For many years now, the Sunday obligation — observed by a minority of Catholics — was in the intensive care unit. It died this past pandemic year. A resurrection is not on the horizon.
The Code of Canon Law is clear enough: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (1247). A minority of baptized Catholics observe that; in many countries, it is a tiny minority.
Leave aside those of the baptized who have had no religious upbringing or formation; it is likely they do not even know of the Sunday obligation. Yet many of those who would consider themselves practicing Catholics do not consider Sunday Mass to be a canonical obligation, much less mandated by the Third Commandment, which ranks higher in importance than “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Before the pandemic, the Sunday obligation was in poor shape. Then, for good reason, bishops the world over suspended the Sunday obligation. It could hardly be otherwise; with public Masses canceled, churches closed or operating at much-reduced capacity, the obligation would not have been in force anyway. Canon law does not oblige the impossible, which is why, for example, the sick, hospitalized and homebound are not obliged by Canon 1247.
The formal suspension of the Sunday obligation thus changed very little. Yet the experience of the pandemic changed the default settings. Whereas before the default for an observant Catholic would have been to go to Sunday Mass, the pandemic changed that default toward not going, especially in those areas where people were encouraged not to come to church if they were elderly, sick, caring for the sick, in contact with the sick or worried about becoming sick themselves.
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