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Is Sunday Mass still an obligation? – Part II of II

January 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Church Teaching, Eucharist/Mass, Fr. Bartunek, Sacraments

Dear Father John, The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that it is a grave sin to miss our Sunday Obligation unless excused for a serious reason (CCC 2181). Our parish priests and our RCIA team have always taught the same. However, recently I heard someone from the diocese say that it is never a mortal sin to miss Sunday's Mass; that the Bishops of the United States have relaxed the old rule and if you miss Sunday's Mass you can simply choose another daily Mass for your “Sabbath”. Could you clarify the Sunday Obligation, please?

In my first post we laid the foundation of Church teaching on this topic. In this post, we will explore a bit more of the wisdom behind our Sunday privilege and obligation.

Part II: God’s Time Management Tricks, or, Reasons behind the Third Commandment: Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy

At some point, we have all complained about time. Usually we complain that we don’t have enough of it. Our lives are so fast-paced (so goes the complaint, either to others or to ourselves) that they’re almost out of control. We find ourselves frantically racing against the clock as often as not, and suffer the perennial torture of interior tension, stress, and pressure. Some also catch other time-related diseases: procrastination, boredom, addiction to certain sensual pleasures or wasteful pastimes (e.g. Web surfing), and the like. We all know that time is precious, but few of us are satisfied with how we manage it.

God invented time, so no one knows its ins and outs better than he does. In the Third Commandment, he presents us with the divine secret for successful time management, and he presents it not as a recommendation, but as a command – he knows we need it. Before we look at how to fulfill this Commandment, however, ask yourself a question: Am I willing to trust God on this one? No matter how odd this Commandment may seem, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how counter-cultural or even distasteful, are you willing to take the risk of following it? If not, you may as well skip the rest of this post. Otherwise, read on.

The Original Sabbath: What Spiders Don’t Know

“Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day” summarizes the divine directive for mastering your time. That implies: 1) that there is a Day that belongs to the Lord, and; 2) that what we do on that day should somehow be different than what we do on other days.

Originally, the “Lord’s Day” (the Sabbath, the Jewish Saturday) corresponded to the seventh day of the week, and it makes its appearance at the very beginning of history. Genesis chapter 2 tells us: “Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day… So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.” God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. Man was created in the image of God, so he should follow the same pattern. A simple explanation of the “Lord’s Day,” but also profound: weaved right into the fabric of human nature, right into the tapestry of the space-time continuum, is the rhythm of work and leisure. Leisure, rest from our labors, is a requirement of human nature. Leisure involves the cultivation of relationships, of family unity (this is especially emphasized by the Church), refreshing and playful activity, relaxation, enjoyment of beauty (natural and artistic) and friendship – such activities liken us to God, who “rested” on the seventh day, and distinguish us from the rest of creation, which keeps on “working” 24/7 (spiders don’t take Sunday’s off to go on a family picnic). The Lord’s Day “is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2172).

But the Israelites had another reason to set aside a day for the Lord. “You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with mighty hand and outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath holy” (Deuteronomy 5:15). We owe our existence to God, and taking a day off from “making a living” is an appropriate way to acknowledge that. But we also owe him our salvation. If Christ had not come, we would still be stuck in our sins; we would have no hope for heaven, for reaching the fullness of our human vocation (i.e. to live in communion with God). He restored what our sin had destroyed, and he keeps restoring it, keeps administering his forgiveness. On the Lord’s Day, therefore, we not only enjoy the rejuvenating power of leisure, but we also come together as God’s people to give him thanks, rendering him, as is only right and fair, “outward, visible, public, and regular worship” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2176).

Sunday’s “Work”

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead he gave us yet another reason to “keep holy the Lord’s Day.” Since it was the first day of the week (the day after the Jewish Sabbath), it called to mind the day of Creation (the first day of history); since it marked his conquest of sin and death, it recalled the Exodus from Egypt; and since it was also the “eighth day” (the day after the seventh day, the last day of creation), it marked the beginning of his New Creation, which will culminate in the eternal Sabbath rest of the new heavens and the new earth at the end of time. Thus the Lord’s Day migrated from Saturday to Sunday.

If we are seeking first God’s Kingdom and banking on him to lead us to the happiness we long for, we will show it by celebrating the Lord’s Day in a way that will please him. We will follow the Church’s precepts by our heartfelt attendance at the Celebration of the Eucharist with our local Catholic community (not squeezing it in on Saturday afternoon so that we can sleep till two on Sunday) and by refraining from our normal work duties, even if it means planning ahead and getting those nasty chores done on Friday and Saturday. We will link our leisure activities to our most important relationships – those of the family – and to our active love for God and neighbor, not mindlessly giving into the secular rhythm of leisure on Friday and Saturday nights (and recovery in front of the TV on Sunday). We will show that we are God’s children by living his day in a spirit of gratitude, charity, joy, and hope for the dawn of our eternal day of rest.

