During the pandemic, Catholic Church authorities were forced to endorse the state’s ban on Mass attendance. Some hoped this would be the end of the Sunday Obligation, but Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher reimposed it last week.
When I was growing up, practising Catholics were very aware of the requirement to attend Mass on Sundays and certain feast days that were designated ‘Holy Days of Obligation’.
In a society that was still to some extent sectarian, it did not seem fair that we Catholics were compelled to go to church while Protestants were free to choose. But the Sunday Obligation was a loathsome marker of Catholic identity that you did not question.
I hated having to go to Mass and would often go by myself to an early mass, to get it over with, so that I could enjoy the rest of my Sunday.
To be fair, Sunday mass had some positives. These included its music and theatre, and the engaging craft of some of the priests. But for me, all of this was negated by the Obligation.
When I reached adulthood and developed a broader and quite significant appreciation of certain aspects of the Catholic faith, I grew out of my cultural need to honour the Sunday Obligation.
Indeed, on Sunday mornings to this day, I experience a mild sense of euphoria in being free from its yoke. I would even suggest this signifies that I suffered from a form of PTSD associated with the Obligation.
During the pandemic, the Sunday Obligation has of course suffered something of a blow, with church authorities having to endorse the state’s ban on mass attendance.
I’d hoped that this might have had a lasting effect post-pandemic, with Catholics taking responsibility for deciding on their mass attendance in general, in the way that all citizens are now taking decisions about how to act appropriately in social gatherings.
But last week, Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher put paid to this in his pastoral letter ‘Come Home to Mass!’ He said:
‘I rescind my decree of 20 March 2020 dispensing the faithful of Sydney from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and the Holy Days of Christmas and the Assumption. Under canon 1247 attendance at Mass on those days is now obligatory once again.’
Leaving the Sunday Obligation in its state of being cast aside might have usefully helped Catholic church leaders demonstrate humility in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.
The need for this arises from the Royal Commission finding that power dynamics in institutional cultures allowed sexual abuse to flourish. But Archbishop Fisher’s pastoral letter – and a similar one from the Archbishop of Hobart – has shown that they are determined to exercise a powerful grip on the lives of the faithful.
The good news is that they are fighting a losing battle, with an increasing 88 per cent majority of Catholics rejecting the Sunday Obligation.