I can only remember one Sunday as a child when we did not go to Mass. This happened during a torrential snowstorm when we had planned to leave for Mass. At the last minute, my parents decided we should not risk it and we stayed home. Sunday Mass was the backbone of our family’s spiritual life. While it was not always my favorite activity (many times it was closer to the bottom than the top on my lists of favorites), we knew that Sunday morning was God-time, and going to Mass was the pinnacle of God-time.
Going to church on Sunday mornings is one of the hallmarks of a Christian. Every Sunday for centuries Christians made their way from their homes to God’s house to give him worship. This routine is a regular way Catholics and our brothers and sisters in other Christian communities keep holy the Lord’s Day. While the practice of Sunday Mass has certainly waned over the decades, it still held a primacy of place for believers to worship God on the day of the Resurrection.
Then came 2020. This year that will be impossible to forget made it impossible for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass for a number of months. This year when public Masses around the country (and in most countries around the world) were suspended for a number of months was a shock to so many believers. After Masses resumed at reduced capacity, Catholics were asked to wear masks when they returned to church. And this time of pandemic and our gradual return made it easy for many to slip away from the routine and find it difficult to return.
Our call to return to Sunday Mass begins with an invitation from God for our spiritual benefit. Mass enables us to order our lives in a way that opens us up to the infinite riches of the sacramental economy which was won for us by the blood of Jesus on the cross. When we participate at Mass in person—the Mass which is the re-presentation of the offering on the cross of Christ to the Father for our salvation—we participate in something far beyond anything we could do on our own. By virtue of our baptism and our incorporation into Christ, we are called to join in offering ourselves to this offering of Christ. Nothing can replace being physically present at Mass where we can make this offering and receive the offering of Christ in the Eucharist.
The early years of the life of Fr. John Marie Baptiste Vianney coincided with the waning days of the French Revolution, which for more than a decade ravaged the French people’s practice of regularly attending Mass. When he arrived in his assignment at the parish church in the small town of Ars, laxity about attending Sunday Mass—as well as general spiritual laxity—was pervasive. He taught his parishioners the beauty and incomparable value of the Mass. Fr. Vianney would tell the faithful that “all the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is the sacrifice of man to God but the Mass is the sacrifice of God to man.”
This holy priest dedicated himself to bringing his people back to Mass, confession, and a regular prayer life. He was greatly successful and often his small church would be full, not only on Sunday, but during weekday Masses as well. For this commitment, John Vianney was canonized a saint in 1925 and was named the patron saint of priests. He is a model for all priests and all Catholics, teaching a very simple way to evangelize—by attending Mass and going frequently to Confession.
We do not experience the active persecution the Catholic Church suffered during the French Revolution. Yet we realize the similarities that are present in the spiritual challenges which come from a prolonged time away from the Mass. The dispensation from the Sunday obligation is necessary when our churches are still at a reduced capacity and there is great uncertainty about the spread of the coronavirus. But there is a spiritual cost to this dispensation as well. It is a risk of “cheapening” the Christian life.
It is vital for Catholics in this time to understand the great cost of our salvation. St. Paul reminds us that we “were purchased at a price,” the price of the blood of Jesus. Our Lord spared nothing in his love for us. We must not take our faith lightly. Therefore, we were reminded that while the dispensation from the Sunday obligation has been extended, we should not let our spiritual life dwindle during this time. Returning to Mass should be paramount as our lives return to some approximation of normal. We owe it to God in justice, we owe it to our brothers and sisters as we are called to be a community of believers at Mass, we owe it to ourselves so that God can make us into the saints he has called us to be for him and the world.
St. John Vianney, help us to put God first in our lives!