Sunday and Holyday Observance

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According to the present discipline of the Church the faithful are obliged on Sundays and other holydays of obligation to participate at Mass, "to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord's day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body" (Codex iuris canonicis c.1247). The Second Vatican Council emphasized the importance of Sunday observance, and its preeminent position in the Church's liturgical year:

The Lord's Day is the first holy day of all and should be proposed to the devotion of the faithful and taught to them in such a way that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday, the foundation and core of the whole liturgical year (Sacrosanctum concilium,106).

History of the Observance

The obvious analogy between the Jewish sabbath and Christian Sunday and the influence of the former on the latter make it necessary to say something about the historical connection between the two.

Sabbath and Sunday. The Sabbath, or 7th day of the week, was observed among the Jews as a day sacred to Yahweh. As the law was enunciated in Ex 20.8, it was positive in form"Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day"but the manner in which this was to be done was described negatively in the context. It was to be sanctified by abstinence from work because God had rested on the 7th day after having carried out all the work for the creation of the world, and God had blessed and sanctified that day. Nevertheless, there were positive aspects to the observance. The Sabbath was a joyful feast day and one on which the Jews visited sanctuaries (Is 1.13; Hos 2.13) or went to consult a prophet of God (2 Kgs 4.23). It was a day of special sacrifice (R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. J. McHugh, 469), and in postexilic times it was celebrated by attending instruction and prayer gatherings in the synagogues.

It was made clear to the early Christians that they were not bound by Jewish practices as such (Acts 15.2829). Among the observances regarded as abrogated under this rubric was the keeping of the Sabbath. Possibly, as is believed by some on the basis of Mt 24.20, the early Christian community at Jerusalem, and perhaps early generations of Judeo-Christians elsewhere, continued to observe the Sabbath, but St. Paul did not impose the obligation on the communities he established outside Palestine (Col 2.16; Gal 4.10; Rom 14.5).

Worship. There is evidence that even during the time of the Apostles Sunday enjoyed a preeminence among the days of the week because of its association with the Lord's Resurrection; and already, at the time the Book of the Revelation was written, it was known as the Lord's day (Rv. 1.10). The emphasis put by the four evangelists on the fact that the Resurrection took place on the first day of the week suggests that even when the Gospels were being written, Sunday was regarded as sacred to Christ. While the celebration of the Eucharist was not limited to Sunday, there are indications in the NT significantly coupling its celebration with the first day of the week. The contribution that St. Paul exhorted the Corinthians to make each first day of the week for the poor in Jerusalem was probably associated with a weekly assembly for divine worship on that day. In Acts 20.7 it is said: "And on the first day of the week, when we had met for the breaking of the bread, Paul addressed them . "These passages do not prove that the faithful of the Pauline churches met every Sunday for the celebration of the Eucharist, but they indicate the probability of such a practice. This is confirmed by an ordinance contained in the Didache"On the Lord's day come together and break bread and give thanks (offer the Eucharist), after confessing your sins that your sacrifice may be pure" (14.1)which shows that the practice of sanctifying the Lord's day by the celebration of the Eucharistic meal was firmly established in postapostolic times. St. Ignatius of Antioch some time in the first years of the 2d century wrote: "Christians no longer observe the Sabbath but live in the observance of the Lord's day on which our life rose again" (Ep. Ad Magnes. 9). Other important evidence is to be found in St. Justin's description of the worship of Christians on the day of the Lord (Apol. 1.67).

There is nothing to indicate that the practice of coming together on Sundays for the Eucharistic celebration was regarded as obligatory under pain of sin during the first three centuries of the Christian era. Only gradually did the idea of obligation emerge. The Council of elvira in the first years of the 4th century declared that anyone who neglected to come to Church for three Sundays was, for his correction, to be excommunicated for a short time. This penalty seems too severe to have been imposed for anything not regarded as a serious transgression of the law. The apostolic constitutions, dating from the latter part of the same century, attributed the precept to the Apostles and suggested therefore that it was seriously binding. The ordinance regarding attendance at Mass in Codex Iuris Canonicis c.1247 goes back to the Decretal of Gratian (c. 1150).

Rest. The observance of Sunday as a day of rest was a later development, possibly because in the more primitive Church many of the faithful were of low station in life, or even slaves, and hence were not in a position to take a holiday when they wished. But as the faithful grew in numbers, the situation changed, and there were more who could find leisure at set times. As greater insistence began to be laid upon attendance at worship as a duty, and as services grew longer, the desirability became apparent of securing leisure for worship by the general observance of Sunday as a day of rest. Moreover, familiarity with the stress laid by the OT upon the Sabbath rest, which some held to have been transferred to Sunday under the New Law, and the example of pagan festivals that were celebrated as holidays turned popular thought in the direction of a Sunday holiday. There was also a general dissatisfaction with the provision for rest and recreation that prevailed in the Roman empire at that time. There was no lack of holiday festivals, but the intervals between them were irregular, and they did not provide the periodically recurrent interruptions of work necessary to meet human needs for rest and leisure. There was little resistance even from pagan sources, therefore, when Constantine in 321 decreed a weekly holiday on the "venerable day of the Sun."

