August 26, 2015
Why does the Catholic Church say it is a mortal sin for Catholics to intentionally miss Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and no sin for non-Catholics to do the same?
It’s all about relationships. Why do we have an obligation to holy Mass? Well, to quote our Lord in John 6:53-54, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” Or as the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8 tell us, “Keep holy the Sabbath day.”
But why would a Catholic care about Scripture or the Commandments? Aren’t they just words on paper or stone? It’s true that they are words, but to those who are in a relationship with God, they are more than that. They are Gospel and law.
If I see a sign that says, “Be at 555 Fifth Street at five o’clock for supper,” I might show up if I’m very hungry, but it sounds like a random commandment and a bit odd. If, on the other hand, my mother says to be there because she’s cooking for me at that time and address, I will be there five minutes early! Within the context of the relationship, the command (demand, law, invitation) makes sense.
Trouble is, when we hear mortal sin we think of hell (and not without reason). But, when we think of hell, we tend to think about location instead of relation. It’s true that venial sin wounds and mortal sin kills. Put another way, venial sin kills only very slowly —think of death by paper cuts —and mortal sin is like a blow to the head. But the soul is immortal anyway, so what does sin kill? Sin kills our
relationship with God. Eternal life is being in a right relationship with God, and hell is not showing up for that eternal banquet.
If a sign posted on a telephone pole invites me to dinner and I don’t go, there is no shame or foul in that. I don’t have any frame of reference for which to say that I have done any wrong. Although, depending on who is cooking, I may have missed a very good meal. However, when my mother invites me to dinner and I don’t show up, there is trouble. As her son who loves her, I might be saying any number of things which are very hurtful to our relationship, especially if she has prepared a meal for me and I don’t call with regrets. Sure, I might be saying, “Some emergency happened.” But, I might also be saying, “I don’t like your roast beef,” or “I think there are more important things in life than my mother,” or perhaps even, “I don’t love you anymore.” You see, because of my relationship with her, the meal is not just nourishment, it is a means of forwarding the relationship.
That’s a pretty good description of a sacrament, and especially the Eucharist. The Lord has set a table for us, and, yes, it is a weekly table for the whole family. Those who are not part of the family aren’t really expected to show up. They aren’t among the relations. They may have heard that we have a great meal every week and want to join us; that’s what they ought to hear! Or, they may have heard only that we
have to go to the family meal every week. Shame on us if we’ve given the impression that this is anything less than a “heavenly banquet.”
So, no, we can’t say that those who are not Catholic have committed a sin by missing the Lord’s gift of His word and of His flesh. On the other hand, it would certainly be better if they did enter into the Church and receive the gift our Lord Himself gave us on the day before he was to suffer. By not receiving this sacrament, they also do not receive this significant help that the Lord has given us for our daily walk.
But, things are different for us because we are already in this relationship. If we as Catholics reject this gift, we are turning away from the relationship we have been born into by baptism in the Church. If we reject that relationship, we end up missing more than mom’s roast beef. Rather we end up missing mom, the rest of the family, and love itself.
Fr. Streifel is pastor of the Church of St. Joseph in Dickinson.