How exactly we live it out will depend on our own creativity and initiative. The fact that we need to do it (for the health of our relationship with God and the health of our own souls) and that God commands us to do it is incontrovertible. Unavoidable circumstances often hinder us from living out the Lord’s Day as we would like to (the Church understands that, as does God). But just as often we don’t even make an effort. If we don’t, we have no right to complain about stress and anxiety (God will just say, “I told you so!”).  God invented time, and we would be wise to follow his weekly rhythm if we want to make good use of the little bit of it that comprises our lifetime.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Guest

    Wonderful Post, Father John . There is no way we can cheat God by trying to find excuses or rationalizing on why we cannot obey this very Important Law from our Creator.

  • Noemz_madalang

    That’s true Father…God knows each of us and there is no way to hide whatever we do on that Holy day.Thank you Father.

  • Michael Damian Jeter

    You seem to imply that a Saturday afternoon vigil mass does not keep the Sabbath. Am I misunderstanding you? I have regularly and almost exclusively attended Saturday masses in New York, New Jersey, and now, back home in Louisiana, for almost 20 years. No priest has ever said a word about it.

    • Nope – not implying that at all.

      • Guest

        But are you saying that if we do attend Saturday vigil Mass for the purpose of being able to sleep in on Sunday (til 9, not 2!) and to have a complete “stay home day” one day a week, that we are not celebrating Sunday in a way pleasing to God? To me a day of rest means just that. Extra sleep and not having to get in the car and drive somewhere.

  • LizEst

    Thank you for this post, Father John.
    Now, suppose you are the sole/main support of a severely disabled child/adult desperately in need of some relief but unable to get some. How do the “nasty chores” get done ahead of time when sometimes the greatest relief is to be able to pace oneself in the tasks that need to get done rather than increasing the workload until a person is at the point of exhaustion or illness..thereby putting the dependent person at risk?

    • Lflynn

      I would say that most Mom’s have things to do on Sunday even without child who has a disablility. I believe that Mom’s need to focus and thus help family focus, on Sunday, as the Lord’s day with less of those nasty chores. What chores could be set aside until sundown so that Mom could and her family could connect with God and the gratitude of God’s gifts, with one another. Remember Jesus and his disciples picked and ate wheat on the Sabbath so not to starve, they didn’t stay there and gather for the rest of the week to get a leg up on their chores. The Sabbath/Sunday is that special time to be with God and as father has said to trust Him. May God bless the Moms and their work.

    • Lflynn

      Ask for help. He sent them in twos.

  • suzi

    Wonderful post Father, Thank you! The Commandments are very simple and clear to understand. Sometimes we look at a particular situation and because we want something so bad we try to make it “fit” into a Commandment. The bottom line is…The Commandments are set in stone and we all know in the depths of our hearts what is right and wrong. We know that making Sunday solely for The Lord doesn’t mean leisurely shopping or lazing around but we try to fit The Commandment into “The world’s” view of Sunday. We need to have both feet on the path to heaven not one foot on the heavenly path and one foot on the worldly path. This is hard to do in the society that we live in, we pray for God’s special graces. God Bless You All, I wish you All Heaven.

  • DT

    you didn’t really answer the question–you gave a great teaching on the Lord’s day which I can appreciate. Are we out of a state of sanctifying grace or not if we do not keep the Sabbath? Grave matter=mortal sin, right? If we die without confession and reconciliation, does not that mean hell according to Catholic teaching?

    • Read the fist post which Fr. John referred to in the first sentence of his answer on this post…

    • Jesusbpraised

      I used to tell myself, forty years ago, that God doesn’t send anyone go hell for missing Mass on Sunday, but for the REASON one misses Mass e.g. Laziness, hangover, and the like. I was making excuses for myself. But there actually is a certain amount of truth hidden there. God is a just and merciful Judge and therefore judges according to the truth in our hearts not by what appears to be there by human standards. I am so glad He sees things not as I see them!

      • Mary Christ

        Yes He does. God will send anyone to Hell who does not follow His commands, regardless of the reason for the sin. If there is an unforeseen event that prevents us from church or from spending the Sunday reflecting on the past week and God’s creation, we can still hold within our hearts that this is God’s Holy day.