The Sabbatarian idea, expressly repudiated by St. Jerome and condemned by the Council of Orléans in 538 as Jewish and non-Christian, was clearly stated in Charlemagne's decree of 789, which forbade all labor on Sunday as a violation of the Third Commandment. From that time onward the identification of the Sabbath and the Sunday rest was more or less taken for granted, and there was a tendency to draw conclusions of increasing severity from it, all based on the fundamental assumption that the Sunday rest was an institution of divine positive law. The first written ecclesiastical law on the subject of Sunday rest appears to have been that of the Synod of Laodicea toward the end of the 4th century. The synod was content to prescribe that on the Lord's day the faithful were to abstain from work as far as possible. From the 8th century onward the law was formulated by local councils more or less as it is today. As a general law of the Church it goes back to the Decretals of Gregory IX (1234).

The Fathers from Irenaeus to Augustine used the term "servile" in an allegorical sense to signify sin and used "rest" to signify freedom from sin. The Sunday rest was therefore, before all else, a cessation from sinful activities. This explains why, as the Sabbatarian movement gathered strength, attention was given to abstinence not only from work but also from various forms of recreation and amusement. Before the 15th century, however, there were few restrictions placed on the amusements in which the people indulged on Sundays. Sinful abuses of leisure and increasing Sabbatarian sentiment gave rise to strong puritan reaction in Protestant countries (see sabbatari anism), and local councils in the Counter Reformation era also protested vehemently and attempted restrictive legislation. In the common law of the Church, however, no general regulation of Sunday recreation has ever been formulated.

Other Feasts. In the 4th century, feasts on days other than Sunday began to be celebrated in the Church. Over the course of the centuries the list of such feasts became quite lengthy. From the 13th to the 17th centuries there were dioceses in which the Sundays and other feasts on which the faithful were expected to attend Mass and abstain from work amounted to more than 100 days in the course of a year. Urban VIII in 1642 greatly reduced the number, leaving 36 feasts of obligation exclusive of Sundays, and limited the right of bishops to introduce new feast days. Later there were further reductions made for particular countries, followed by general reductions applicable to the whole Latin Church.

According to the present discipline of the Church there are ten feasts or holydays of obligation exclusive of Sundays. These are Christmas, the Epiphany, the Ascension, the Body and Blood of Christ, Mary, Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption, St. Joseph, SS. Peter and Paul, and All Saints (Codex iuris canonicis c.1246 §1). However, with the permission from the Holy See, "the conference of bishops can suppress some of the holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday" (Codex iuris canonicis c.1246 §2). In the U.S., the solemnities of the Epiphany and the Body and Blood of Christ are transferred to Sundays, while the feasts of St. Joseph, and SS. Peter and Paul are not observed as holydays of obligation. Whenever January 1 (Mary, Mother of God), August 15 (the Assumption) or November 1 (All Saints) fall on a Saturday or a Monday, the obligation to attend Mass is suppressed. In the U.S., the decision whether to transfer Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter is left to each ecclesiastical province.

Moral Obligation

Observance of Sundays and holy days of obligation requires two different things of the faithful, namely, participation in the Mass and rest from unnecessary work. These duties should be considered separately.

Participation in the Mass. The faithful are bound by Codex Iuris Canonicis c.1247 to be present at Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation. At minimum, participation entails physical presence and consciousness. While the precept to participate in the Mass may be fulfilled on the evening before the Sunday or holyday of obligation, the precept of rest from unnecessary work has to be observed on the day itself. The common teaching of canonists and moral theologians is that the obligation is a grave one, and the deliberate missing of Mass without excuse is considered a grave transgression of ecclesiastical law. The precept is fulfilled by attendance at Mass celebrated in any Catholic rite (see Codex iuris canonicis c.1248 §1). The obligation may be satisfied at any time during the 24 hours of the Sunday or holy day of obligation, or on the preceding evening. Here, "evening" is understood as anytime from 4:00 p.m. onwards (see Pius XII, Christus Dominus VI, Jan. 6, 1953, in AAS 45 (1953) 1424).

