Up Front and Personal

Go to Mass and Express Your Gratitude

by Father William J. Byron, S.J.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been studying the decline in Sunday Mass attendance in the Catholic community. An old friend who knew what I was up to recently sent me a letter indicating that he had read an article I wrote based on “exit interviews” with nonchurchgoing Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

My friend mentioned that one of his philosophy professors years ago at the University of Notre Dame used to say that “Catholics have lost the sense of what is at stake in life,” and my friend interpreted his professor to be saying that “maybe a large number of Catholics may not be spending eternity in God’s presence.”

My correspondent then added, “Father, as you surely know, fire and brimstone might not only not be effective, but can become counterproductive; yet what is at stake for souls must be conveyed with urgency.”

He was obviously thinking of the Sunday Mass obligation and the heavy penalty that he, as a catechized Catholic, had been taught was attached to willful omission of that obligation. It was a capital crime, a mortal sin. Hence the need today to consider “with urgency” what is at stake.

In responding to my friend, I reminded him that when we were boys we often heard the cowboys in the Saturday afternoon movies say “much obliged” when they wanted to express their gratitude. It was a way of saying “thank you” in the old American vernacular. We mimicked the cowhands later at supper by saying, “Much obliged, ma’am” when our mothers put the mashed potatoes on the table.

In searching now for a persuasive nonthreatening way to explain how the church (which, by the way, opposes capital punishment) wants us to understand the Sunday obligation, it might be good to recall the old American vernacular.

“Much obliged” is an expression of gratitude.  And what the church expects of its members on Sunday – resurrection day, the first day of the week – is a formal liturgical expression of thanks.  Eucharist means thanks-doing, thanks-saying, thanksgiving.

We give thanks for the gift of our salvation through the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  Not to meet this obligation – not to offer praise and thanks – is to be an ingrate.

Moreover, we do this in community, not as isolated individuals, because that’s how we’ve been ransomed, that’s how we’ve been saved – in community.  And finally, we do it in the eucharistic community because the Eucharist, a thanksgiving ritual, forms us into the one body of Christ.

Who wants to be seen as an ingrate in the eyes of the Lord? Some who are no longer going to Mass on Sundays may be willing to admit that they are sinners; nobody’s perfect. But ingrates? There’s a question that deserves a bit of thought.

As the weekend approaches, ask yourself: Am I an ingrate? Or do I really consider myself to be much obliged? If so, get to Mass on Sunday and express your gratitude.