Growing up, I was obsessed with country music, primarily the classics from the 1950s through the early 1980s. Although I would not say I am obsessed with it any longer, it still remains my favorite kind of music by far.
My favorite is Johnny Cash, but I also love such legends as Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, George Jones, and others. One of the greats who recently died was Don Williams, nicknamed “the gentle giant” for his smooth, comforting style of music. I have several of Don Williams’ CDs (yes, I still listen to CDs) and still listen to him regularly.
Among the many great songs he recorded is one called “I Believe in You.” It’s not a religious song but a love song. The song is clever. Williams says a bunch of things he doesn’t believe in, such as “… that Superman and Robin Hood are still alive in Hol- lywood.” Then he says, “But I believe in you.”
One of the lines from the song (as good as it is) has always pricked at my conscience; it goes like this (and you can hum along if you know the tune): “I don’t believe that heaven waits for only those who congregate.”
Now, to be fair to Mr. Williams, he was a country music singer and not a theologian. Furthermore, he was a member of the Church of Christ, so I am not sure how important it is to “congregate” in that faith tradition.
From the Catholic standpoint, we take the notion of “congregating” to a more significant level than our Protestant brothers and sisters. For us Catholics, to congregate, of course, means the Mass, the Eucharist, which according to the Second Vatican Council is the source and summit of our faith.
Because of this the Catholic Church puts a high premium on Sunday (or Saturday evening) Mass attendance. Jesus alluded to this when, in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, he says that in order to have life in us, we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The life he is speaking of is not biological but spiritual or divine life. So for Catholics, the normative way to have spiritual life and get to heaven is by being one with Christ and our broth- ers and sisters in the Eucharist. In fact the early church fathers would often use such language to express the Mass as heaven on earth and where heaven and earth kiss.
Now, in saying all this, I am not saying you will be damned to hell if you don’t go to Mass on Sundays. God is not limited by the sacraments. But he gives us the sacraments as the primary and most sure means of getting to him and heaven, so why would we want to handicap ourselves by telling God that we would prefer the more difficult, roundabout way to get to heaven, and one that provides more risk in reaching our true goal?
The Catholic Church puts a clear obligation on Sunday Mass attendance not to make us jump through hoops but because it is for the good of our own salvation. If we think we know better how to get to heaven than the Catholic Church does, then we have bigger problems on our hands.
This is not a new thing; the church did not decide one century to lay an obligation on its members to go to Mass. This has always been, and there is clear evidence of this in the scriptures, as well as the earliest theologians.
You may remember hearing that one of the reasons the Roman Empire continued to persecute the church was because the early Christians were suspected of cannibalism, because they were eating flesh and drinking blood. Scripturally speaking perhaps my favorite passage concerning the need to gather for Eucharist comes from the tenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, “We should not stay away from the assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day is drawing near” (10:25).
The assembly the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is talking about, of course, is the assembly of the faithful on the Lord’s Day, the primitive Mass. From the earliest days of the church it was understood that the faithful would assemble together for the celebration of the Eucharist.
I love Don Williams and his music, and although he may be technically right that heaven doesn’t wait only for those who congregate, it is important that we take God up on the surest way of getting to heaven, and that is weekly Mass attendance, something we should long to do, and not just feel obligated to do.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]