The Sunday Obligation

I recently had the opportunity to read Nicholas Wolterstorff, The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).  I offer here some excerpts from the book followed by some comments.

“The church enacts liturgy not to satisfy the needs and desire of individual congregants but to worship God.” (p. 11)

“It is surely too weak to say that it is a good and joyful thing for the church to assemble to enact the liturgy.  Assembling to enact the liturgy is something the church ought to do; it is its bounden duty.  Should it fail to do so, it would be guilty of wrongdoing.” (p. 42)

“It’s true, indeed, that we typically say to someone that he is obligated to do so-and-so only when it appears that he is inclined not to do it.  But from this it does not follow that when he is inclined to do it, he is not obligated to do so.” (p. 43)

Exhortations to gather on the Day of the Lord go back at least as far as chapter 14 of the Didache.  Later, chapter 13 of the Didascalia Apostolorum memorably directs readers: “Be not then neglectful of yourselves, and deprive not our Saviour of His members, and do not rend and scatter His body. And make not your worldly affairs of more account than the word of God; but on the Lord’s day leave every thing and run eagerly to your Church; for she is your glory.”*  For Catholics, the obligation to participate in Mass on Sundays and days of obligation is spelled out in no. 2180 of the Catechism, quoting no. 1247 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Given these encouragements / directives, it seems to me that part of what Wolterstorff is pointing to is captured in Preface IV of weekdays, presented here in the 1975 and the 2011 translations.


Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,

we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.

You have no need of our praise,

yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift.

Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness,

but makes us grow in your grace,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In our joy we sing to your glory

with all the choirs of angels . . .



It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,

always and everywhere to give you thanks,

Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.

For, although you have no need of our praise,

yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift,

since our praises add nothing to your greatness

but profit us for our salvation,

through Christ our Lord.

And so, in company with the choirs of Angels,

we praise you, and with joy we proclaim . . .


The texts give voice to the sense that praising and thanking God is an obligation.  At the same time, God in Godself has “no need” for this praise and thanksgiving.  Rather, offering praise and thanks to God “makes us grow” in God’s grace.

I wonder if our parishes might emphasize the idea that Christians gather on Sunday in response to what God has already done / what God is doing.  Assembling on Sunday is not something Christians undertake entirely on their own initiative.  At the risk of complicating things, I wonder whether announcers at the beginning of Mass might say something like this: “Welcome to the parish of St. ____.  In response to God’s summons, we celebrate today the (number) Sunday of Ordinary Time / Lent / Easter / Advent / Christmas.  We gather in song by singing _____.  Please stand.”  My suggestion here is simply a template and I am by no means attached to this particular phrasing.

Your thoughts?



*Text at


  1. I would suggest the best opening words for the liturgy are not an *announcement*. (For the opening introit or entrance song, there need not be a verbal announcement, but merely the visual raising of the source to which congregants may refer, be it a program or hymnal – hymn “boards” are very useful to provide the numbers*). And then “In the Name of the Father….”, recited or, ideally, plainsung.

    Less may be more. I write this as someone who was a devoted practioner of the opening welcome announcement for a couple of decades. And years of observation have caused me to question both its functional utility (does it really accomplish what we think it does or ought to do? if so, what evidence is there for this?) and its prudence. I am not saying it’s an abuse; rather, I am saying perhaps the percolative effect of beginning without it can be more powerful because it’s *less* like the many meetings and gathering we all tread through in our other daily experiences.

    * But no use of a wall as a hymnal. Please. If you do, you just won’t ever see us again, though if you’re like most Catholic churches you won’t notice.

  2. “In response to God’s summons, we celebrate today the (number) Sunday of Ordinary Time / Lent / Easter / Advent / Christmas.”

    An alternative?

    “In gratitude for all God has done for us, we gather today on this (number) Sunday of Ordinary Time / etc.”

    The word “summons”, to me, is redolent of moving violations and traffic school – an unpleasant obligation and an exercise of police power. (No doubt that connotation is colored by my personal history, but it is what it is :-)).

    To be sure, the notion of gratitude carries obligations with it as well, even if it feels “softer”.

  3. In general, I don’t see how these pre-Mass introductions add anything useful. If the liturgy is done well, I hope it would be obvious that “Christians gather on Sunday in response to what God has already done / what God is doing.” If it’s not obvious, then there are larger problems that aren’t likely to be solved by an explicit introductory phrase or two.

    I’ve worked in more Protestant churches than I have Catholic churches, and I’ve only experienced this style of intro in Catholic churches. Is this a Catholic only phenomenon, or have I just only worked in Protestant churches that didn’t do it? Am curious what non-Catholic experience is in this regard.

  4. In my parish, we generally announce number, song, number. Period. Some communities expect longer narratives, and I don’t agree these are significantly more cumbersome to the listeners.

    Frequently I do have the psalmist add a word of welcome to visitors and newcomers before the entrance song. Perhaps I would script, “Visitors and newcomers, welcome. It is good that we have *all* responded to God’s nudge to worship on this day. (pause) Number 666, Sing A New Church, six-six-six.”

