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Days of Obligation

2015 January 17
by Gordon Reid

One of the joys of being semi-retired is that I no longer have to go to Mass every day. I know that may shock some of my faithful readers, but the priests among them may know what I mean. In a parish which has a daily Mass, and especially when there is no curate or other priestly help, the duty of saying Mass every day can become wearisome. And this is multiplied by those days when one has to say two or even three Masses. I know many a priest – and especially Roman Catholic ones – who have told me that there is something wrong with a system which leads them to groan when the next Mass rolls round. What was a joy and delight in their youth has turned into an  oppressive duty.

Of course, this is far less of a lay phenomenon. A layman can choose when he or she wants to go to Mass, and so usually the Eucharist remains a delight. But over the centuries the Western Church has developed a discipline which insists that it is a grave sin not to go to Mass on a Sunday and on certain other days of the year, which it calls “Days of Obligation”. Now, any properly formed Catholic Christian will want to go to church every Sunday and for the great feasts of the year, and indeed may want to go much more often, but it is far healthier that he or she feel they are going for the love of Him who instituted the Eucharist, and not because of any church rule.

The Anglican Church, from the Reformation onwards, broke free from this trap. In fact, the pendulum swung too far, so that in some churches you could find the Mass only once a month. But it swung back, and in the church where I was brought up, St Peter’s, Galashiels, the pattern was that of the majority of Scottish Episcopal churches of the forties and fifties – 8 a.m. Holy Communion; 11 a.m. Choral Mattins; and 6.30 p.m. Sung Evensong. Once a month, Mattins was replaced with a Sung Eucharist. And from the sixties onwards, that pattern changed again: the Mass in most parishes was restored to its proper place as the main service on Sunday. Sadly, along with that welcome recovery of balance, the practice of having a choir to sing Evensong on Sundays became rarer and rarer.

Meanwhile the Roman bit of the Western Church, after Vatican II, moved rapidly towards making the Mass so much the centre of communal parish worship that it also began to downplay all the other forms of worship such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Vespers, Compline and the other parts of the Divine Office. In Europe, and I have no doubt in America, Cathedral Chapters voted to suspend the practice of having the Canons sing the office in public. But alongside this, a Saturday evening Vigil Mass was added in many parishes. At the same time, and due to many reasons, the number of vocations to the priesthood began to fall, so that the healthy position of having one priest with one parish and one church was superseded by a parish of , for example, and especially in Europe, seven churches run by just one priest. And the poor man, through sheer faithfulness, was run ragged trying to give each parish a Mass every weekend. Is it any wonder that the Mass may have become tedious to him?

The Eastern Churches have, on the whole, maintained the primitive custom of celebrating the Divine Liturgy just once a week. Of course, being the conservatives  and traditionalists they mostly are, nothing has ever been allowed to be cut out from the Liturgy and lots of extra bits have been added, including much of what we in the West would call the Divine Office, so that their Liturgy is a magnificent production of many hours’ duration. But at least it is only once a week, and the danger of the priest getting fed up with it is much less than in the West.

There are signs that the Western Church has realized the mistake of multiplying Masses in a time of declining vocations. The offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are being celebrated in many churches publicly, and are helping the laity, giving them a new kind of piety. Lay members of churches are being trained to lead non-Eucharistic worship and especially to take the Sacrament to the sick and housebound, sometimes straight from the Parish Mass, and at other times from the Tabernacle when they have time after their secular work. The modern notion that every priest has to say Mass every day is being phased out, with priests who are overstretched nevertheless realizing that their ministry will be greatly strengthened if they have a genuine day off. And for the weaker brethren who still hold to the view that a priest should say Mass every day, concelebration has been introduced to help them feel they have fulfilled the letter of the law.

