The Importance of the Mass
by Most Rev. George J. Lucas, Archbishop of Omaha
May 17, 2021
We all recall with some sadness when, over a year ago, all Masses and other gatherings in our parish churches were suspended for a number of weeks. COVID-19 was spreading across the country, and it was unclear exactly what would be necessary to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities as well as those dedicated to care for the sick and dying.
Since it was impossible under those circumstances for most people to participate physically in Sunday Mass, bishops across the country dispensed all of our parishioners from the obligation to do so. Even when we were able to re-open our churches with limited capacity and following proper protocols, it has been prudent for many Catholics to remain apart from the Sunday congregation. And so the dispensation from the obligation to come to Mass has remained in effect here in the Archdiocese of Omaha.
In the midst of the immense suffering brought about by the pandemic, much has changed for the better in the past year. Through the winter and spring, especially with the availability of effective vaccines, more and more parishioners have been coming to our parishes for the weekend Masses. At Easter, I announced that, acting in conjunction with the other bishops in Nebraska, the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation would end, effective on the feast of Pentecost, May 22-23. Since Easter, parishes have had the opportunity to invite parishioners back and to plan to accommodate safely all who wish to come. In the meantime, numbers have been increasing week by week in most places.
I am happy to offer my own invitation, along with our pastors, to return to Sunday Mass. Many have told me over these months how much you have missed the sacraments. We have all missed you, too. We look forward to being together week by week as parish communities, united in the risen Lord.
In our Catholic tradition, we speak of the “obligation” to participate in the Mass every Sunday and holy day, unless serious circumstances prevent us from doing so. I know that in our culture, an obligation does not seem so much like an invitation as it does a burden or an unpleasant task. However, there are good and positive reasons why Catholics should gladly assume the obligation of Sunday Mass.
As creatures of a loving God, we owe God proper worship. This obligation is ours by the nature of things. Everything we have comes from God. We cannot be fully human without a relationship with God in which we invest ourselves in a way that is pleasing to God. Already in the old covenant, God revealed the kind of worship that is pleasing to Him and good for us. This included regular observance of the Sabbath, as well as sacrifices and other rituals that the people offered and God received, cementing their covenant relationship.
Now in the new covenant, we see the extent of God’s love for us, in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We are invited by Jesus to share in His perfect worship of the Father. Participation in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and in the power of His resurrection is available to us fully in the Mass. This is the worship that is pleasing to God, and so we owe it to God. We are blessed to have this joyful duty so accessible to us in our parishes week by week.
Following Pentecost, the first Christians knew that they were to observe Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Jesus, as the Lord’s day. They gathered to celebrate the Lord’s supper, even at the risk of persecution or martyrdom. When Christians were able to worship openly, and the sacraments became part of the rhythm of life, I suppose some were tempted to ask: What is the minimum that is expected of me as a follower of Jesus? It was clear that life in Christ and true worship of the Father were not possible in the new covenant without the Sunday Eucharist. The Church’s pastors began to speak of the “obligation” of Sunday Mass, not to impose a burden, but as if to warn us. If we fall below the minimum, we put our spiritual (eternal) life in jeopardy; our relationship with God is not sustainable, because of our choices, not because of any lack of love on God’s part.
When we say that we have “missed” Mass on Sunday, we only acknowledge part of the truth. We have actually chosen to do something else instead, something that is not the right worship of God. Even without fully intending it, we have placed a false god at the head of the week’s activities and responsibilities. A serious disorder results in the life-giving covenant that God is offering us in the sacrifice of Jesus.
We know that some particular circumstances may prevent us from coming to Mass or excuse us from the obligation. You may need to care for a sick family member. There may be an unexpected change in a work schedule. Anyone who is ill should stay home. Because the pandemic is not fully contained, anyone who feels at risk for contracting or communicating the virus should not come to Mass. Don’t be scrupulous; if you are anxious about this, you are excused for the foreseeable future.
Live-streaming and broadcast recordings of the Mass have been a blessing to many during the pandemic. I commend the pastors and parishes who have worked to make this available. Some are choosing to continue this service for a while. It is important to note that watching the Mass is not the same thing as being there in church, and it is not a proper substitute when one is able to attend. Still, many find benefit in the homilies, the music and the prayers that are streamed as enrichment in addition to Mass in person. This has also opened the beauty of the Mass to those outside of the Catholic community and to Catholics who may have been away from the Mass for a time.
We rightly refer to the Sunday Eucharist as the source and summit of our Catholic life. The other sacraments, our private prayer and devotion, and the good works that flow from our faith are all essentially connected and oriented to the Eucharist. At the heart of our Catholic faith is the truth that Jesus, the risen Son of God, is really present in the Eucharist. He gives Himself to us in the new covenant as our spiritual food and drink. Our participation in the Eucharist acknowledges and seals our right relationship with God and with the community. And it is the best thing we can do for ourselves.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us (#1325) that the Mass “is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through Him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit of Pentecost leads us to believe that all of this is true. I am praying for you on this feast, that the Holy Spirit will enliven your faith in the Eucharist and deepen your desire to be part of its celebration week by week. Please pray for me, too, and for your parish priests, that together we might grow in our appreciation for and our devotion to this holy and living sacrifice of the Mass.