ASK FATHER: Why do I have to go to Mass?
The young people in our Burning Hearts Confirmation program are often asking me, and our catechists, faith questions. It was suggested that these questions might often be ones that everyone would like answered, so from time-to-time, I will use this space to address the questions of faith being raised by our youth. So, here is the first one:
“How can a church require people to go to Mass when it should be a choice?”
Well, this is certainly a central question of our time as Catholics, and one we know that needs addressing. Just to give you some context. Here at St. Francis we have more than 8,000 registered members of our parish. However, on any given weekend, only about 1,700 people come to Mass. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of those who are on our books, are not following this command to go to Mass every week. So, let’s look at where the obligation to attend Mass every Sunday comes from.
Because your Father said so. This direction doesn’t come from the Church, it comes from God. The Third Commandment is: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” (Deut. 3.12) Notice that these are not called the 10 Suggestions, the 10 Great Things to Do, the 10 Keys to Spiritual Success – they are Commandments. And, even though we live in a world whose ethic might be, “You can’t tell me what to do,” God would disagree.
Commandments are at the highest level of how we live out our faithful life with God. We would never imagine saying, “How can a church tell people they shouldn’t murder when it should be a choice?” Or, “How can a church tell people they shouldn’t commit adultery when it should be a choice?” Just as important as those parts of our faith life are – worshipping our God on the Sabbath should hold the same position of importance. This was understood clearly in the time of Jesus. It was understood clearly by the early Christians. It was understood clearly right into our own time. As recently as 1958, Mass attendance was at 80% of Catholics, as opposed to our approximately 20% today.
Because your Father loves you. Going to Mass every week isn’t about the Church, or God, imposing a law or rule on everyone. It is about maintaining a relationship. The entire story of our salvation – beginning with Adam and Eve, right through to Jesus and eventually to you and me – is about a relationship. God establishes a relationship with His people. And, like any relationship, it requires a commitment. We know this in life. If a husband and wife ever said, “How can you require me to spend time with you when it should be my choice,” I can guarantee you that is a relationship that will soon come to an end. Sunday Mass is our place of nurturing our relationship with God; it is our place of getting to know God more deeply, more intimately. Sunday Mass is our time to tell God what we need to tell Him, and to listen to what He has to tell us – in Scripture, in the homily, in the people seated at our right and our left.
I see so often in my ministry people who never nurture their relationship with God and then come to me and say things like: “How come I can’t tell when God is speaking to me?” “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” “Why can’t I tell if God is there?” The answer is simple – the more you get to know Him, the more you’ll have the answer to those questions.
The problem is we want it all. We want a strong, direct line to God, 24-7, but we don’t want to put in the work that it takes to have that relationship. And to those who say, “I pray on my own, that’s enough,” I would say that is the spiritual equivalent of conducting a relationship only by phone or letter – it can be great, but it isn’t enough.
Going to Mass every week is a choice, just like any relationship. God has said, you don’t have to be in relationship with Me. But, if you want to be in a relationship with God, going to Mass every week is a central part of what He asks. It is always our choice. And, if we chose God, the benefits of this relationship are out of this world! Imagine our Church if all 8,000 members every week chose God!