I usually write blog posts late in the evening on Sundays so that they can "go live" for the public first thing Monday morning. Recently though, I had spent the weekend battling the flu and wanted to get to bed early. But I had yet to write a blog post and could not think of anything to write about. Desperate for an idea, I threw up a bleg on my Facebook page, asking Friends:
Say you've been dealing with the flu all weekend, and now have about three hours to think up and write a blog post if you want to go to sleep at a decent time tonight. What would you write about?
The response was immediate: Write what you know. Suggestions included prayers for healing, suffering, the importance of sleep, and the Sunday obligation when you are sick.
Conversation boomed at that last one. A deacon said that he had contracted the flu after he had preached at four Masses one Sunday in late December and then had to shake the hundreds of hands of departing congregants following each Mass. A fellow blogger said that an essay she wrote years ago on the "hidden charity" of not going to Mass when you are sick still draws in Catholics who are searching Google to find out about the Sunday obligation for those who are ill.
Evidently, when you should stay home from Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation is something a lot of Catholics wonder about.
What is the obligation?
Let's begin by looking at what the Church says regarding the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days. The Code of Canon Law states:
On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass. They are also to abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, or the due relaxation of mind and body (canon 1247).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates this precept of the Church (CCC 2180), but gives the following proviso:
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 (CCC 2181, emphasis added).
Confusion sets in though at what constitutes "serious reason." For the purpose of this blog post, we are only considering "serious reason" as it pertains to illness. If you are in doubt regarding other serious reasons for missing Mass on a Sunday or holy day, I strongly urge you to talk to your pastor.
What constitutes "serious reason" to miss Mass?
The first thing to keep in mind is that you cannot judge your own circumstances by anyone else's. For example, two people I know who battled cancer handled differently the same situation of whether or not to attend church during their illness.
The first person did not miss a single Mass obligation from the day he entered the Catholic Church as a young man until the day he died, a few days after attending a Sunday Mass for the very last time. All who knew him were edified by his determination to keep going to Sunday Mass until the very end. The second person was warned by her doctor that chemotherapy would wipe out her immune system, making her extremely susceptible to deadly complications, and chose not to attend church until her course of treatment was completed.
Which person was right? They both were. Both of these people carefully assessed their circumstances and capabilities, and both made the choice they felt in conscience was the correct one for them. Neither one would have dreamed of binding anyone else's conscience by the same choice they made for themselves.
Most of us though do not face life-or-death consequences when we are trying to decide whether or not to go to Mass. We usually have lesser concerns to consider. Here are a few of them:
Am I contagious? Every year during cold and flu season, parish bulletins issue standard pleas to congregants to avoid the sign of peace and receiving the precious blood from the chalice when ill. But when you know you have an illness that is easily spread to other people, why would you go to a large gathering of people in the first place—especially when there may be people in that gathering who are not sick now, but whose health is fragile and who can easily fall seriously ill from someone else's minor cold? Perhaps more pastors should be using the bulletin to tell people who are contagious to stay home.
Do I look ill? If you have red, watering eyes, a runny nose, or a recurring sneeze, people around you are going to assume you are contagious, whether you are or not. Even if what you have is a sinus infection or an allergic reaction, your appearance likely is going to worry all of the congregants who are seated near you. How well will they be able to concentrate on the Mass when they hear you blowing your nose or see you wiping your streaming eyes?
Can I sit through Mass? Without getting specific, there are certain medical conditions that may not be contagious, but that may require you to either walk around or visit the restroom frequently. Unless you know for certain you can sit near an exit or a restroom, your constant movement may cause distraction for others and should be considered when deciding whether to go to Mass.
Can I travel safely? Are you driving yourself, or riding with someone else? If you are driving yourself, are you taking medication that could cause you to become sleepy? Could your symptoms inhibit your driving ability? For example, constantly streaming eyes or a hacking cough that causes you to close your eyes may make you an unsafe driver.
Would I go to work? Not long after I became Catholic, I took my scruples over missing Mass when ill to a priest in confession. My confessor offered a handy rule of thumb that I have relied upon ever since: If I was ill enough that I would take a sick day from work, I was ill enough to stay home from Mass. If I am in doubt as to whether I would choose to take a sick day, I ask myself if my supervisor would send me home to convalesce because of my symptoms.
Finally, keep in mind that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say that you must be "seriously ill" to have just reason to miss Mass. It says that illness (without qualification) constitutes a "serious reason" that justifies missing Mass on a Sunday or holy day.
What if I want to go to Mass anyway?
