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Father Nicholas Nelson: Dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass

Growing up, I was constantly playing sports. I was on many traveling soccer and hockey teams, as were my sisters and brother. At times it seemed we were traveling at least twice a month for tournaments. Today, I think that was way too much, and we as priests and parents need to keep sports more localized, but that is a topic for another day.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

But when we were away from our home parish, we never missed Mass. And I mean NEVER! When we arrived at the hotel where were staying, the first thing my parents would ask would be if they had list of the local Catholic churches and their Mass times. We would look at the churches and their schedule and say, “If we only get to the third-place game, then we need to go to the 11 a.m. Mass, but if we play in the championship game, then we will have to go to the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass.”

Again, not ideal to be playing sports Sunday mornings, and I am convinced that we need to fight against this, but at least we made it to Sunday Mass. My parents drilled it into us, that we owed it to God to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every Sunday. When I was on my own in Texas playing hockey and traveling through Montana, I did the same thing. I found the local church and got myself to Mass.

This is from paragraph 2181 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.”

Everywhere in the world during the past year there was at some point a dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Because there was no obligation during that time, it was not grave matter to miss Mass, and therefore, it could not have been a mortal sin to miss Mass. Nonetheless, because of the minimal risks involved, I do believe that for most people it was a venial sin not to attend Sunday Mass.

However, you’ll notice in the paragraph from the Catechism above, that it is possible for a person to be dispensed from their obligation to attend Mass by their pastor. A pastor has the authority to dispense from the obligation to attend Mass.

Why is this? The obligation to attend Mass is ecclesial or church law. The teaching authority of the church has Christ’s authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18). This means the church can bind us to certain acts, such as going to Mass on Sunday, even at the consequence of mortal sin and the penalty of hell if we are unrepentant. And because it is a church law and not divine law, the church has granted to pastors the authority to dispense individuals of that obligation in particular circumstances.

If is unreasonable for you to attend Sunday Mass on an upcoming Sunday, for example, if you are camping or hunting in a remote area, you may ask your pastor for a dispensation. I personally will grant a dispensation once or twice a year to a person. If they are asking for one, once a month, that’s too much. Also, I would not grant a dispensation for people just because they are traveling, because there are Catholic Masses being offered in every civilized area. It’s as simple as searching on the Internet for the local church.

However, when a person is in a remote area, I will grant the dispensation. In place of attending Mass, I commend them to reading the Mass readings, discussing them with their family or group, and making a spiritual Communion. I will also ask them to pray a rosary together. I want them to spend close to the duration of Mass in prayer and meditation on God and God’s Word. This is important because while they may be dispensed from Sunday Mass, they are still obligated to “keep holy the Sabbath or Lord’s Day.” Sunday still must be set apart from the other days of the week.

This is because ecclesial or church laws are different from divine law. While there can be dispensation from ecclesial law, there are no dispensations from divine law. For example, you can’t receive a dispensation from the sixth commandment. You can’t receive a dispensation from anyone, even the pope, to commit adultery or fornication. Likewise, it is divine law to “keep holy the Sabbath or the Lord’s day.” This means while you may be dispensed from the prescript of attending Mass, you still are obligated to keep Sunday holy.

So, if you have not yet returned to Mass, get yourself back to Mass. As of July 4, it is a mortal sin not to go to Mass. More importantly, we are not complete without you. The Body of Christ needs to be at full strength when offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And if in the future you need to miss Mass, have the foresight and reverence and respect for God to ask your pastor for a dispensation.

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].