Q. I was taught as a child that it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday, that if you did that and failed to confess it before you died, you would go to hell. Then, I thought, the Second Vatican Council changed this and said it was not a mortal sin anymore. But just recently I read in our diocesan newspaper that Catholics still have a serious obligation to attend, and now I’m confused. Personally, I can’t believe it could be that grave. Can you help to clarify? (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
A. The Second Vatican Council has been blamed for (or sometimes credited with) making a variety of changes it never discussed. One of the things Vatican II did not do was to change church teaching on the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that teaching clearly in No. 2181: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants). Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.”
Gravity of matter, of course, is just one of the three necessary conditions for a mortal sin — the others being complete consent of the will and full knowledge of the sinful character of the act or omission. Certain circumstances can excuse one from attendance at Mass on a particular Sunday.
The catechism mentions illness and the care of infants, but others might be: unavoidable work obligations, lack of transportation or inclement weather sufficient to put one’s safety at risk. (To skip Mass to go shopping, to play golf or to get a couple extra hours of sleep clearly does not qualify and shows that other priorities have been allowed to replace the Lord.)
To appreciate the seriousness of the obligation, it helps to understand the centrality of the Mass. From the earliest days of the church, disciples of Jesus have gathered for Eucharist on the first day of each week to mark the day of Christ’s resurrection.
In the Mass, the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday coalesce, and those events comprise the core of our faith.
Not incidentally, the Mass also happens to be the one specific way Jesus asked the apostles to keep his memory alive, and the reception of Communion unites us intimately with Christ and strengthens us to live in the manner that Jesus taught.
Q. Is there a book you can suggest that would help a senior citizen to understand the Bible (one that does not require a DVD, etc.)? (Indianapolis)
A. I’m sure that there are many such books, and you would probably get as many answers as the number of priests you asked. One that I have found helpful over the years is called “The Collegeville Bible Handbook.”
It was published by The Liturgical Press in 1997 and contains a one-page summary of each of the 73 books of the Bible as well as a short commentary on the significant sections of each book.
What I particularly like about this handbook is the abundance of color maps and “timelines.” People learn in different ways. For me, it’s helpful to be able to “picture” things, and I seem to be able to do that easily with this book. (I’ve just learned, too, that this 350-page hardback is currently on sale for under $5 — and I don’t even get a commission.)
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.