How to Fulfill the Sunday Obligation

I believe I have spoken to this question before in some prior post here on the blog, but I don’t remember which. In light of recent questions I’ve received, it seems worthwhile to post about it again and perhaps with greater specificity.

To fulfill our Sunday Mass obligation, we simply have to go a Catholic Mass within the time frame for fulfilling that obligation. In other words, the Mass that we attend does not have to be a Sunday Mass as such (i.e., with the Sunday readings and other things done on Sundays, such as reciting the Creed).

Here is what Canon Law says:

Can. 1248 §1 The obligation of assisting at Mass is satisfied wherever Mass is celebrated in a Catholic rite either on a holyday itself or on the evening of the previous day.

“Mass… celebrated in a Catholic rite”….

“On a holy day itself or on the evening of the previous day”….

So, leaving aside for a moment the question of when “evening” begins on the previous day (I will return to it), let’s consider the different types of Masses that might occur within the normal time window for fulfilling the Sunday obligation:

  • A Sunday Mass with the Sunday texts (obviously);
  • A funeral Mass (perhaps, if celebrated on a Sunday afternoon);
  • A wedding Mass (perhaps celebrated on Saturday evening or, at certain times of the year, even on Sunday);
  • A confirmation Mass or some other ritual Mass (e.g., celebrated on Saturday evening for some reason or, again, on Sunday);
  • A Mass for whatever feast day is on Saturday, perhaps celebrated in the evening.

The question we are answering most often is brought to me in connection with weddings. We sometimes have Saturday evening weddings in my parish; at a wedding Mass there is a Gloria but not a Creed, and the readings used are those chosen by the couple. Folks thus wonder if that Mass can apply, since it’s not properly “the Sunday Mass”. The answer, from the foregoing, is yes.

But with regard to that last of four bullet points, it could happen in some places that there is a “Saturday Mass”, yet celebrated in the evening on Saturday for some reason, as opposed to in the morning, as is most common for Saturday Masses as such. I can think of a handful of times when I have seen this. Maybe due to a parish feast day or something. The liturgical day doesn’t end until the clock strikes midnight for the following day, so that is permitted, even if it’s in the evening.

The bottom line is that as long as you went to a valid Catholic Mass within the window of Saturday evening till 11:59pm on Sunday, you have fulfilled your Sunday obligation.

“A valid Catholic Mass” — so it could be in a different Catholic rite also. Maybe you belong to the Latin or Roman Rite, but you happen to go to a Mass in the Ruthenian Rite or the Maronite Rite one weekend. I don’t know much about the particulars of those rites, but suppose that the Mass you go to is a funeral Mass. So it’s a different rite and a non-Sunday Mass, to boot. Either way — as long as it was a Catholic Mass during the time frame for fulfilling the obligation, it counts.

The question that remains, then, is when “evening” begins. This is a thorny issue because the law is really doubtful about it. A noted canonist, Dr. Ed Peters, has written about it on his blog. Until the Church legislates otherwise, we may fulfill our Mass obligation for Sunday starting at 12noon on Saturday. That’s pretty wild, and most people are surprised about it. It doesn’t really pass the “common sense test”. But that’s the way things are at present. You can read his blog post and search his blog for more on that if you’re interested. And I do not recommend making it a habit of getting the Sunday Mass obligation out of the way as early as possible.

Note that in the previous paragraph I highlighted Mass obligation: this is because we really have two obligations when it comes to Sunday. The first is to go to Mass, and this is a precept or law of the Church (the first one, in fact). The second is to keep holy the Lord’s day, and this is the third commandment of the Ten Commandments that God has given us. Going to Mass within an approximate 36 hour time frame is not enough to have fulfilled the third commandment! It’s only enough to have fulfilled the first precept of the Church. We still have to keep holy the Lord’s day. Even if we “get Mass out of the way” on Saturday, Sunday is still supposed to be a day of rest. Very many people have completely lost sight of this, and our 24/7 world in which practically everything is open on Sunday doesn’t help. We have the duty to be intentional and counter-cultural when it comes to this, in order to fulfill God’s law.

Some people will not like certain aspects of this post, whether it has to do with the idea of fulfilling the Mass obligation with a non-Sunday Mass (such as a wedding or funeral) or even the idea that you could do so starting at noon on Saturday. That is how the law is written at present. And it does not excuse from God’s law, which is also to keep the sabbath — which for Christians is Sunday — holy. The best way to do this is to go to Mass on Sunday morning and then otherwise make it a day unlike all the others, with rest, recreation, and time with family and friends. Various circumstances sometimes mitigate against this, and when that does happen, it is important to know our other options.

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