  5. I think we are living in an age that is experiencing the collapse of the very concept of obligation, which has been replaced by a concept of justice dominated by rights. In addition to that, the idea that in justice we owe it to God to worship him is so foreign to the contemporary mentality that it would take a long time to become familiar and clear to the average person.

    I am in favor of homiletic and catechetical treatments of this topic. I actually love the idea that it is just to worship God, that we owe it to him. But I would be skeptical of a proposal that liturgical greetings could make this idea accessible in the absence of a more sustained effort at explaining it. Like so many things in liturgy, greetings sound notes that are meant to resonate with something already known, even if only partially understood. If the thing to which they refer is as obscure as this, you can sound that note all day and it won’t resonate.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Very true Rita. And that preface cited is my favourite. It harkens back to what st. Irenaeus said:

      “Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says:

      “He that has pity upon the poor, lends unto the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17)

      For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says:

      “Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and you gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me in: naked, and you clothed Me; sick, and you visited Me; in prison, and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:34, etc.)

      As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission. The altar, then, is in heaven (for towards that place are our prayers and oblations directed); the temple likewise [is there], as John says in the Apocalypse,

      “And the temple of God was opened:” (Revelation 11:19)

      the tabernacle also:

      “For, behold, He says, the tabernacle of God, in which He will dwell with men.”

      -Adversus Haereses IV., 18., 6.

  6. Out of fear that this conversation will focus on the pre-Mass announcement, instead of the broader and clearly more important topic, I’ll only offer this one thought:

    Why that one line? There are dozens of worthy one-liners I could offer which would be equally edifying or catechetical. And, regardless, you’re probably preaching to the choir. Or at least the 90% of the choir who’s there when Mass begins.

    I’m with Rita: there are better and different options available. An announcement won’t raise the bar.

  7. “The church enacts liturgy not to satisfy the needs and desire of individual congregants but to worship God.”

    Isn’t this the same as saying “individual congregants have no reason to show up.”? Not that I think liturgy should be turned into a commercial transaction, but the portrayal of it as completely inconsequential to the individual seems wrong to me.

    The statement is true, as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t address why we would attend. How is worshipping God a gift to us? Why and how does God want to be with us? Idk

    1. @Jim McKay:
      If we acknowledge God as creator, sanctifier, and redeemer, then worship is a simple matter of justice. It is God’s due.

      If we are confronting the question, “why should I go to liturgy?”, the answer to is probably “You shouldn’t.” Because if liturgy is measured by the feeling I get when I am there, there are lots of things that can make me feel better. If liturgy is measured by the entertainment value, there are lots of things more entertaining. Even for sacred music, it is far simpler, easier, and in musical terms, better, to put on a Tallis Scholars CD. If liturgy is measured by how much I have learned about God, I can get an better homily on the internet from Augustine or Chrysostom. I can probably get better theology from Aquinas or the Catechism. If its about what I receive, then I shouldn’t go to liturgy.

      But if I am looking to give God thanks and praise in the manner the church He founded deems deemed meet and just, I must go. It is the inadequate return for all His goodness to me.

  8. Perhaps “obligation” today can carry an implication something external, of obedience as in “Do this or else!” Go to Mass on Sunday, or you’ll go to hell!
    We could perhaps distinguish different ways of understanding obligation and obedience in response to another.
    There is the obedience imposed on a slave, for fear of punishment, without input from the slave.
    There is the obedience of a mercenary, for what he or she will get out of it.
    And there is the “obedience” between those who love one another, and who would lay down their lives for one another. Here the obligation arises not from any external source or pressure, but from within, and carries us through not just when we “feel like it”, but also when for some reason we do not feel like it.
    For maturity, as for example in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, we may well start at the fear level and work through the reward level, but we want to fully internalise the values and so act on it from the depths of mind and heart and soul. The obligation arising from within is incomparably more powerful.
    When someone I love, someone who loves me, calls, how could I ever not wish to respond? Caritas Christi urget nos (2 Corinthians 5:14) – the love of Christ (both ways) is our driving force; and that is the love we want to recognise in the Body of Christ gathered. I would cross the barren deserts …
    As the Martyrs of Abitinae said in 304 AD: “Sine dominico non possumus.”

    1. @Padraig McCarthy:
      In an English translation of the Universal Prayer: “I want to do what You ask*, in the way You ask, for as long as You ask, because You ask.” In the alliterative Latin original: “Volo quidquid vis, volo quia vis, volo quomodo vis, volo quamdiu vis.”

      I think of my late parents during the course of the seventh decade of their marriage, as my mother’s cluster of ailments closed her circle of ability and she relied more and more on my father. It was not a ABC Afternoon Movie of mutual self-sacrifice (my father giving care, my mother having to accede to needing such care, when they had for the previous decades assumed their roles would be the reverse), but messy and exceedingly vexing for them. But they had trained for this marathon by learning (through very difficult lessons) a kind of mutual obedience that is so intimate it’s difficult to grasp in our culture of immediate consolation/gratification, and perhaps the preparation for this came from delaying their marriage from my father’s enlistment in 1942 to serve in WW2 until 1948 (finishing his service in 1946 and then finishing his interrupted college in 1948).

