Too Many Masses Around Christmastime?

The fact that Catholics are questioning attending Mass two days in a row is a sign of how far we've fallen.

Last year, Christmas fell on a Sunday. I wrote about a controversy among some Protestants whether to schedule services that day because, while it was a Sunday, it was also Christmas. Some pastors claimed that when the two overlap, Protestant church attendance declines. Apparently, while Protestants may take the “Lord’s Day” seriously, there is a streak within Protestantism that takes the Lord’s Birthday less seriously. The Puritans were the “best” example, having officially penalized keeping Christmas.

This year, it’s the Catholics’ turn to split Sabbath hairs.

If you went to church Sunday, you probably heard two standard lines: “today the priest is ‘the man in pink’” and “there are no two-fers next week.”

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The biannual appearance of rose vestments usually elicits a commentary. But what to do about the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas abutting each other was the question.

And the fact that it is a question should be concerning. Because the fact that Catholics wonder whether they “have to” go to Mass two days in a row is a far deeper issue to me than whether synodality is seeping into the peripheries.

Bottom line up front (BLUF): yes, Virginia, you need to attend two Masses.  

Catholic press has generally somewhat playfully sketched the potential variants, from a long interlude from Saturday anticipated Mass for Sunday to evening Mass on Christmas (if there are any) to a one-day double-header on Sunday morning for Sunday and Sunday evening for the Christmas Vigil.

Now, I don’t downplay canon law, but this approach does bother me. We have a pope and no few numbers of sycophantic bishops who prate about the “danger of clericalism” in the Church. Well, framing a discussion of man’s privilege and duty of worship starting with the clerical rule set called “canon law” seems precisely reinforcing that dreaded, naughty and not nice clericalism.

We should start to answer this question by telling people they are privileged to worship the God who created them out of nothing, sustains them in existence, loves them, and came to them in the flesh at Christmas (and at every Mass). That should elicit gratitude. God has expressed His Will that we “keep holy the Lord’s Day,” which is why we attend Mass on Sundays—including the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

We are preparing for Christmas, for the coming of Christ. How are we preparing for Christmas if “there’s no time for the inn” where Jesus is found today, the Church? If we have our priorities right, the Sunday-Monday Mass “double-header” is a chance to make our last effort to prepare for Christmas and our welcome of the newborn Savior.

At this point, there will be Catholics looking for the BLUF: yeh, yeh, yeh, but what do I “have to” do? That’s when you can say, “Well, the law of the Church is that you need to attend Mass twice.” But we ought to start from the theology—the understanding of why there is any “duty” to attend Mass at all—before we start splitting temporal hairs. Good canon law, after all, exists to embody good theology, not just impose a rules set.

Isn’t this what the Church tried with Friday abstinence—“penance is the important thing; so, if you substitute another penance for abstinence, that’s OK”—an approach that undermined the principle and the rule?

No, because I don’t deny the bottom line. I just don’t want it to be the starting line. We go to Mass out of love of God. Ecclesiastical law may define what the minimums of love are. But minimums often have a way of morphing into maximums, what I “have to” do. And that generates the kind of spiritual minimalism that asks, “what’s the minimum I can get away with when Sunday and Christmas are adjacent?”

Let’s be honest: would the average Catholic fifty years ago (when there were practically no “anticipated” Masses the evening prior) have even asked the question, “so, do I ‘have to’ go to Mass twice?” And if we can’t imagine that having then been a question, does it say something about the state of contemporary Catholicism that has made it into one? Let’s be honest: would the average Catholic fifty years ago (when there were practically no “anticipated” Masses the evening prior) have even asked the question, “so, do I ‘have to’ go to Mass twice?” Tweet This

Let’s also be honest: another reason this is a question is the mishmash canonists and especially the Catholic bishops of the United States have made out of holy days of obligation. No doubt the question at Mass next week will be whether one has to do two “double-header” weekends in a row, since Sunday, December 31 (the Feast of the Hoy Family) and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (Monday, January 1) also follow each other directly.

Well, the “good news” (a sorry canonical parody of the Gospel) is “no.” Thanks to the American bishops “some-holy-days-on-Saturdays-or-Mondays-don’t-count” rule, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God on January 1, 2024 will not be a holy day of obligation.

Now, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, repeating my observations that (a) it is not spiritually good to be sending the message that one need not strictly begin a new year without God and Mass; and (b) January 1 should not be on the bishops’ bizarre exemption list (alongside Assumption or All Saints) because it is a civil holiday, meaning people do not have any other obligations (except sleeping or perhaps nursing hangovers) interfering with participating in Mass. But, like with Christmas, we’ll deliver the canonical BLUF…and mostly everybody will be happy.

The “Saturday/Monday off” holy day rule makes no sense. Liturgically, it’s unnecessary. It arguably is a “pastoral accommodation” to people evading the obligation of the holy day anyway; but, if that’s the logic, let’s be honest one more time. All Saints Day in 2024 is a Friday. There’s no episcopal “Fridays off” rule. But my bet is, of any weekday a holy day might fall on, the one least likely to be observed is Friday.

By the way, by way of further canonical legerdemain, Immaculate Conception next year won’t be a holy day. It falls on a Sunday, but, by liturgical precedence, the Second Sunday of Advent preempts it. Immaculate Conception is transferred to Monday, December 9; but while the liturgical observance is transferred, the canonical obligation of Mass participation isn’t. As patronal feast of the United States, it’s important enough to observe—but not important enough to oblige.

And the pope complains about traditional Catholics as “doctors of the law in the chair of Moses laying heavy burdens” on the faithful. Instead, apparently, it’s preferable we have Lamb of God wannabe canonists who “take away the sins of the world” by reinterpreting feasts of precept.

Author

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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