how obligated are you by obligation?

On August 15, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption, commemorating our belief that Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul. A friend of mine was grumbling that it was a holy day of obligation in the USA. Her grumbling was not about the feast itself, but about the obligatory aspect. At a time when many of us are frustrated with doctrine-spouting and rules-waving leaders, being told when and how to pray can leave us feeling less than spiritual.

The Code of Canon Law states the following (Canon 1246)

  1. Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  2. However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

Here is an online calendar showing the present Holy Days of Obligation in the USA, Canada, England and Wales, Australia and Ireland. We Canadians are the most lax, with only two obligatory days outside of Sunday; Christmas and January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Of course, sometimes these fall on a Sunday rendering the extra obligation moot.

I struggled with the issue of Sunday obligations for many years. As children, we were taught that missing Mass on a Sunday was a mortal sin. If we did, we could not receive Communion until we went to Confession. This was a heavy burden on a wee soul. I could not understand how my missing Mass put me on the same boat to hell as a murderer. The teaching haunted me. It took many years before I could miss Mass without horrible scruples and guilt. (Google ‘missing mass and mortal sin’ and you’ll see that the question still exists for many.)

Today, like my friend, I resent the power and authority that often lies behind the word obligation. I cringe at the homilist who identifies the faithful Catholic as merely one who warms up the pew on a Sunday. I dread attending Mass in a parish where I know I will leave feeling depressed and angry rather than spiritually uplifted. Sometimes, when I’m in a bad head-space, it’s better for me to stay home, praying a lectio divina with the readings. On those days, I trust that God understands.

Perhaps going to church has become more of an obligation because we have lost the deeper meaning of Sundays and Feast Days. We no longer live in a culture where the spirit of the Sabbath is honoured; where work is laid aside for holy leisure time with God and family. We squeeze church time into our busy weekend. Feast Days are no longer communal celebrations, a much needed holy-day from labour. Gone are the actual feasts and festive traditions. Dragging ourselves into a half-empty church and sitting through a listless liturgy to fulfill our guilty consciences is not the same as filling the streets with processions and revelry.

How can we go beyond obligation, and return to a spirit of communal worship and celebration?

(Day of obligation or not, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, sent out this warm greeting to all Christians celebrating the Assumption.)