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How much of Mass can I miss? You know, and it still counts?

December 9, 2014

Second only to questions on annulments, the above question—How much of Mass can I miss and it still counts for my obligation?— is probably the single the most common canonical question lay people ask.

Catholics have, I think, a right to have such questions answered without others looking down their noses at their supposed legalisms or getting a lecture about their alleged lack of piety (“If you really loved Jesus you would not think of it as an obligation” etc., etc.). So address it here I will try. By the way, my observations are that those asking such questions are more likely to “over-satisfy” their duties as Catholics than to skip out on them, but maybe that’s just my prejudices at work. Anyway.

Various answers to this Mass attendance question have been offered over the decades, a la: if you’re there for the first reading, or arrive by the Gospel, or before the Creed, or in time for the Our Father, or, going backwards, if you stay till Communion starts, or if you’re still there through the Our Father, or if you see the Consecration, and so on, you’ve satisfied your Sunday (or holy day) obligation.

I think all such answers are wrong; at the very least, I think they all miss the key point. Let’s back up.

The Sunday and holy day obligation is an obligation to ‘participate in’ (c. 1247) or ‘assist at’ Mass (c. 1248). Words like “attend” or “hear” Mass get at the same idea. Now, these canons do not state that one must attend, say, 80% of Mass, or must be present at least for the readings or for the Communion rite, or for any other subdivisions or parts of Mass. The canons oblige attendance at “Mass”. Period. The canons know and respect Mass as an integrated whole—which, of course, is exactly what Mass is, an integrated, sequenced order of prayers and actions organized by the Church to render fitting worship to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Miss any of that, and you have missed that much of “it”.

Thus, the question above, I suggest, should not be whether one can miss some of “it” and still have been there for the “it” as called for in the canon; for obviously, one cannot. Rather, the question should be, What excuse can I offer for having missed the part of the “it” that I missed and still be confident that I have complied with a very old and very important, canonized-in-the-Code, obligation of Catholic life?

That’s a very different question, no longer one about how much, but rather one about why.

Say I took a ‘conservative’ view under traditional analysis and said “If I am there by the first reading” (goodbye entrance rite, so long penitential rite, adios Gloria), and stayed till the end of Mass, “I’ve fulfilled the obligation.” Well, if that’s what a Mass obligation is, a conglomeration of parts or percentages, then, yes, with this criterion in mind, I’m okay in the eyes of the law and (though lawyers dislike going this far) in the eyes of God, if I arrive by the first reading.

Thus, if I arrive at Mass just as the congregation sits down for the first reading, late because one of my toddlers flushed a shoe down a flooding toilet, I need not worry, because I still made it for the readings. Nice result, that, under the traditional reckoning no less. But if, walking in the doors with me at exactly the same time, comes a man who sat in his car for the last ten minutes waiting to hear whether the home team scored with first-and-goal-from-the-six, well, he need not worry either because, under traditional reckoning, he too was there before the readings. Now, I trust no practicing Catholic is happy with that result, but, that’s the result one gets unless one sees the Mass, as canon law does, as a whole “it” and accepts the obligation to attend “it” as applying to the whole.

Granted, some variations on traditional reckonings of ‘tolerable lateness’ required some consideration of one’s reasons or excuses for lateness, but such approaches either still accepted certain points in Mass as absolute cut-offs (as if one might have a good excuse for missing the readings, but no excuse was even possible for missing the Gospel!), or they were trying to get at the approach I favor but with a deficient understanding of the integrated sequencing that holy Mass really is.

My approach, in contrast, says that missing any part of a gravely binding action (such as attending Mass), is excusable only, but surely, to the extent that one has a sufficient reason for missing that much of it. Again, it is not a question of how much did I miss, but why did I miss what I missed. Under my approach, if shoe-diving, flooded-toilet-fixing dad arrived after Communion, I’d tell him he satisfied his obligation that Sunday. If football guy walked into Mass one minute late because he wanted to wait for the scores, I would advise him to confess having missed that much of Mass on insufficient excuse.

When you think about it, traditional reckoning was, I suggest, trying to get at my point when it held certain factors (say, personal sickness, or the need to care for a sick dependent, or hazards of travel) as excusing all of one’s Mass attendance obligation. Clearly, the weight of such factors could excuse one’s missing Mass completely. Where traditional analysis falters is in handling our question, namely, late arrival for Mass. A snow-packed road, everyone admits, excuses Mass attendance, but if that same dangerous road only makes one late for Mass, there is suddenly all this angst about whether, because one arrived after, say, the Creed, one has to drive to another Mass and try again. That seems nonsense to me. I would say, driving conditions excuse part or all of one’s Mass attendance obligation to the degree that such dangerous conditions make one late for, or make one miss all of, Mass.

Now, the older system had this to say for it: it was clear. Technical disputes aside, if I was there by time whatever, I made it, and if not, I didn’t.  But clarity is not necessarily right. Sometimes, life requires a little honest thinking about one’s duties and one’s actions in fulfillment of those duties. And those tempted to cut themselves some slack on their reasons for being late for Mass (of all things!) need to remember that an accounting of their behavior is not going to be rendered to the Church, but to God who gave the Church authority to set out what is expected of his faithful, in this case, via Canons 1247 and 1248. And God is not going to be fooled.

I have, if you’ll pardon an imaginative detour here, a picture of two men at Last Judgment, standing before the Lord, reviewing their lives. The Lord says to one man, you were late for Mass on that Sunday. He answers “Yes, Lord, I was late, I was shoe-fishing in the toilet to get it to stop flooding.” The Lord says, “I know, I saw the whole thing. Thank you for washing up and getting the family to Mass when you could. My Father was very pleased,” Then the Lord says to the other man who walked into church at the exact same time, “You were late for Mass that Sunday.” He replies “Yes Lord I was late, I wanted to find out what the score was.” The Lord says “The score? The score? I’ll tell you what the score is. Step over there and you’ll see what the score is.”

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