Which Mass Fulfills My Sunday Obligation?

Q:  I am a member of the Maronite [Catholic] Church.  I was recently invited to a Latin-rite Mass on a Sunday for the celebration of a number of women religious 50+ years of consecrated life.  The Mass took place at 3 PM, and the readings were not the day’s readings but rather readings associated to what we were celebrating.

Are Catholics (Maronite, Latin or otherwise) required to attend Mass to hear the Sunday readings, or is attendance at any Mass on Sunday sufficient?  –Kathleen

A:  It would be hard to find a Catholic anywhere on earth who didn’t know that attendance at Sunday Mass is obligatory.  But Kathleen raises a good question: which Mass are we required to attend on Sundays, and are there any Masses celebrated on Sunday which don’t count?  Let’s take a look at what the law says.

Canon 1246.1 tells us what we already know: Sunday is a holyday of obligation.  This has been the case from the earliest days of the Church, when the first Christian clergy established that the faithful were to gather for worship on Sunday rather than Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), since Our Lord rose from the dead on a Sunday.

The following canon should be no surprise either.  On Sundays and other holydays of obligation (see “Holydays of Obligation, Part I” and “Part II” for more on this), Catholics are obliged to attend Mass, and to abstain from work that would inhibit observance of the day as a day of the Lord (c. 1247).  As children, we Catholics learn that by their very nature, some kinds of work simply cannot be avoided on Sundays—cooking dinner, nursing the sick, putting out fires, milking cows, etc. etc.—while other kinds can.  And we also learn early on that attending Mass on the vigil of the holyday fulfills our obligation.  Back in 1953, Pope Pius XII helpfully defined “vigil” for us as “not before 4 PM” (Latin text here, on p. 23), which is why we can fulfill our Sunday obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening at 4:00 or later.

So far, so good.  But what happens if you attend a Mass on Sunday (or Saturday evening) that isn’t actually a Sunday Mass?  What if you attend a funeral, or a Mass for “the celebration of a number of women religious 50+ years of consecrated life,” as Kathleen did?  Liturgically, the readings and proper prayers for Masses like these are not going to be those of the regular Sunday Mass.  So will such a Mass “count” as fulfilling one’s Sunday obligation?

Canon 1248.1 provides an explanation.  It notes that a Catholic’s obligation to attend Mass on Sunday (or on other holyday of obligation) is satisfied by attending Mass “wherever it is celebrated in a Catholic rite” on either the holyday itself, or the preceding evening.  At first glance, this may seem to be a strange choice of words.  Why does the canon refer to Mass “celebrated in a Catholic rite”?

The answer to this question happens to touch on the way in which Kathleen identifies herself.  She is a Maronite Catholic, which means she is a member of one of those eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris that were discussed in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I.”  Briefly put, the vast majority of Catholics around the world are Latin Catholic— but there are other smaller groupings of faithful who are fully Catholic, yet whose liturgical and other cultural traditions can be startling to those Catholics who have never experienced them before.  Most, although not all, of the other Catholic Churches sui iuris consist of groups of former Orthodox Christians who rejoined the Catholic Church in recent centuries, accepting the Pope as their spiritual head here on earth.

Ordinarily, as Kathleen herself obliquely indicates in her questions, Maronite Catholics are expected to attend Sunday liturgy at their own Maronite parish, while Latin Catholics attend Mass at a Latin parish church, etc.  But Catholics of one Church sui iuris frequently live in regions of the world where they’re surrounded only by Catholics of a different Church sui iuris, so it isn’t always that simple!  Fortunately, since we’re all truly Catholics, it’s entirely possible to attend Mass celebrated in a different Catholic Church sui iuris, and we can receive sacraments like Penance and Holy Communion there too.  Note for the record that even if we routinely do this at a different Catholic Church sui iuris, that fact in itself does not make us members of that Church, as per canon 112.2.  This is something which is often misunderstood by Catholics (see “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? (Eastern Churches, Part I),” and “Adopting Children of Another Faith (Eastern Churches, Part II)” for a more in-depth discussion of this issue).

This is a big part of what canon 1248.1 is talking about, when it states that we satisfy our Sunday obligation by attending Mass “wherever it is celebrated in a Catholic rite.”  The canon makes it unequivocally clear that (as was discussed in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?”) attending Sunday liturgy at an Orthodox church, much less a Sunday service at the church of a non-Catholic Christian denomination, does not count!  But if you happen to be a Latin Catholic, and the only Catholic church in the region where you live is Ukrainian Catholic, or there’s a Ukrainian Catholic parish which has a Sunday liturgy scheduled at a convenient time for you … there’s no reason why you can’t attend Mass/liturgy at that Catholic parish on Sunday.  As Kathleen mentions, it could very well be that the Scripture readings will be totally different from the ones you would hear at your own Catholic Church sui iuris, but that’s not a problem—attendance still fulfills your Sunday obligation.  Thus Kathleen has the answer to the second part of her question.

The first part of her question is likewise answered by the same phrase of canon 1248.1.  If we can fulfill our Sunday obligation by attending a Mass that is “celebrated in a Catholic rite,” that also indicates that we can attend a Mass that is being celebrated on Saturday evening or Sunday which isn’t actually a Sunday Mass.  So, for example, if a funeral Mass is celebrated on a Sunday—which is entirely possible, by the way, although for pragmatic reasons it is normally scheduled on another day of the week—attendance at that Mass would satisfy a Catholic’s Sunday Mass obligation.  Once again, it is true that the Scripture readings at a funeral Mass are different from the ones we would hear at the regular Sunday Mass, but note that canon 1248.1 doesn’t say that we have to hear the Sunday readings at the Mass we attend.

In some parts of the world, there are Catholics who have figured this law out for themselves, and are unfortunately using it as an excuse to give God the least possible worship they can get away with.  It has become common in these places for weddings to be scheduled for Saturday evening, after 4 PM, so that the subsequent celebration can continue all night and revellers don’t have to attend Mass again on Sunday.  Strictly speaking, of course, this is entirely within the law; but it’s always sad when Catholics use canon law as an excuse to do the bare minimum for God.  The ability to freely attend Mass is a great honor (as far too many Catholics around the world learned the hard way, when they were recently deprived of it “because of the virus,” as discussed in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?”).  Thus specifically arranging to celebrate a sacrament like marriage in such a way that we “don’t have to” attend Sunday Mass the next day doesn’t say much for a Catholic’s appreciation of this tremendous gift, given to us by Our Lord Himself.

So now Kathleen has the answer to her questions.  If she attended “a Latin-rite Mass on a Sunday for the celebration of a number of women religious 50+ years of consecrated life,” she fulfilled her Sunday Mass obligation, as did everyone else who was present.  We don’t actually need to attend the regular Sunday Mass, with the regular Sunday Scripture readings; we simply have to attend a Catholic Mass.

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