Last week, the bishops of the three Connecticut dioceses jointly released a statement announcing the reinstatement of the obligation of the faithful to attend Sunday Mass. This obligation to attend Sunday Mass (or Saturday Vigil Mass) in person has its roots in the Apostolic age, when the members of the Church gathered every Sunday to celebrate together the paschal mystery of Our Lord’s glorious victory over sin and death. In its document on the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the ancient and sacred duty of the faithful to worship together at Mass on Sunday. With the public health crisis that began in March 2020, the Bishops suspended the obligation to observe the Lord’s Day (Sunday) through personal attendance at Mass, allowing the faithful to keep the day holy by other means, such as watching livestreams or recordings of the Mass. But now, our bishops have decided it’s time to come together again in person.
The bishops’ statement cites a beautiful passage from St. John Paul II’s 1998 letter Dies Domini, in which the saint encourages the faithful not to think of attendance at Sunday Mass as the mere fulfillment of a duty or the following of a rule. Instead, he writes: “the observance should be seen as a need rising from the depths of Christian life. It is crucially important that all the faithful should be convinced that they cannot live their faith or share fully in the life of the Christian community unless they take part regularly in the Sunday Eucharistic assembly. The Eucharist is the full realization of the worship which humanity owes to God, and it cannot be compared to any other religious experience.”
So many experiences over the past year have been mediated by technology, which has enabled us to stay connected from a distance. The use of Zoom, livestreaming, and mass-messaging applications has become a large part of parish life. But not just parish life. Millions of people have used the internet and video-conference technology to be able to work or go to school remotely from home. Insofar as it has been a blessing, it has been a very mixed one. Something is lost when everything is done virtually. There is a human element of presence and spontaneity that a computer screen cannot convey. The full experience of relationship that is on offer when people are physically present in the same space, interacting directly and indirectly, is not part of the virtual world. Connecting online is not the same. We need to be together in person.
The Mass is when we are most ourselves as the Church because it is at the Mass where we are most together. The reason for this is the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. At Mass, God is present to us in a way that He is not present to us anywhere else in the entire universe. At Mass, He is not just present as Spirit but also in the Flesh. Through His Incarnation, Christ Jesus unites humanity together in Himself. In this way He unites us and all those who are united to Him across space and time to the perfect and eternal offering He makes of Himself to God the Father. In Christ all the faithful are united as one body – the members of the Church on earth, the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and all the Saints in Heaven. We enter into that mystery most intensely at Mass, where we are united not only in the Spirit, but also in the Body of Christ. It is the closest experience of Heaven this side of Heaven and is thus essential preparation for eternal life with God. There is no human activity comparable to the Mass. Do we organize our lives (including our weekends) with that reality in mind? If not, why?
Starting next weekend, the grave obligation of the faithful to attend Mass every Sunday will once again be in effect. But more than a rule, it is a reminder of what is most central to our identity as Catholics – our need to worship the Lord, Our God, and to do it together bodily in the Person of Christ.