It was on March 16, 2020 that Bishop Caggiano, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, issued the decree that temporarily suspended all public celebration of Masses in the presence of the lay faithful throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport. Thankfully, the suspension ended on May 21st, and it has been great to see people beginning to return to Mass in the church. I’m very grateful to all of our volunteers and staff who have done a great job making the church safe and inviting. The pandemic has made people understandably hesitant to gather in enclosed public spaces. Seeing the number of people at weekend Masses grow assures me that we are doing things well here at the parish. But I think it’s important to reassure you that the Bishop’s dispensation from the normal obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains in place, especially since current attendance restrictions would not allow us to accommodate all the parishioners in our churches.
Under normal conditions, the Church’s law states that, “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2180). Of course, one also fulfills this obligation by going to the vigil Mass on Saturday evenings. One may be excused from attending Sunday Mass if there is a “serious reason,” such as illness, the need to provide care for someone who cannot be left home alone, or if leaving one’s home would pose a significant risk to one’s health and/or safety. Being on vacation, however, is not a valid reason for missing Mass – unless you’re in a place like Saudi Arabia where, unlike Orlando or the Jersey Shore, it is very difficult to find a Catholic church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (Catechism, 2181). In such an unfortunate situation, one should go to the sacrament of confession before going again to Communion.
This way of talking about Sunday Mass, as an obligation the neglection of which is a sin, is not the most edifying way of considering the great gift that the Mass is. When we gather together for Sunday Eucharist we testify to the world and to each other that we belong to Christ and His Church. Gathered together, we strengthen each other, revealing God’s holiness and our hope of salvation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism, 2182). The Holy Eucharist that we receive through the Mass is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism, 1324), and through our communal encounter with Christ at the Mass, the lay faithful are strengthened to fulfill their blessed privilege to bring Christ into the world. Mass is the greatest thing that human beings can participate in. But that’s something that we have to learn, because love for the Mass doesn’t come naturally. That’s why the precept that imposes the obligation exists, to help us (please, God) to learn to love the Mass, and to miss it deeply when we are not able to attend.
It was out of pastoral concern for the faithful that the Bishop exercised his authority to lift the obligation of the faithful to attend Sunday Mass. Interestingly, however, the Bishop does not have the authority to dispense us from the precept to honor the Lord’s Day. That’s because this is a divine mandate (3rd Commandment) and not Church law. Attending Mass is the ordinary way in which we honor the Lord’s Day. But when we can’t do that we should – or, more accurately, we must – observe and honor the day in another fitting way. That means it should be something intentional and communal, if possible. Many families watch Mass together online or on television, participating in the responses, familiarizing themselves with the readings beforehand. To enter into the experience more deeply, they might print out a copy of the Eucharistic Prayer and follow along as the priest transforms bread & wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Alternatively, families could read the readings for Mass together, followed by the recitation of the rosary. People could pray the Liturgy of the Hours – office of readings, morning prayer, evening prayer – together. Under present circumstances, how you choose to pray on Sunday is up to you. The important thing to remember is that, even though the obligation to attend Mass has been suspended, we still are supposed to honor the Lord’s Day.
A priest whom I knew in college once told us that, since Sunday Mass is the minimum required of Catholics, if the only time during the week that we pray or think about God is Sunday Mass, then we are essentially on spiritual life support. One of the great difficulties for those who are not able to attend Mass right now is the challenge to keep the Lord’s Day holy, and to continue the essential practice of religion while deprived of its greatest expression. Although the circumstances may force us to have to be more intentional and creative about the way we honor the Lord on Sunday, we trust that He is with us, and that through our alternative Sunday devotions He offers us what we need to enjoy not just the minimum but the fullness of life with Him.