        • Dear Friend – I would reword this a bit. It is important to note that we are free to choose our ultimate end. If we choose God, he will give himself to us. If we choose hell he will simply ratify that decision with, “Thy will be done.”

    • Mary Christ

      No, it means Hell based on Biblical principle. God only gave us a to-do or not to-do list of ten principles to follow. Do Christians follow these principles out of fear or out of love? or both? If we die without a verbal confession will we go to Hell. No-all we have to be is confessed to Jesus out of our hearts-to the point where we have a change in heart. Without reconciliation-yes we will go to Hell.

  • CMT

    Wonderful post, Father!! If my family of six goes out to brunch after mass on Sunday, are we celebrating the family aspect of the day, or are we forcing the cooks, servers, etc to work on the Lord’s Day? Any thoughts…

    • Dear Friend – this is a judgment call. It would probably be better if the country shut down for a day – not gonna happen.

      • Mary Christ

        How Jesus would love that. All non-emergency, all non-life supporting businesses would shut down AND ALL FOR JESUS’S FATHER’S 3RD COMMANDMENT. What a blessed country or city or state that would be!!!!

    • LizEst

      …and, if you don’t go out and cook at home instead, aren’t you (or some family member or whoever) doing the work of cooking instead?

      Like Dan said, I think this is a judgment call. How about giving the servers an extra tip on that day?

    • Mary Christ

      Mary Christ
      Of course not. All behaviors that are necessary are not sinful on Sunday. Even Jesus healed on the Sabbath. It is necessary to have restaurants open on Sunday as many do have to travel a distance to a church. As God looked back on His creation on the 7th day, so we should also look back to review our accomplishments and failures over the last week.

  • Jesusbpraised

    I believe that if we really understood our need for God and His Word, we would have no problem getting ourselves to Mass on Sunday, or any day, for that matter, to be truly find the spiritual Food we need to live lives in union with Him.

  • Camille

    Interesting topic for those of us who “work” at the Church on Sunday! Our pastor has been very strong with the few of us who are behind (and sometimes on the Altar) for more than a single Mass at our parish to make sure we keep three things in a another day to call our Sabbath 1) Time away from menial work that could have been done another day, 2) Time with God and 3) Time with Family. After reading both posts, I can now quote where he got them from 🙂
    However, you never outright said that it would be acceptable to call those alternate days as Sabbath but referred it to an arrangement with the pastor and in post I I found that disconcerting. After reading your second post I see why and will consider the implications of Sunday as Sabbath. Though our parish can’t yet rotate enough of us behind the scenes, it is certainly worth looking into more.

    • Dear Friend – the key – find a day of rest and dedicate it to the Lord. The best day is Sunday but like you, this is not always possible for me. Regardless, we need to be at mass either Sunday or Saturday night! Thank you for all you do!

    • LizEst

      Commentary on the Code of Canon Law says for Canon 1427, which prescribes the Sunday obligation, “Those whose livelihood requires them to work on holy days and/or Sundays are morally excused from the observance of the rest, but not necessarily from participation in the Mass. Those who have a just reason for missing Mass on Sundays or holy days on a regular basis should seek a dispensation, or preferably a commutation, in accord with canon 1245. Those who find it impossible, or impossible without serious inconvenience, to attend Mass in individual instances are morally excused from the observance of the obligation and need not seek a dispensation.”
      Going to the commentary on Canon 1245, it gives the example that “the pastor could commute the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday to another day each week.” This would be on a case by case basis and in accordance with the “norms, guidelines, instructions, policies, etc” of the bishop that would establish general cases constituting a just reason for dispensing (cf c.1245 commentary).

  • Littlelamb4him

    Thank you so much for your clarification. How quickly we are influenced by the culture and begin to “reason” a better way.
    Mary Jane

  • Mike


    I hope you don’t mind – I had to share this with a friend.


  • I have three questions: How sick is too sick to go to Mass? I am home
    with a flu (I think) right now because I don’t want to spread it. Yet I
    have heard that people as sick as I am got o Mass. Is it the right thing
    to do, to stay home to protect others?
    What about creative work on
    Sunday? Artists and writers are always working, in a way; there is no
    way to stop the creative process. Is it OK to do creative work on Sunday
    since it never really stops anyway, or should an artist try to push
    thoughts of work and creative ideas out of her head, or is it OK to do
    the mental creating but not the physical typing/painting/recording, or
    is it OK to do the work but not the marketing? And finally what about
    intellectual work — research, detective work, teaching and lesson
    preparation and homework?

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