The First Precept of the Church
September 19, 2021
This precept commands that on Sundays and
holydays of obligation Mass be heard and servile works be omitted.
It is a Church law based on the Third Commandment of the Decalogue,
which prescribes that man set aside some time for the external
worship of God, and avoid those things which distract him from that
The precept is partly affirmative,
commanding what must be done (attendance at Mass), and partly
prohibitive, forbidding what must not be done. This
week we will focus on what must be done. We are
commanded to participate in the greatest act of worship, the
sacrifice which is a commemoration and the continuation of Christ’s
own sacrifice, source of all graces.
External assistance is required.
That means we must be in the same building or place as the
celebrant, and be able to see or at least hear him. Parents
who need to take their children outside or to the cry room still
fulfill their obligation, so long as they can still hear the bells
or choir, and can still more or less follow the Mass. This
applies only for the time necessary, and should not be used as an
excuse to spend large portions of the Mass removed from the body of
the church. The obligation to attend Mass is not fulfilled by
watching it on television, nor even by viewing a live stream on your
computer. Such practices can obviously be spiritually
beneficial and edifying, but they are never to be used as a
substitute for attendance at Mass.
Internal assistance is also required.
This means that you must intend to pay attention to the Mass with
your mind. If you go to church merely to see your friends or
to hear the beautiful music, you do not fulfill your Sunday
obligation. If you fall asleep during the sermon and forget to
wake up again till people are leaving at the end of Mass, you were
technically not at Mass, for lack of attention. A brief doze
would not, however, even be more than venially sinful, and if
involuntary, then not sinful at all. If your thoughts are
deliberately given to non-religious matters, you may fulfill your
Sunday obligation, but still commit the sins of irreverence and
You may be excused from Mass because
of inability or necessity. A two-hour drive is usually
considered a reasonable excuse for missing Mass, at least now and
again. Those who would suffer grave detriment to health, honor
or fortune are excused, and also those who are kept away by duties
of charity or employment or office that cannot be omitted. Not
every reason constitutes an excuse! We should not
unnecessarily place ourselves in the impossibility of observing the
law, for example by taking on employment that requires us to work
every Sunday, moving permanently or even going on vacation to a
place where there is no church. Frivolous reasons are never
enough. If we don’t like the priest, or we don’t want to bump
into so-and-so, we get upset with crying babies—these are not
excuses to miss Mass!
If you really have a reasonable excuse
for not attending Mass on certain Sundays, remember that you can
never be excused from the divine law of keeping holy the Lord’s day.
Try to make up for not going to Mass by some extra prayers, some
time given to spiritual reading, or by performing good works like
visiting a sick or elderly relative. Sunday is the Lord’s day.
Keep it holy!