipleship

Certainly, discipleship involves a whole set of obligations, not just Sunday Eucharist. We are obliged to grow in holiness and in likeness to Christ. Vatican II made it clear that this is the primary vocation of every baptized person. We are obliged to avoid sin and whatever leads to it, to practice the works of mercy and care for our neighbors in need, to work for social justice and equality for all persons, to exercise good stewardship of our own and the earth’s resources. So why single out Sunday worship?

In a sense, I am not. I would like to reclaim the sense of obligation for our whole Christian life. Still, I believe participation in the Sunday Eucharist is a good indicator of our commitment to discipleship. It also has great potential to nourish that commitment.

The pastoral challenge is this: How can we reclaim a healthy sense of obligation without slipping back into legalism or resentment? I believe it can be done by utilizing the human categories people are already familiar with: the promises we made at our Baptism to place love of God and neighbor as our highest priorities in life; joining ourselves with the perfect offering of Jesus in the Eucharist as our very best way of expressing our gratitude to God for all the blessings we have been given; making the Sunday/Sabbath a truly holy day by joining with our brothers and sisters in communal worship.

When we think about it, we willingly accept obligations in many other areas of our lives. We respond to the needs of our family members. We show up for work and fulfill our duties as best we can. We honor our promises to invest ourselves in the work of committees and service groups to which we belong.

Why should we resist obligations that come to us from the covenant love of our God? That covenant invites us to “remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day” and encourages us to “do this in remembrance of me.”

Counting Heads in Church on Sundays

by Carol Ann Morrow

Is it true that Sunday Mass attendance has fallen? Four sources— Gallup, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), USA Today and the National Catholic Reporter—say yes and can document the decline in numbers. In fall 2006, CARA published an analysis of its 2005 findings, noting that some people do more than skip Mass—they lie about it! The Georgetown-based researchers kindly call it the “social desirability effect.” People don’t want telephone pollsters to think them less than faithful—so they give the same answer they would probably give their mothers: “I go to Mass every Sunday.”

CARA and other researchers can weigh such “white lies” against statistics gathered through more impersonal Internet or MSN TV (formerly WebTV) methods, as CARA’s Dr. Mark Gray explained in a recent telephone interview with St. Anthony Messenger.

Statistics gathered through online methods go down some eight to 12 percentage points! CARA can also correlate its results with Gallup polls (of the general population), which indicate that Mass attendance peaked in 1957-8 and has declined from a high of 74 percent in the 1950s to 40 percent in 2003.

While many Mass-attending Catholics are probably saying, “I could have figured that out by looking around on Sunday,” the reasons may be less transparent. CARA does not attribute the decline to any scandals, for instance, but to less “institutional loyalty.” USA Today’s late 2004 survey agrees, observing that these trends were in place years before scandals emerged to trouble the faithful. According to the National Catholic Reporter’s 2004 survey, a large majority of respondents said they could be good Catholics without attending Mass every week.

In a report published in January 2005 and available online at, CARA comments, “Baby Boomers...entered adulthood during a time of great questioning of civic and cultural institutions.” Declining Mass attendance, documented by all these polls, is due more to the death of older Catholics than to new disaffection among younger Church members.

In summary, while Mass attendance is down by nearly half from highs measured in the 1950s, it has held steady at 33 percent since the year 2000, according to CARA. Why does Gallup report a higher figure of 40 percent? Gallup poses the question slightly differently: “Did you go to Mass last Sunday?” (rather than “Do you go to Mass on Sundays?”). Statistically, this variation in the question results in a higher number, because some of those who seldom darken the church door just happened to do so the week Gallup surveyed them!

Martin Pable, O.F.M.Cap., is on the retreat staff at St. Anthony Retreat Center in Marathon, Wisconsin. He conducts retreats, workshops and continuing education programs around the country. His most recent book is Remaining Catholic: Six Good Reasons to Stay in an Imperfect Church (ACTA Publications).


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