Can an ecumenical Catholic service satisfy our Sunday obligation?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: If a Catholic attends a Catholic Ecumenical Church on Sunday, can that be considered a fulfillment of one's Mass obligation for Sunday? (Location withheld)

A: The short answer to your question is that anything other than a Catholic Mass would not fulfill one’s Sunday obligation.  The Catholic Ecumenical Church (or Ecumenical Catholic Community) is not the Catholic Church, and its teachings are not in accord with Catholicism.  Just because a group or church uses the title “Catholic” does not mean that it is truly in communion with the Catholic faith.  To be certain of Catholicity, check the local diocesan website for a listing of Catholic parishes and links to them so as to see Mass times.  Your diocesan Office of Communications provides that helpful information as a service.

The Code of Canon Law refers to the Sunday obligation in canon 1247, which states, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” Canon 1248, 1 then goes on to give specifics with regard to what counts as Mass attendance: “A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.” Note that, in this context, to assist at Mass simply means to attend Mass with prayerful devotion (i.e., to pray actively those parts of the Mass that are proper to the lay faithful). It doesn’t necessarily mean helping with the Mass by taking on a role such as a lector or altar server.

“Anywhere in a Catholic rite” means that any Catholic can satisfy their Sunday obligation by attending Mass in any Catholic church anywhere in the world, whether that be the Latin (a.k.a. Roman) Catholic Mass most familiar to us in North America or the Eucharistic liturgy of one of the many Eastern Catholic churches.

Canon 1248, 2 tells us that, “If participation in the Eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place […] or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

However, you cannot fulfill your Sunday obligation by participating in a Catholic word and communion service; by spending time in family or personal prayer; or even by watching a livestream or televised Mass - if it would have been realistically possible for you to physically attend Mass in person that day even if it is at a different parish.  During the pandemic, bishops generously dispensed us from the obligation of Sunday and holy day Masses, and at the same time, urged participation in Mass by online availability and by spiritual communion which invites Jesus into our soul.  Masses continued uninterrupted worldwide, and we were able to participate and receive those graces.

If it truly is impossible to get to Mass - whether due to illness, inclement weather or some other truly serious reason - the Sunday obligation would not be binding in that instance; so the recommendations for other types of Sunday prayer in these scenarios is basically the Church’s law reminding us that, when we legitimately can’t get to Mass, we still ought to observe Sundays as a special day of prayer in some manner.

Q: When I was in R.C.I.A., the instructor said of confession, “Unless it’s something unusual, weekly Eucharist reception is sufficient for forgiveness. There's no need to bother the priest with your daily, petty, minor sins.” Could you comment? (Brandenburg, Kentucky)

A: Catholics are required to go to confession at least once a year during the Easter season if they have serious sins to confess. But, of course, in the spiritual life, we’re never encouraged to just stick to the bare minimum. Regular and frequent confessions have always been encouraged, although the ideal frequency will depend on the individual and their specific needs. For some of us, weekly confessions could be very appropriate.  Priests are happy to provide the sacraments for us.

The Church acknowledges what is traditionally termed a devotional confession, where a person confesses relatively minor, venial sins out of love for God. And when you think about our sacramental life in terms of a relationship with the Lord, this makes sense; when we care about a person like a friend or spouse, we say we’re sorry and seek their forgiveness whenever we may have hurt them, even in small ways.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1394 & 1395) reminds us that reception of the Eucharist wipes away venial sins and helps preserve us from future mortal sins.  However, even though sins are absolved or removed, temporal punishment due to our sins remains; under certain conditions, a partial or plenary indulgence may be gained for ourselves or applied for the dead so as to remit some temporal punishment.

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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].