Are you relieved of the duty to attend Mass on Sunday at a certain age?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

OSV News

Q: My older sister told me that after age 80, you are relieved of the duty to attend Sunday Mass. I didn't believe her until a friend who is 86 told me the same thing. I have never heard of this. Is it true? (Ocean View, Delaware)

A: I have never heard of this either! The relevant citation in Code of Canon Law, Canon 1247, indicates: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” But canon law never mentions an upper age limit for this obligation.

There are some obligations for Catholics that do have stated age parameters. For example, Canon 1252 tells us that the obligation to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday “binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year,” meaning that once a Catholic turns 59, he or she is no longer required to keep the fast. The fact that our law demonstrates its willingness to set upper age limits for some obligations makes the lack of a stated age limit for the Sunday obligation all the more striking.

That being said, nobody is bound to an obligation that is impossible or gravely difficult to fulfill. It can happen that by the time a person reaches 80, various age-related issues could prevent one from attending Mass in person. For example, health issues might leave a person too ill to go out to church, and transportation might become an issue if an elderly person is no longer able to drive. In colder climates, winter weather conditions might also present more of a concern for a senior citizen than they would for someone a few decades younger.

But if an octogenarian thereby found himself or herself to be no longer bound by the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays, this lack of an obligation would be directly attributable to one of these above-mentioned reasons, and not simply due to the year one was born. An 80-something Catholic in good health who is capable of traveling to Mass would be just as bound to observe the Sunday obligation as his or her younger counterparts. And, by the same token, a 20-something Catholic who is legitimately impeded from attending Mass due to reasons of illness or car problems would be likewise excused from the Sunday obligation.

At the end of the day, our discernment of whether or not we are excused from the duty to attend Mass is a matter of conscience which is properly formed in accord with Church teaching. That is, the church trusts us to make this determination in good faith; we're not asked to provide "proof" to anyone that attending Mass is prohibitively difficult for us.

But if an older adult is having a hard time weighing whether his or her circumstances truly excuse him or her from the Sunday obligation, it might be helpful to ask for advice from one’s parish priest.

Keep in mind that it is possible to request a dispensation from the Sunday obligation. Such a dispensation can be granted by one’s pastor for a good reason such as being on a cruise where Mass is not available (Canons 87 and 1245).

As per Canon 1245, a pastor can also commute the Sunday obligation to "some other pious work." This means that he can set some other prayerful activity as a substitution for the Sunday obligation for a specific person in a particular case. So, for example, if an elderly person feels uncomfortable traveling to Mass for some reason, his or her pastor can change the Sunday obligation to something like prayerfully reflecting on the readings of the day or watching a televised Mass. The pastor will evaluate the reason for granting a dispensation or commutation. 

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].