Which Mass Fulfills My Sunday Obligation? Part II

Q1: Could you please explain if according to the Canon Law, a Latin Catholic living in a region where there is a Mass in his rite let’s say once a month only, is obliged to attend the Mass every Sunday in another Catholic rite, if there is such possibility every Sunday?  —Michal

Q2:  I have a question regarding your article on the Sunday obligation.  My Ruthenian Catholic pastor in the U.S. tells people that one does not have an obligation to attend any Liturgy in any rite in any location that doesn’t have a church of one’s rite (not positive he meant rite or church sui iuris).
I confronted him about this, and he stated that Eastern Canon Law does not state that you have an obligation to attend Liturgy if there are no Liturgies of your Rite there.  He said: “You find me an Eastern canon lawyer” to tell him he’s wrong. –Daniel

A:  There’s an amazing amount of confusion—some apparently genuine, some not—being generated here on an issue which is actually very straightforward, and which has been perfectly clear to Catholics around the globe for nearly 2000 years.  Let’s take a look.

From time immemorial, the Catholic Church has interpreted the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath Day” (Exodus 20:8-10), to mean that Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on that day—and since Our Lord rose from the dead on a Sunday, even from Apostolic times “the Sabbath Day” was observed by Christians on Sundays.

Sure, there are legitimate circumstances which justify a Catholic missing Sunday Mass—like illness, for example—which were addressed in “How Do You Get a Permanent Dispensation From Sunday Mass?”  When we are genuinely unable to get to Mass, the law understandably excuses us from doing the impossible!

But both our questioners are adding a twist to this normally black-and-white issue: If you’re a Catholic who is truly unable to attend Mass at your own Church sui iuris, are you obliged to attend one at a different Catholic Church sui iuris?

Before answering this question, what does this lingo even mean?  Well, we saw in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I” that not all Catholics are Roman Catholics.  The Catholic Church is comprised of over 20 different Catholic Churches sui iuris, of which the Latin Church is by far the largest.  (Sui iuris, by the way, is an untranslatable Latin phrase indicating an entity unto itself, with some degree of autonomy.)  Most, but not all, of the non-Latin Catholic Churches were formed in relatively recent centuries, when various groupings of Orthodox faithful—who had been in schism with the Catholic Church—returned to full communion with Rome (cf. c. 205, and see “What is the ‘Old Catholic Church?’” for more on the issue of full communion).  They now acknowledge the Pope in Rome as the supreme earthly head of the Church.  The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Romanian Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church are a few examples of these Churches sui iuris.

While members of these Churches sui iuris are fully Catholic, they have retained their own ceremonies and rituals.  On the surface these appear radically different from those of the Latin Church, with which we are most familiar; but theologically speaking, the clergy of the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris are celebrating the same Mass and the same sacraments as Latin Catholics.

Note, by the way, that there’s a big difference between a “rite” and a “Catholic Church sui iuris,” and yet people confuse the two all the time.  Several different Churches sui iuris use the Byzantine rite for their liturgical celebrations, for example—and some Orthodox Churches, which are not in communion with Rome (see “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” for more on this), use it too!  At the same time, the Latin Church sui iuris uses a number of different liturgical rites: most Catholics are familiar with the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine rites, but the Ambrosian rite (which originated in northern Italy) and the Dominican rite (used sometimes within the order) are celebrated within the Latin Church too.  The bottom line is, these two terms are definitely not synonymous.

Now if you’re a member of (let’s say) the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and you’re in the middle of (let’s say) rural France—where there may be one or two Latin Catholic parishes, but no Melkite Catholic parish can be found for hundreds of miles—what are you actually obliged to do on Sunday?  Are you required to attend a Latin Catholic Mass?  Or can you consider yourself excused from your obligation, because there’s no Melkite Catholic church within reasonable travelling distance?  How does this work?

Take a careful look at the wording of canon 1246.1:

Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation (emphasis added).