As noted above, some people assess their individual circumstances and decide they should go to Mass anyway. Ultimately, each person has to make the decision that seems the right one in conscience to make. If that person believes it would be a sin for him to miss Mass for any lesser reason than being physically unable to rise from a sickbed, then he will likely go to Mass despite reassurances it is not necessary. But, if there is even a slight possibility that he might be contagious—even when he is sure he is "getting over" his illness—there are precautions he can take to protect others.
Sit at the end of a pew. If you think you will need to get up to go to the restroom, or if you might have to go outside because you begin coughing uncontrollably, then sit at the end of a pew, on the opposite side of the center aisle. You will be much less noticeable if you have to slip outside than if you sit in the middle of a pew or near the center aisle.
Forgo touching anyone's hands. If your parish holds hands during the Our Father, you can indicate you won't be participating by clasping your hands, bowing your head, and shutting your eyes. If anyone tries to take your hand anyway (as sometimes happens), ignore it and then be sure to smile apologetically during the sign of peace. At the sign of peace, keep your hands clasped together, smile, and say, "I'm sorry, I have a cold. Peace be with you." After Mass, rest assured that your priest and deacon will not notice if you slip away without shaking hands. You could also smile, greet them, and say in response to a proffered hand, "I would shake hands with you, but I am just getting over a cold."
Let people know, if necessary. Another time I had been ill, my sniffles were basically gone and I'd already missed Mass the week before. So I was determined to go that week. The baby in the pew behind me threw her pacifier under my pew so it landed at my feet. As I scooped it up, I suddenly remembered having had a cold. So I turned, handed over the pacifier, and before the mother could stuff the pacifier back in the child's mouth, said quietly, "I have a cold. You might want to sanitize that first." She gave me a grateful smile and dug out another pacifier for the baby from her diaper bag.
Take care in receiving the Eucharist. A full, complete Communion is made by receiving the Eucharist under either the consecrated host or the precious blood. There is no necessity to receive both. If you are in any way ill, do not receive the precious blood from the chalice. If you have any kind of sores on or near your mouth, such as cold sores, it is a courtesy to the minister of Communion to receive the consecrated host in your hands, if possible—even when your ordinary practice is to receive the host on your tongue. It should go without saying that anyone who is even the slightest bit ill should not be distributing Communion as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
What if I decide to stay home?
The most important thing you can do when you must stay home from Mass on a Sunday or holy day of obligation is to get well. The Church does offer some guidance though on what you could choose to do to participate in the holiness of the day in some way.
If it is impossible to assist at a eucharistic celebration, either because no sacred minister is available or for some other grave reason, the faithful are strongly recommended to take part in a Liturgy of the Word, if there be such in the parish church or some other sacred place, which is celebrated in accordance with the provisions laid down by the diocesan bishop; or to spend an appropriate time in prayer, whether personally or as a family or, as occasion presents, in a group of families (canon 1248, Code of Canon Law).
This counsel is repeated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2183).
The apologists at Catholic Answers are often asked if televised Masses, such as those that are regularly broadcast on EWTN, can fulfill the Sunday/holy day obligation. The answer is no. You have to be present in person at Mass to fulfill the obligation. But if you have just cause to miss Mass due to illness, then the obligation is dispensed.
What a televised Mass can do is to allow the homebound person to participate in the liturgy in a remote way. Watching a televised Mass can be especially comforting for those who are homebound for weeks or months on end. Those who depend on televised Masses in this way should also contact their parish to receive the sacraments at home.
A patron saint for the homebound
Have you ever wondered why St. Clare of Assisi (1194–1253), the friend of St. Francis of Assisi who founded the Poor Clares in the 13th century, is the patron saint of television? During her final illness near the end of her life, St. Clare was confined to her bed in the infirmary of her convent and could not attend Mass. Pious legend has it that an image of the liturgy that was taking place in the chapel would appear on the wall of St. Clare's room, enabling St. Clare to follow along in real time with the Mass from her sickbed.
Perhaps whenever you are wondering whether or not you have just reason to miss Mass on Sunday or a holy day of obligation, you could ask St. Clare for her intercession.
In the depths of this very mirror [Jesus Christ], ponder his unspeakable love which caused him to suffer on the wood of the cross and to endure the most shameful kind of death [which is re-presented at every Mass]. The mirror himself, from his position on the cross, warned passers-by to weigh carefully this act [of self-sacrifice], as he said: "All of you who pass by this way, behold and see if there is any sorrow like mine" [cf. Lam. 1:12]. Let us answer his cries and lamentations with one voice and one spirit: "I will be mindful and remember, and my soul will be consumed within me" (St. Clare of Assisi).