Abstinence from Work. The obligation regarding the work that must be omitted is more difficult to define and to apply. The traditional prohibition against "servile," labor on Sunday is traceable in this connection to St. Jerome's faulty translation of the Hebrew m e leket aboda used in a number of OT passages regarding the cessation of work on holydays as opus servile. The servile work of the Vulgate was interpreted by some of the Fathers as sin, but between the 6th and 12th centuries local councils, popular preachers, religious chapters, devotional treatises gradually but firmly established a more literal interpretation. Some theologians from the 13th to the 16th century thought that the purpose for which a work is performed, i.e., whether or not it is done for earthly gain, ought to be considered in the determination of its servility. From the latter part of the 16th century, however, the influence of Cajetan and Suárez, and later of Alphonsus Liguori and Busenbaum, prevailed, and theologians came commonly to distinguish servile from nonservile work simply on the basis of the nature of the work alone. A work was to be classified as servile simply because it was a mechanical, arduous, physical sort of work, a sort of work that would be left to slaves or servants if that were possible. Examples of servile work would be sowing, plowing, cutting wood, making clothes. Servile work was understood in distinction to liberal work, or work that employs the mental powers chiefly, and to "mixed" or common work that requires both physical and mental effort but with the mental predominating. Servile work, so understood, was regarded as forbidden on Sundays and holydays, while liberal and common work was not. Over time, a long and increasing list of exceptions was admitted by most authorities under the title of custom, necessity, public utility, charity, piety, emergency, or even the obligation of avoiding idleness likely to prove a proximate occasion of sin.

In the 20th century considerable dissatisfaction was expressed, not with the law itself, but with the outmoded concept of servility enshrined in it, a concept elaborated for a social and religious milieu so different from that which prevails in the modern world. The prohibition of servile as opposed to liberal work was well enough suited to the social conditions of earlier times. It effectively outlawed Sunday and holy day work on the great landed estates and so accomplished something of religious and social value. But the interpretation has become increasingly difficult to apply to contemporary conditions and situations. The difference between what is servile and what is liberal has lost much of its relevance, and the stress upon hard physical toil appears less important in a world in which workers are generally in less need of rest from hard physical labor than relief from the monotony, cares, and frustrations involved in the liberal or common types of work by which they earn their living.

Canonists argued that the rest required by Sunday and holyday observance can best be secured by interpreting it with less attention to the historical question of what kind of work was once done by slaves and serfs, and what kind by free citizens and with more attention to the ever actual purpose of the law, which is to give to all, time to worship God, to hear the word of God, to regain spiritual and physical strength, and to enjoy family life. The preoccupation with work precludes one from all of the foregoing, whatever that may be and regardless of whether it is liberal, mixed, or servile.

All these factors led to a rewording of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Whereas c. 1248 of the 1917 Code obliged the faithful on Sundays and other holy days to attend Mass and to abstain from servile work, from judicial proceedings, and unless legitimate customs or special indults make exceptions, from public markets, fairs, and other public buying and selling, the 1983 Code avoids the use of the phrase "servile work." Canon 1247 states the obligation as follows:

On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord's day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.

Those who are employed in jobs that require them to work on Sundays and/or holy days are excused from the observance of rest, but not necessarily from the obligation to participate in the Mass. In individual instances when one finds it impossible, or impossible without extreme inconvenience to attend Mass, one is morally excused from the obligation without the need for a dispensation. Where there is a "just cause" for the inability to participate in the Mass on Sundays and holy days, those who are affected may seek a dispensation or commutation under Codex iuris canonicis c.1245, which provides that: "Without prejudice to the right of diocesan bishops mentioned in can. 87, for a just cause and according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, a pastor can grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or a day of penance or can grant a commutation of the obligation into other pious works." Here, "individual cases" include both a one-off case, as well as an ongoing situation. In the latter case, the preference is for commutation rather than outright dispensation.

Bibliography: j. m. nielen, Das Zeichen des Herrn: Sabbat und Sonntag in biblischer und urchristlicher Bezeugung (Freiburg 1940). m. zalba, "De conceptu operis servilis," Periodica de re morali canonica liturgica 52 (1963) 13363, 261319. v. j. kelly, Forbidden Sunday and Feast Day Occupations (Washington 1943). j. t. sullivan, The Sunday Rest (Rome 1952). b. hÄring, The Law of Christ, tr. e. g. kaiser, v.2 (Westminster, Md. 1963) 296338. j. a. quigley, "Changing Concept of Servile Work," Catholic Theological Society of America. Proceedings 12 (1957) 14555. l. l. mcreavy, "Servile Work: The Evolution of the Present Sunday Law," Clergy Review 9 (1935) 26984; "Servile Work: Criticism and Suggestions," ibid. 45366; "Sabbatarianism and the Decalogue," ibid. 20 (1941) 498508. e. j. mahoney, "Bondsman or Free," ibid. 1 (1931) 33345. p. o'neill, "The Meaning of Servile Work," The Irish Ecclesiastical Record 52 (1938) 64647. j. beal et al, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York-Mahwah, N.J. 2000).

[m. herron/eds.]