Whenever any official ecclesiastical document references “the universal Church,” it’s talking about all the Catholic Churches sui iuris—and that’s true whether that particular official ecclesiastical document was addressed to your own Church sui iuris or not.  Yes, the Code of Canon Law which we routinely examine here in this space governs only Latin Catholics (c. 1), but the Supreme Legislator who promulgated this law (Pope St. John Paul II) was making a broader statement in this phrase of canon 1246.1 about the entire Catholic Church—and it’s not a particularly controversial statement either, since it’s simply reiterating divine law, as discussed above.

Let’s keep going.  If, as Michal describes, a Latin Catholic finds himself in a region where there is no Latin Catholic Mass available on Sunday, but there is a Mass (usually called a Divine Liturgy) of another Catholic Church sui iuris, is the Latin Catholic obliged to attend it?

The answer is indirectly, though clearly, provided by canon 1248, which tells us the following:

Canon 1248.1. A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.
.2. If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause,  it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families. (Emphases added)

So, logically we can look at it like this.

1. As we see above, a Catholic must satisfy the Sunday obligation unless there is no priest, or some other grave cause prevents it. (See “When Can a Bishop Lawfully Transfer a Pastor to Another Parish?” for a discussion of what a “grave cause” is—and what it isn’t.)

2. If a Latin Catholic has access to a Sunday liturgy (= Mass) celebrated in an eastern Catholic church, by a Catholic priest (in full communion with the Pope), then that satisfies his Sunday obligation.

3. If a Latin Catholic must choose between (a) going to an eastern Catholic Sunday liturgy, and (b) not going to Sunday Mass at all … he is required to attend the eastern Catholic liturgy in order to satisfy his obligation.

4. Declaring that “I don’t want to go to an eastern Catholic liturgy, I’m a Latin Catholic and I don’t like that liturgy or I don’t understand it,” in no way constitutes a “grave cause” preventing him from fulfilling his Sunday obligation.

5. Thus, if a Latin Catholic claims, “I didn’t fulfill my Sunday obligation because there was no Latin Catholic Mass within travelling distance, and that is okay” … he is mistaken.  It’s not.

6. Here’s an important caveat: the above does not apply if the only available liturgy is at an Orthodox church, or is celebrated by other clergy not in full communion with Rome. As was discussed at length in “Can a Catholic Ever Attend an Orthodox Liturgy Instead of Sunday Mass?” the Orthodox Church is in a state of schism with Rome.  It has a valid Mass; but it is not a Catholic Mass—and therefore attending would not satisfy a Catholic’s Sunday obligation.

Now Michal has the answer to his question.  If a Latin Catholic only has access to a non-Latin Catholic Mass/divine liturgy on Sunday, he is bound to attend it, in order to satisfy his Sunday obligation.

Daniel’s question, as should be clear, is the mirror-image of Michal’s: if a Catholic who is a member of (for example) the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is in a region of the world where he can only find (for example) a Latin Catholic Mass, is he required to attend it, to fulfill his Sunday obligation?  By now the answer should be pretty obvious; but for the benefit of Daniel’s eastern Catholic parish priest, let’s look at what the law says specifically on this subject too.

As noted above, the Code of Canon Law only governs Latin Catholics, but that doesn’t mean Eastern Catholics have no canon law that they have to follow!  In 1990, for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, then-Pope John Paul II promulgated a complete code specifically for the non-Latin Catholic Churches sui iuris.  It is known in English as the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (abbreviated CCEO).

The history behind this code is complicated, but suffice to say that it had been many decades in the making, since the hierarchies of many eastern Churches sui iuris had been petitioning Rome for their own legal code (or at least for some other type of canonical guidance) for generations!  Gradually, over the 20th century, various documents and groupings of canons were issued by Popes like Pius XII and Paul VI, among others—some of which were addressed to all eastern Catholic Churches, others to individual Churches sui iuris—but until 1990, eastern canon law was a spotty, haphazard and frustratingly incomplete affair.

