Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 4: July / August 1998
Sacred Time: Sunday
New papal Letter Calls Catholics to Worship
by David Aaron Murray
The Holy Father’s Apostolic letter reaffirming the need for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, Dies Domini (The Day of the Lord), received extensive coverage in the world media — surprisingly, since it is a restatement of fundamental truths of the faith. Most media accounts stressed potential conflict in the Holy Father’s emphasis that Catholics have a grave obligation attend Sunday Mass, although this obligation is disregarded in many parts of the world.
Readers of Dies Domini, though, will find it lyrical and beautiful — part of the extended hymn of praise to God in all His works and actions that this pope’s writings constitute.
This letter says nearly everything that can be said about the importance of Sunday — including how Christians should keep in mind the meaning of the day, even in leisure activities. The Holy Father brings these elements together in a spirit of praise and and expression of the genuine unity that exists in the Church. We find here no conflict between meal and sacrifice, between the People of God and the Church’s hierarchy, between pre-and post-Vatican II, between Old Testament Sabbath and Christian Sunday, or between Christian joy and human joys. Instead, the pope’s perspective shows that these elements are complementary.
Most Catholics can surely agree with the Holy Father that the decoupling of Christian customs from civil society and the pressures of contemporary life, including overwork, are partly responsible for the decline in Sunday attendance at Mass.
More important than mere busy-ness, as the pope points out, is that "the motivation of the faith is weak" (Intro, 4). He may have in mind the situation of certain countries in Europe or Latin America, including some historic cradles of Christianity, where Sunday Mass attendance has fallen to ten percent or below. While no one could argue that the level of faith or of church attendance in the United States is what it should be, our percentages are comparatively high.
Particularly pertinent is a passage in which the pope ponders the mystery of God’s "rest". This is an anthropomorphic term that he explains this way:
The divine rest of the seventh day does not allude to an inactive God, but emphasizes the fullness of what has been accomplished. It speaks, as it were, of God’s lingering before the "very good" work (GN 1:31) which his hand has wrought, in order to cast upon it a gaze full of joyous delight. This is a "contemplative" gaze which does not look to new accomplishments but enjoys the beauty of what has already been achieved (I, 11).
Many Catholics will find the Holy Father’s words not only inspiring, but instructive. Especially those thousands of Catholics who go to Mass in the hope of contemplating "the beauty of what has already been achieved" — namely, their salvation in Jesus Christ, as embodied in a Mass whose norms are to be binding and universal, within the variations allowed by law.
Too often, they find themselves confronted by "new accomplishments" in the celebration of Mass and far too many liturgical innovations not only do not conform to the real "spirit" of Vatican II, but seem more to demonstrate a desire for control over the divine work of worship, than a spirit of dependence on God. When parishioners open a hymnal and stumble over a song because its words have been changed; when they are constantly confronted with small changes in the Mass; when they are repeatedly told, by word or example, that binding and authoritative norms are only one option among many; when the prayers in the Mass are changed or even deleted to conform to ideological agendas; then the true observance of the Lord’s Day is jeopardized.
Dies Domini is a sustained reflection, rather than an explicit instruction like its twin document, Ad Tuendam Fidem (To Defend the Faith). The latter deals with dissent, and explicitly clarifies penalties for heresy by amending Canon Law. The two documents appeared almost simultaneously.
Taken together, these documents show the deep sense of responsibility and concern of the Church’s Supreme Pastor for the faith of Catholic people today.
(David Aaron Murray is Managing Editor of the Adoremus Bulletin)