Those of us under 50 or so have only secondhand knowledge of what life in the Church was like before Vatican II. We’ve probably heard some things from our parents and grandparents about how different it was, and have the sense that things have lightened up quite a bit, that rules are less strict. And along those lines, many have the impression that after the Council the old Sunday Mass rule was discarded—the one that said it was a serious sin to skip Sunday Mass.( By “skipping” Mass, I mean just deciding not to go or not making the effort to go, rather than being prevented from going by something such as illness.)
So it may come as a big surprise to many Catholics to learn that this Church teaching is actually still in effect. It might not only be surprising, but, to some people, ridiculous or even objectionable. What’s the big deal?
Think of it this way: Skipping Sunday Mass is like a husband skipping date night with his wife—just not showing up. Receiving Communion at the next Mass, without having first gone to confession, is like that husband then hopping into bed with his wife—without apologizing for standing her up or even communicating with her for two weeks or more—and expecting her to be perfectly fine with that arrangement. Holy Communion is a union more intimate than the marital bed, and yet we sometimes treat it like a mundane duty.
Most of us are aware of the Third Commandment: Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. But many don’t see why we can’t keep it holy our own way. Well, the Church says, you can, but you also need to come celebrate with the rest of us. The minimum of what God asks here is Mass. If you want to pray in a grove of trees, or meditate on the beach, or sing songs with friends, you can do those things too. Dad absolutely wants one-on-one time with you! But He has stipulated that on Sunday He wants us all gathered around the table as a family (the whole family, not just the ones we like). We may not know all the reasons; we just know He wants it, and ideally that should be enough for us.
If we really understood the Mass, we would never want to miss it. We’re like the deluded people in the parable who come up with lame if not laughable excuses to avoid going to a king’s banquet! (See Lk 14:16-24.)
The Mass is even better than a banquet. In the first half, God is speaking to us in the readings; and in the second, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is presented once again to the Father—and we have the chance to be a part of that: to offer ourselves with Christ as He offers Himself to the Father. (Talk about riding on someone’s coattails: It’s like a toddler adding a penny to her dad’s billion-dollar donation and then being listed as a benefactor.) Plus we are spiritually transported to Bethlehem and the Last Supper, Calvary and the Upper Room on Easter, all at once. We are there, only our physical eyes are blind to this spiritual reality.
As if that weren’t enough, Christ then offers Himself to us as food. Think what people would do if somehow, somewhere, a mere berry plucked from heaven were possible to obtain—they would travel thousands of miles and pay top dollar. Yet people sometimes deem it too much trouble to go to their local parish, where they can receive God Himself.
People would flock to eat fruit plucked from heaven, because they would assume that it would have healing properties and promote goodness. Well, that’s logical, and it is true for the even more beautiful food from heaven that the Lord does offer us in the Eucharist.
The fact is we cannot follow Him merely by our own power. We need His grace—“Apart from Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). And with that grace we can do amazing things—“I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). But how do we get grace? Primarily through the sacraments and prayer. Grace is a gift from God, a gift we must come to Him to receive.
Numerous saints and doctors of the Church have stressed the infinite power and value of the Mass. St. John Vianney once said, “All good works cannot have the value of one Holy Mass, because they are the works of men, whereas the Holy Mass is the work of God.” Vatican II echoed this in its document on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), calling the Mass the “font from which all her [the Church’s] power flows.” In other words, Mass is the source of grace par excellence.
But it’s not only what the Mass does for us that makes it priceless, it’s also the chance it gives us to do something for God. Vatican II described the liturgy as “a sacred action surpassing all others.” There’s no higher prayer; there’s nothing we can do that is more pleasing to God than praying the Mass.
Now if a young woman had the chance to meet her favorite celebrity, wouldn’t she try to make the best impression she could? If she were almost ready to go, and her mother stopped her and said she reeked of body odor, wouldn’t she do something about it? And if she knew the celebrity’s best friend, wouldn’t she listen to what that friend said? For instance, if she found out that the celebrity loathed peach-scented cologne, would she wear it anyway? I don't think so. We need to act this way when approaching the Eucharist. Could there be anyone more admirable or more exciting to meet than God Himself? Yet do we give any thought to how we appear to Him? Many of us are so used to the idea of His unconditional love that we no longer try to please Him, but take Him for granted.
Part of our problem is that, being fallen creatures, we begin with only a limited sense of the offensiveness of sin; then our own sins shrink this sense further. A poor sense of smell coupled with familiarity make us unaware of our own soul’s odor. We don’t realize how putrid sin is to the Lord. Our venial sins are probably more offensive to Him than body odor to us—they’re more like excrement to Him. And our mortal sins are like skunk spray. We can’t get rid of that stench on our own; for serious sin, we need the special cleansing of confession.
Ironically, we do know His best friend on earth: not only that, she is our own Mother, the Church. We could have the “inside scoop” on what is pleasing to the Number One V.I.P. in the Universe, but we refuse to listen to her. Too often we treat her as a nosy busybody, when actually she is an immortal queen, ancient yet ever-young, full of beauty and wisdom. No one on earth knows better than she what pleases Christ, having been His confidante for two thousand years. So if she says we need the bath of confession, let’s take it. And if she says the King of the Universe wants us at His banquet every Sunday, let’s not miss it for the world.