In the meantime, many members of the hierarchies of these eastern Catholic Churches had even decided unilaterally to apply the Latin Code of Canon Law in their Churches.  The Vatican was definitely not keen on this idea, and told them so.  That’s because when it comes to legal matters such as (but not limited to) sacramental validity and hierarchical jurisdiction, the Latin code couldn’t always be applied easily—since terminology, liturgical praxis, and traditional hierarchical structures (etc.) of eastern Catholic Churches aren’t identical to those in the Latin Church.  Yes, we are all Catholics, so all fundamental theological concepts are substantively the same (and many canons are identical in both codes, like those governing cardinals, or those addressing the ownership/sale of church property).  Still, because the historical development of the eastern Churches over the centuries was not parallel to that of the Latin Church, the way many aspects of the Catholic Church are described and/or applied can be noticeably different.

Canon 881.1 of the CCEO uses different phraseology, but is equivalent to the Latin code’s canon 1248, discussed above:

On Sundays and holydays of obligation, the Christian faithful are bound to participate in the Divine Liturgy, or according to the prescriptions or the legitimate custom of their own Church sui iuris, in the celebration of the divine praises. (My translation)

There certainly are no surprises here!  The only issue that might cause confusion for non-eastern Catholics is the last part, which notes that in some Catholic Churches sui iuris, one’s Sunday obligation might also be fulfilled by attending some other kind of liturgical celebration.  But the obligation to attend Mass/Divine Liturgy on Sunday is unambiguous.  It can be seen that this canon says absolutely nothing about attending one’s own Church sui iuris—because no such specification exists.  (Note that the reference to “their own Church sui iuris” pertains only to the latter part of the canon, following the word “or.”)

If anybody suggests that this eastern canon is somehow unclear, he is likewise suggesting that the Church’s age-old requirement that Catholics attend Mass on Sundays somehow doesn’t apply to eastern Catholics!  But if this were the case, why is this special, historically unprecedented exemption not stated clearly anywhere, in the CCEO or in any other official ecclesiastical document?  The sheer absurdity of this idea should be evident.

Yet if there’s still anyone out there who is not convinced by what the canons say, take a look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us about “the Sunday obligation” (2180-2183).  As can clearly be seen, much of this section of the Catechism is taken directly from canon law—thus reiterating what has already been discussed here.

But is the Catechism meant only for Latin Catholics?  In his Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, issued at the time of its publication in 1992, John Paul II declared that the new Catechism responded “to a real need both of the universal Church and of the particular Churches.”  With this terminology, he was indicating that the Catechism applies to Catholics worldwide, of every Church sui iuris.

If you reread Daniel’s question, it should be apparent at this point that what his “Ruthenian Catholic pastor” is telling parishioners is not only false, it’s quite shocking!  Sadly, as we’ve seen before in this space, there are far too many Catholic clergy out there who seem to think that church law is whatever they say it is.  Along similar lines, there are an astonishing number of eastern Catholic priests worldwide who nourish a clearly visceral resentment of, and hostility toward, other Catholic Churches sui iuris—the majority Latin Church most of all.  Since Daniel lives in a country where the Latin Church is the largest Catholic Church sui iuris by far, this might perhaps explain his pastor’s baseless, erroneous and irrational assertions.

Fortunately, ordinary Catholics know better.  Worldwide, millions of Catholics who immigrate, or otherwise live in a region where their own Church sui iuris is nowhere to be found, have been practicing their faith for centuries by regularly attending a parish of a different Catholic Church sui iuris.  They bring their children to be baptized and catechized there (see “Eastern Catholic Children Receiving Latin Catholic Sacraments” for more on this), and ensure that their families remain Catholic, even though they may not see a parish of their own Church sui iuris for years, if ever.

As was mentioned in “When Christmas Falls on a Monday: Holydays of Obligation, Part III,” attending Mass is a great privilege, not some onerous obligation.  With good reason the Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11; see also CCC 1324), because there truly is no higher, greater way to worship God than to offer Him His own Son, Who died for us on the cross and Whose Sacrifice is re-presented at every Mass.  As the Catechism rightly declares, Holy Mass is “the liturgy in which the mystery of salvation is accomplished” (CCC 1332), and thus we Catholics should, if anything, be striving to do everything humanly possible to be present at Mass as often as we can.

We Catholics are not to cut corners when it comes to fulfilling our Sunday obligation; but why would we even want to?


Why is Google hiding the posts on this website in its search results?  Click here for more information.

This entry was posted in Holy Mass, Parish Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.