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Why bother to go to Mass every week?

The comedian George Carlin remembers an activity from his parochial school days called "Heavy Mystery Time." A parish priest would come to class and invite the kids to ask any question they wished. Typical topics: "Can God make a rock so large that God cannot move it?" or "How do you perform your Easter duty if you are on a ship at sea and the chaplain goes into a coma?"

Back when Carlin attended grade school, the question "Why bother to go to Mass every week?" did not come up in Heavy Mystery Time. The answer was easy: The first "precept of the church" stated--and still states--that Catholics had a duty and obligation to participate in Mass on Sundays and other holy days.

While obligation has its place, for better or worse it is not enough for many Catholics today. Recent figures show fewer than 40 percent go to Mass on a weekly basis. A little history and a couple of further reasons why Catholics would bother to go to Mass every weekend might help.

Christians of the first century knew Sunday simply as the "Lord's day"--the day of the week on which Jesus' Resurrection occurred. While some communities may have singled out Sunday as a special day of worship and sharing of the eucharistic meal, there is no evidence that the earliest Christians generally saw Sunday as a day of rest, the exclusive day for worship, a replacement of the Jewish sabbath, or the only day for the Eucharist.

By the middle of the second century, though, Sunday had become the preferred day for weekly Christian assembly and the celebration of the Eucharist. In the first three centuries of the church, attendance was not considered obligatory. Only slowly did the notion of obligation emerge, but from the sixth century the church has drafted increasingly strict rules requiring Catholics to attend Mass on Sunday. These rules grew out of an identification of the Christian Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath and the application of the Sabbath law to Sunday. The biblical Sabbath law is one of the Ten Commandments and recalls the seventh day of the creation story when God rested.

While attending Mass on Sundays--and the duty to do so--go deep into Catholic tradition, are there more contemporary reasons that could persuade more Catholics to come?

First, showing up every week is itself an act of faith, a demonstration that worship means something. Each Sunday the faithful hear the Word of God--their story--and partake in the Eucharist. In doing so, they call to mind the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus and give thanks. These elements, all present in the Mass, sum up who Christians are. Jesus' actions--from his ministry of healing and teaching to his triumph over evil and death--make up the pattern Christians imitate. In worship, Christians also return their thanks to God who created and redeemed humanity.

Second, by worshiping regularly with others, Catholics also join themselves to the community of believers into which they were baptized. Being together with other believers and experiencing the ritual together helps make people responsible to one another and allows them to encourage one another in their faith; it makes invisible faith visible. Weekly gathering is a kind of reality check on who people are and how they are doing.

The Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist the "source and summit" of Catholics' lives--that to which they bring the whole of their lives and from which they go forth to live their lives. It is difficult to work toward that awesome ideal if one never goes to Mass. The Eucharist is the most frequently celebrated sacrament, and Catholics believe in sacrament as a way to find God's presence in the world--and that may be the heaviest mystery of all.

JOEL SCHORN, an associate editor at U.S. CATHOLIC.
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Author:Schorn, Joel
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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