It seems to me that most serious Catholics are not going to Mass every Sunday in abject fear of mortal sin or losing their salvation (i.e., as their primary or main reason), but rather, because they love it; they want to go, and understand the joy and necessity of regular assembly with other believers and receiving Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, which gives us all sort of power and sustenance to face the trials and challenges of life.
We can all fall into legalism (or the opposite error of license and antinomianism), being human and sinful. But as we advance in the Christian life, we have to progress beyond that. The Mass obligation is not about rules, but about “spiritual normalcy” or “spiritual bare minimum obligations.” The Christian needs to worship with fellow believers, as a good and helpful thing:
Hebrews 10:24-25 (RSV): “and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (“classic” KJV rendering: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”).
Acts 20:7: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread …”
Acts 12:12: “When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”
Acts 13:44: “The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered together to hear the word of God.”
Acts 14:27: “And when they arrived, they gathered the church together and declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (cf. 15:6, 30).
Psalm 102:22: “when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.”
It’s fundamental to Christianity to gather together to worship the Lord, and to engage in liturgy, rite, and ritual. It’s plain in Scripture that this is a good and worthy and spiritually helpful thing.
For the Catholic who has voluntarily submitted to the authority of the Church, the magisterium says this gathering together at least once a week is so important that it should be made obligatory. We make things mandatory because of their importance.
The obligation is primarily intended for those who are weak, because human nature requires rules before it can properly understand with a willing and voluntary spirit that something is good to do. That’s why we have lots of rules for children, because they are too young to make wise choices. The older they get, the fewer rules are necessary, or else they “self-supervise.”
Too many Christians are not motivated to attend Mass out of sheer love for the Lord and desire to please Him and to lead a saintly life. This lamentable deficiency is likely true for everyone at least some of the time, no matter how pious or devout.
The Church, in her wisdom, makes Mass attendance compulsory lest the human tendency to laxity cause many to not attend church. Is that a good thing, all in all, or a bad one? Is it a “net gain”?
Of course it is good. It’s better that someone be in Church, even though they are not perfectly motivated from the heart and soul, than not to be there, and sitting at home watching the Sunday morning news shows.
The ideal of the Christian life is wholehearted service to God and completely pure motivation: doing everything for the right reasons, by God’s grace. But the Church exercises wisdom in requiring church attendance, for the sake of those Christians who are merely “coasting” in their spiritual life, going through the motions without much heart or interior motivation.
Both are good. We all should strive for the ideal, and pray for God’s grace to achieve it, but we should also be glad that many a “Joe Q. Catholic” is in the pews even though he is there because he “has” to be, not because he wants to be.
God in His mercy accepts millions of His followers (at the “spiritual milk” stage) as they are, warts and all.
Dave Armstrong has been a published Catholic apologist since 1993. Dave has written or edited 48 books on apologetics, including several bestsellers. If you’d like to help keep his influential teaching apostolate going as a much-needed monthly supporter, write to Dave at [email protected]