To conclude, there are large city parishes which have every reason to preserve a daily Mass, said at times convenient for different groups in their congregations. And I believe it should be emphasized that if someone has attended a weekday Mass, that may give him or her a  perfectly good reason not to go to a Sunday Mass. When I was Priest-in-Charge of St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, I found a lovely Sung Mass every Sunday (sung by a boys’ choir imported from a school in Kent) to which only about twenty people came. This was because although the City had a couple of million people working in it during the week, at the weekends there were only about fifty thousand there, and apart from St Paul’s Cathedral, they had the choice of a dozen or two churches within the Financial Square Mile, as well as hundreds of churches in other parts of London. While keeping this Mass going (St Michael’s was, after all, a parish church – though I had only two resident parishioners at that time, the caretaker at the Bank of England and his wife, both Roman Catholics!) I decided to put on a Sung Mass also on Fridays at lunch time, which I called the “Thank-God-It’s-Friday -Mass”. The format was: a small professional choir; a Missa Brevis of Mozart or some such, with the emphasis on the Brevis; a sermon by someone well known in either  Church or State, a Bishop or a Member of Parliament,  all firmly warned that they had only seven minutes; and a cheese and wine reception afterwards. I wanted it to be kept well within one hour so that people could return to work afterwards, though I soon discovered that many shared the happy-go-lucky attitude which resulted in the acronym “POETS Friday”, standing for (excuse the French) “Piss Off Early; Tomorrow’s Saturday”, and the wine and cheese element grew longer and longer! Well, the first TGIF Mass had about a hundred people, and after that it was standing room only, and I soon found myself being asked if attendance at this Mass would excuse someone from not going to their parish church two days later. It did not take me long to see that my answer could only be yes. Some of these people were returning to a weekly Mass after missing their Sunday Mass for quite a while, and I could only rejoice that I had helped them find a way of doing this.

I love the Mass in most of its different forms, and I’m happy to say I have seldom felt “scunnered” at having to celebrate it. (“Scunnered” is a very expressive Scots word meaning a strong form of “fed up”. You can “take a scunner” at something, which means you can barely face it.) I’ve usually been spared that, but know very well what some of my colleagues mean when they confess that they are finding too many Masses a problem. One solution to this is the strengthening and widening of the ministry of the  laity, and most churches seem to be taking this seriously, thanks be  to God.



2 Responses leave one →
  1. Kirk Rich permalink
    January 17, 2015

    This is spot on, Fr. Reid. When I started attending the Byzantine Catholic Church, I realized that they have no concept of “obligation” towards liturgy in the East. My priest at the time, a Russian man who had defected from the Russian Orthodox Church and become incardinated in a Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy, explained it to me quite simply. There can be no obligation put upon people to attend a liturgy. They should already want to be there, to be in God’s holy temple! Attaching a penalty of sin to this issue has only made for resentful Catholics who go only out of obligation, many of whom receive communion and walk right out the door!

    Coming from a rigid Roman background, it seemed strange to me that the Divine Liturgy wasn’t celebrated daily, or at least more than once a week. But of course this is practical. Having married clergy, an Eastern priest having to celebrate the liturgy every day would never be able to have sex with his wife!

  2. January 23, 2015

    Hmm… The situation in the Byzantine rite is the opposite. In fact, pre-Lenten and some Lenten days excepted, the Byzantine rite has propers for each day of the year, in the movable cycle: The Apostle book and Gospel book provide a gradual, Epistle, Alleluia verse and Gospel. The Triodion book provides propers for the Mass of the Presanctified for the whole Lent. And, indeed, in many cathedrals and parish churches, you’ll find the daily Mass in both Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic jurisdictions. My grandma, for instance, knew and practiced daily Mass since her childhood, until the 1970s. And Mass on week days is shortened (litanies are either shortened or omitted; antiphons are read not sung etc.).

    Moreover, Byzantine rite parish churches have usually evensong and mattins only on Sundays; the rest of the week, no divine office is provided to the people. Even when I was a seminarian, we had evensong (1st and 2nd) and mattins only on Sundays; we had Mass on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays; thanks God, when I graduated, we had the daily Mass.

    As for sex with wife as incompatible with Mass, that’s a post-modern thought. The normal practice is to fast from food, drinks, smoke and wife, from midnight onwards.

    The problem in the Roman Church is the lack of priests. The ministry of the laity is not the viable solution, but part of the problem.

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