The Dispensation from Sunday Mass

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

As you know, last weekend I granted a diocesan-wide dispensation from the obligation to attend Holy Mass on Sunday. The dispensation was approved in light of the predicted arrival of Hurricane Irene and the dangers associated with that storm.

While the news release about the dispensation was clear enough, the situation gives us an excellent opportunity for a little reflection on the importance of Sunday Mass. I’d also like you to know something of the thought process that went into my decision.

First, we should recall once again the centrality of the Sunday Eucharist in our Catholic Faith. Attendance at Sunday Mass is a serious obligation for every Catholic; to deliberately miss Mass on Sunday, without sufficient reason, is a serious sin. The obligation derives from the Third Commandment of the Lord to “Keep holy the Lord’s Day.”

Moreover, the Sunday Eucharist is the heart and soul of our spiritual life. As Blessed John Paul II wrote so well: “Those who have received the grace of baptism are not saved as individuals alone, but as members of the Mystical Body. ..The Eucharist feeds and forms the Church ... Among the many activities of a parish none is as vital or as community-forming as the Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and His Eucharist.” (Dies Domini)

In other words, we attend Holy Mass on Sunday to hear the proclamation of the Word of God; to receive Holy Communion; to share in the life of the community; and to be renewed in our mission to the world. Sunday Mass is part and parcel of being a Catholic. Faithful members of the Church never easily excuse themselves from attending.

Nor are diocesan-wide dispensations granted easily, without good reason and serious consideration. Such was the case with the dispensation granted for the arrival of Hurricane Irene and its predicted dangers, including: damaging winds, torrential rains, flooded neighborhoods, closed roads and downed power lines. The dispensation did not cancel Masses throughout the diocese; it did not prohibit Catholics from attending Mass. It simply affirmed that if individuals determined that it was too dangerous to venture outside for Mass, they could make that decision in good conscience, without incurring serious sin or the burden of guilt.

There are lots of variables to be considered in making such a decision: exactly when will the storm arrive? How fierce will it be? Will the conditions vary throughout the state? After all, the diocese covers everything from Burrillville to Block Island, Woonsocket to Westerly. The waves of the south coast are a lot different that the woods of the northwest. I have renewed appreciation for the folks who have to make the decisions about school closings every time it snows.

And speaking of snow events, in making the decision about our dispensation, I recalled a situation that occurred in the Diocese of Pittsburgh about 20 years ago. In that case, the Bishop granted a diocesan-wide dispensation from Sunday Mass because of a ferocious, dangerous winter storm, an historic blizzard. Public officials were warning people not to venture outdoors, to stay home and stay safe. Despite the ecclesial dispensation and public warnings, one old gent, determined to attend Sunday Mass, decided to walk to his parish church, not too far away. Unfortunately, in the howling wind and blinding snow he got lost, became disoriented and stumbled off the edge of the narrow road. His frozen, lifeless body was found the next morning. While we certainly admire the fervor and determination of the elderly parishioner, we can also question his lack of prudence.

For Catholics who regretted missing Mass on Hurricane Sunday, there’s no reason why they couldn’t voluntarily attend another Mass during the week. Though it’s not the same as Sunday Mass, it would certainly manifest their union with the Church and love for the Eucharist.

We recognize too that pastors aren’t happy campers when weather events (or community events) affect Sunday Mass attendance. Among other reasons for their distress is that poor attendance produces diminished collections. Most of our parishes, particularly those with marginal finances, really depend on that regular weekly income. Therefore, a suggestion: if you missed Mass on Hurricane Sunday, and if your personal circumstances allow it, why not throw a few extra bucks into the collection basket this week to make up for the collection you missed? Your generosity will support the Church and help your pastor pay the bills.

Interesting note – the name Irene means “peaceful,” and this storm was anything but peaceful, wreaking havoc across the Caribbean Sea and along the Eastern seaboard of our nation. Fortunately, by the time she arrived here, Irene had lost much of her punch and had become more peaceful. For that we thank God while we also pray for all those who suffered at her hands.

Finally, the possible catastrophe predicted with the arrival of Irene prompted me to say Mass in the days prior to the storm using the prayer in the Sacramentary entitled, “To Avert Storms.” I don’t think I had ever used that formula before, but it’s a beautiful little prayer we might remember for future occasions. It reads: “Father, all the elements of nature obey your command. Calm the storms that threaten us and turn our fear of your power into praise of your goodness.” An excellent aspiration, it seems, for the remainder of the hurricane season and as we traverse all the storms of life.