At a time of declining church attendance in many places, one might want a clearer statement that attending Sunday worship is obligatory “under pain of mortal sin.” But some might counter that that language is not comprehensible to many people today, particularly young people, and that it ends up hindering the work of the “new evangelization.” According to this line of thinking, it is simply not credible to claim that God would send someone to hell for all eternity for missing one Sunday worship service. But there are nagging concerns about stating clearly the demands of the Gospel and the necessity to be obedient to God in all things.
Four of Pray Tell’s regular contributors – two Roman Catholics, one Anglican, one Eastern Orthodox – respond to the question,
Is it a mortal sin to miss Sunday Liturgy (Mass?) Are you required to go every Sunday?
Here are their responses. How would you respond?
Fritz Bauerschmidt, Roman Catholic deacon:
I am one of those people who think that the distinction between mortal and venial sins is still a useful one, even if those precise terms are not used. However, I also think that the chief pastoral utility of the distinction is in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as a technical diagnostic tool for confessors, and not as a way of hectoring people into Church on Sundays, or really of getting them to do much of anything. In general, people are better motivated by a good that they desire to attain rather than a rule they fear to break. If we want people to join in the celebration of the liturgy on the Lord’s Day, we need to convince them that the worship of God in the Eucharist is a good so great and so essential to the Christian life that it is worth the effort and worthy of being their top priority.
At the same time, we should not be shy about speaking to adults about the importance of keeping the obligations that they have taken on; of reminding them that at their Baptism or Confirmation they committed themselves to worshipping God. But, again, this should be put in a positive way, in terms of how to maintain the surpassing good of being in relationship with God. I would probably suggest that if they had a standing weekly date with their spouse or a friend and they broke that date, not because of another pressing engagement or obligation, but simply because they “weren’t feeling it” that week, this could be taken as an indication that they did not consider the relationship worth cultivating and maintaining, that they took the other person somewhat for granted, that on the whole they did not think the weekly date was very important. The weekly time spent with the one we love—and what else is the Sunday liturgy—is not imposed on us as an arbitrary law but as part of what it means to be in a relationship.
(Moderator’s note: Bauerschmidt takes up this issue in greater detail here.)
Katie Harmon, Roman Catholic:
Is it a mortal sin to miss Sunday Mass? The keyword here is “miss”—because there is a difference between “missing Mass” due to illness, family emergency, or even travelling…and “choosing” not to attend Mass. God is abundant and full of grace—and that grace is offered to us freely in the Eucharist. Christians are called to return to that font of grace each Sunday, to re-affirm that yes to God which first was made in Christian baptism. Circumstances arise which prevent us from attending Mass—particularly those circumstances which demand that we make a choice to be attentive to others and not ourselves (e.g., we are sick with the flue and choose to stay home so as not to spread germs; or our parent has a health emergency which requires someone to remain and be present). In this case, we are saying “yes” to the Eucharist, even though not physically present at Mass, because the Eucharist calls us to love, and to extend God’s invitation of grace to others—sometimes saying yes to God’s call might involve saying no to our usual duties.
Choosing not to go to Mass because of laziness…or low priorities…or lack of care…is a choice not to love, a choice to say no to that invitation of grace, and a choice to reject God. And, repeatedly choosing to reject God, in the Christian life, leads to death—or mortal sin.
Nick Denysenko, Eastern Orthodox deacon:
No, it’s not a mortal sin, because Christ as the host and head of the Sunday Liturgy invites us to partake over and over again, regardless of how far or hard we have fallen. We should partake of Sunday Liturgy as often as possible because no one should take for granted the privilege of worshiping and thanking God for the gift of Christ.
Lizette Larson, Anglican priest:
From the expression of the church catholic known as Anglicanism some might wonder about the relevance of these questions, but in an age of declining church affiliation and attendance, they are questions asked by newcomers. A distinction needs to be made, however, between the first question regarding the categorization of sin, and the second question about participation in the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist.
In the catechism of the US Episcopal Church (“a point of departure for the teacher”) sin is “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” (BCP 848) This does not mean there is no recognition of serious sin though, exemplified in the disciplinary rubric for excommunication in which “a person who is living a notoriously evil life” will be told [they] cannot “come to the Holy Table until [they] have given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life.” (BCP 409)
In devotional publications “regular attendance at its chief act of worship, the Holy Eucharist” is listed under “Holy Days of Obligation”, beginning with “Sundays throughout the year” (here exemplified in the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, 2005), but finding such clarity in official texts is not possible. One must infer from the arrangement of the calendar (which prioritizes Principal Feasts, all Sundays, and other Holy Days); from the baptismal covenant: “will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? I will, with God’s help” (BCP 304); and in the exhortation (which also functions as a praenotanda) to the traditional language liturgy, which states that through Christ “let us offer continually the sacrifice of praise, which is our bounden duty and service…” Is Sunday liturgy attendance a requirement – maybe -is participation in the Holy Eucharist our duty and delight for which we pray that “the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ” – absolutely.