      * “Ask” being a shade of meaning of “will”.

  9. Surely we go because we want to, not because we feel obliged to. And there are many reasons for wanting to go. Many more than just my worshipping God. That can be done at home. Liturgy is about that and other things.

  10. Regarding Rita’s suggestion that the issue be addressed homiletically: I think a homily that reflected on a line in the liturgy that is probably a totally opaque for most Mass-goers—“It is right and just”—would be time well spent.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:

      That said, it may help to have some of the touch of the inimitable Frederica Mathewes-Green, like in this chestnut of hers from many years ago (in the context of explaining Orthodox worship ways without defensiveness) – the link below is, I believe from an earlier version that she later revised and made more formal in its tone (for example, the “I’m Just Wild About Mary” became “Champion Leader):

  11. No words of concern for attendance and welcoming will work if they are only words. I can tell walking into a worship space whether I am welcome there … and Rita is correct that senses of obligation are changing in our time AND also the sense that one owes anybody anything. The Church may have thought that expressing the obligation to attend Mass would equal the desire to attend Mass and I don’t think that is working.

    Finally #4 comment… I hope I feel a desire to stay when the opening song is number 666. (That’s a joke.)

    1. @Ed Nash:

      “and Rita is correct that senses of obligation are changing in our time AND also the sense that one owes anybody anything.”


      It seems to me that the two possibilities under consideration here – the heightened sense of our forebears that they are under a divine obligation, vs. the spirit of our age which, as Rita insightfully notes, seems to have translated obligations into notions of justice and rights – aren’t morally equivalent. The marvelous citations in the post and the comments illustrate that our contemporary culture has changed and not for the better.

      Our unwillingness to even acknowledge obligations is, quite literally, irresponsibility – a failure to respond. Its manifestations are everywhere, from divorced fathers who shirk child-support duties to our collective shrug in the face of climate change. To say nothing of the pending efforts in the US to toss tens of millions of fellow citizens off the health care rolls.

      Lack of response is the very bane of liturgy types like us :-). And it may just be that we’re on to something.

      If the church isn’t willing to take a counter-cultural stance in support of our obligations to our creator and our savior, then it’s sort of redundant. I don’t need a church to tell me I have no need of gratitude or responding to obligations – I have a culture that already tells me that.


    Maybe I got this from here, but it is worth repeating so others can read it, as this is one of the best things I have read about going to Church. The concluding paragraph captures what obligates us:

    “Church isn’t an escape from the world. It’s a continuation of it. My family and I don’t go to church to deny the existence of the darkness. We to go to look so hard at the light that our eyes water.” Dorothy Fortenberry

  13. May I go slightly off-topic on the matter of opening announcements? Projection screens can be a way to reduce or eliminate excessive chatter. As I have visited various churches that are focused on growth and welcoming new people, a common practice is to have a slideshow of announcements before the service begins. These slides are designed to answer questions of first-time visitors: What time are the services? How does the parking work? What children’s ministries do they offer? How can I make an offering today? Where can I register or get more information? What special events are coming up? Not just for practical details, these slides can also include more substantial messaging: God has called us here today to offer him praise and thanksgiving, let us prepare our hearts and minds to worship him…

    For those of you who are screen-phobic, I could imagine using screens just for the pre-Mass announcements, then push a button to roll them up at the start of Mass.

  14. There has to be announcements on a screen before Mass, in the church? Announcements made along with the hymn number (which BTW should already be on a hymn board or in a worship leaflet) also before Mass, by some commentator? And then announcements >interrupting the liturgy!< after Holy Communion?
    Aren't announcements put up on the parish website, weekly email blasts, or social media sites? Are there no longer printed bulletins with announcements for people to take home and read?
    Can't there be some peace, some dignity, some relief from the noise and chatter of daily life at least in church? This is supposed to make people feel welcome and help a church grow? One shouldn't wonder why some people don't come even if they feel it's their bounden duty.

  15. Two things. Firstly, concerning the Sunday obligation: it was Emeritus, one of the martyrs of Abitina, who said Sine Dominica non possumus — without Sunday we cannot [exist].

    Secondly, Gabe Huck, in typically trenchant mood in the columns of Pastoral Music, June-July 1998, had this to say about obligation in general:

    The whole effort of the renewal of our liturgy can be put into one little sentence: You have to be there. You have to be there. We need you, and we need you to be with us, your body and all the other parts of you. We need you full and active and conscious. We need you processing, listening, singing, chanting, being silent, standing praising, thanking, interceding, eating and drinking. We need you acclaiming the presider’s proclamation of our prayer with your heart lifted up and your whole soul rehearsing again the dying and rising of the Lord, which this church strives to enact in this whole world that we love.

    He was talking about the moral obligation to the community, in the context of a fulmination against televised Masses, closed-circuit TV monitors in church, and much else. Here’s another little extract:

    We don’t really promise anyone what Archbishop Foley seems to think televised Masses promise: “spiritual enrichment, consolation, edification.” We only offer exhaustion in doing a hard thing well with a bunch of self-confessed sinners. This is a deed that has no meaning on a television screen or a computer monitor.

    Yes, you have to be there.

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