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Canceling Sunday Masses before Christmas

December 4, 2017

Apparently this is a thing now: arch/bishops canceling all Sunday morning Masses in their arch/dioceses on Dec 24 (the Fourth Sunday of Advent) and directing priests to offer only the Christmas Mass of anticipation on Sunday evening. While the faithful could still attend Mass on Saturday evening, Dec 23, in anticipation of Sunday, those who usually attend Sunday Mass on Sunday morning will arrive to find locked doors and lights out.

This is a bad idea.

Sunday is “by apostolic tradition … the primordial holy day” and participation in Mass on Sunday is the signature act of worship rendered to God by Roman Catholics around the world, indeed, it is the very “foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.” CCC 2182. Depriving the faithful of the opportunity to perform their grave Sunday obligation (1983 CIC 1246-1247), or forbidding priests from offering Mass for Sunday, is usually associated with the civil persecution of the Church. That it comes about by way of a Catholic bishop’s mandate should be unthinkable.

The reason behind these novel directives is, one surmises, the inconvenience posed by having back-to-back holy days of obligation such as occurs every few years—and as has occurred every few years for a long, long time. But apparently we moderns face serious logistical problems getting to Mass that our forefathers never encountered.

In any case, canon law anticipates this very problem and allows, per Canon 1246 § 2, episcopal conferences, with the prior approval of the Apostolic See, to suppress or transfer to Sunday some or several of the ten universal holy days of obligation. Most episcopal conferences have, in fact, after deliberation and with the approval of the Apostolic See, reduced the number of holy days in their territories and have often added further mechanisms whereby, should a remaining holy day of obligation fall on Saturday or a Monday, the obligation for the holy day (not for Sunday!) is dispensed that year.

But what we see sprouting up in some arch/dioceses is different: first, given Rome’s practice of demanding that Christmas be preserved, these bishops are acting against Sunday, not the holy day; second, it is individual bishops acting, not episcopal conferences; third, there is no sign that these bishops have approval from the Apostolic See to cancel Sunday.

Worse, this bad idea is being baldly implemented.

Regarding the faithful. Cancelling all Sunday Masses in an arch/diocese does nothing, repeat nothing, to obviate the grave canonical obligation of the faithful there “to participate in the Mass” per Canon 1247. Yes, it becomes more difficult for Catholics to satisfy their obligation (and, yes, I can imagine some scenarios wherein such episcopally-mandated measures push these difficulties over the line into ‘impossibility’), but, absent ‘moral impossibility’ or, better, lawful dispensation, Catholics in these territories are still obliged to attend Sunday Mass.

(Note to Catholic faithful in these territories: You may satisfy your Sunday obligation either at a Saturday evening Mass or at the Christmas anticipation Mass on Sunday evening, and you may satisfy your Christmas obligation either at the Christmas anticipation Mass on Sunday evening or at any Mass on Christmas day. You may not, however—in case these directives prompt the question, and they likely will—satisfy both the Sunday obligation and the Christmas obligation at a single Mass on Sunday evening, as if there were such a thing as “Super Mass”, able to satisfy two Mass obligations in a single liturgy. Two Mass obligations means, and has always meant, participation in two Masses.)

Regarding priests. Telling priests not to offer Mass (of all things!) on Sunday (of all days!) smacks of a precept and, to the extent that such a precept interferes with the rights of priests in good standing to exercise their ministry, it needs to meet several criteria beyond the bishop’s feelings about extra busy-ness for two very holy days in the year. Priests whose see their rights being curtailed by these directives or who are concerned for the spiritual and canonical well-being of their people have ample grounds, I think, upon which to challenge these unheard-of orders.

Some final thoughts.

Requiring, under pain of grave sin, Mass attendance on holy days of obligation (other than Sundays) is a real burden on the faithful and on priests—a burden not liable to pietistic retorts such as “We should all want to go to Mass every day!” Of course we should, but we can’t. I am content to let ecclesiastical authority decide how many such additional days of precept there should be, especially because the Holy See allows episcopal conferences to mitigate those extra observances locally. But Sunday itself should not be touched. Especially not by individual bishops (or priests) who think that Sunday should suffer because a holy day happens to fall just before or after it. Even the Code anticipates mitigating holy days, not Sundays!

That said, I do think that a bishop (or better, a pastor) is a good judge of exactly how many liturgies can be prudently offered in a short time. Should a bishop or pastor decide to offer, instead of, say, three Sunday morning Masses, just two or even one on the day before a major holy Day, it would be hard to criticize the decision.

But a unilateral decision from on high to cancel all Sunday Masses in a diocese, apparently without episcopal conference action, without approval by the Apostolic See, and/or without an accompanying dispensation (deliberately granted in accord with law), with little public notice, and with no gesture of accommodation for those faithful who try to keep Sunday as the primordial holy day that it has been since the time of the Apostles? No.

That, I think, is a bad idea, and one badly implemented. + + +

Some points for priests and pastors to consider include: Unless impeded by canon law priests celebrate Mass licitly (not to mention validly). 1983 CIC 900 § 2. A priest in good standing is generally permitted to celebrate Mass. 1983 CIC 903. Priests are encouraged to celebrate Mass frequently fulfilling thereby their “principal function”. 1983 CIC 276, 904. Pastors are “to see to it that the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of the parish” and that their people “frequently approach the sacraments of the Most Holy Eucharist and penance”. 1983 CIC 528 § 2. Pastors are diligently to lead their people in expressing love and devotion to the Eucharist. 1983 CIC 898.

Some points for all the faithful to consider include: You have the fundamental right to worship God according to the prescripts of the Church. 1983 CIC 214. It not possible to imagine a more fundamental exercise of the right of worship God than participating in Sunday Mass. CCC 347 and large tracts of the second part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You are “to hold the Most Holy Eucharist in highest honor, taking an active part in the celebration of the most august sacrifice, receiving this sacrament most devoutly and frequently, and worshiping it with the highest adoration”. 1983 CIC 898. You are to bear in mind that “The Eucharistic sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated through the ages, is the summit and source of all worship and Christian life, which signifies and effects the unity of the People of God and brings about the building up of the body of Christ.” 1983 CIC 897.

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