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Father Nicholas Nelson: The precepts of the Catholic Church: the minimum for being a practicing Catholic

It makes profound sense to go all in and strive to become a saint. God will reward us more than we can imagine. But is there a minimal requirement to being a practicing Catholic? Yes, in fact there is. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

First, we must follow the moral law of the church summed up in the Ten Commandments. Second, there are additional requirements we must fulfill. These additional requirements are called the Precepts of the Church. The church in her wisdom has discerned that these are the absolute minimum things we must do if we want to grow in the life of grace and in our love for God and neighbor. If we can’t do these, then we can’t expect to persevere in the faith. These are so necessary to the life of grace that the church attaches the penalty of mortal sin to them. 

There are five explicitly listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but there are another two found elsewhere in the catechism, bringing the total to seven. Let’s take a look at them. 

The first precept is, “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.” The third commandment is “keep holy the Sabbath.” With Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week, the Sabbath has now become the Lord’s day on Sunday. By divine law, we are called to keep it holy. The church has prescribed that going to Mass is the principal way that we keep it holy. That is ecclesiastical law. Therefore, going to Mass on Sundays is not an absolute requirement. You may be sick, you may have to work, and for a just cause, a pastor may dispense his people from this precept. Personally, I am willing to grant a dispensation once or twice a year if someone is going camping or hunting in the middle of nowhere. I will ask them spend an hour where they are doing something in place of attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Usually, I ask them to pray a rosary and spend 15 minutes reading and reflecting on the readings and discussing them together. 

The second precept is “you shall confess your sins at least once a year.” This precept guarantees that a person is returning to a state of grace and friendship with God and his church at least once a year and therefore can worthily fulfill the third precept. 

The third precept is “you shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.” This precept is interesting. The more observant people may say, “Wait. Isn’t this precept redundant with the first precept? The first one says we have to go to Mass every Sunday. If we are already going to Mass, why do we have to be told to receive Holy Communion?” Well, the reality is that while you are required to go to Mass every Sunday, you are not required to receive Holy Communion. The most important thing about going to Mass is that you are offering God the supreme act of worship and religion. You are giving God what is due to him. You are offering him sacrifice, the living Christ under the appearance of bread and wine to God our Father. Every Sunday, we are obliged to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We are not obligated to receive Holy Communion. 

And in fact, we shouldn’t receive Holy Communion if we have missed Mass without a just cause or have some other serious sin on our soul. This precept was implemented centuries ago, when many people had such an extreme respect of the sacred and their own unworthiness that people would not receive Communion for years at a time. The church responded to this attitude by obliging them to receive Holy Communion at least once a year. 

The fourth precept is “you shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the church.” This precept not only includes the season of Lent, when we are required to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast both on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but it also includes every Friday. In the United States, we are no longer required to abstain from meat on Fridays, so long as we replace it with another form of penance. Sadly, many Catholics forget about penance on Fridays altogether. I find it simplest to abstain from meat on Fridays, and I encourage you to join me. 

The fifth precept is “you shall help to provide for the needs of the church.” The church doesn’t demand a certain percentage from us. But Christ encourages us to give from our poverty and not from our surplus. I believe the biblical 10% is a good goal. 

The sixth precept is “you shall obey the laws of the church regarding Holy Matrimony.” This precept requires its own article, but for now, a Catholic, in order to be validly married, needs to be married in the church. Otherwise, the two are not indissolubly bonded and don’t receive the grace of the sacrament. 

The seventh precept is “you shall participate in the Church’s mission of Evangelization of Souls.” The mission of the Church of evangelization is not just for priests and religious but for all Catholics. 

So, this is the minimum. But don’t be content with the minimum. The saints never were! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]