I must have been fifteen or sixteen, and I wanted something quite badly—probably money. But my Dad had other ideas. His idea was "no."
But even back then I was something of a debater, so l launched in to all the reasons why he should change his mind. I concluded with a list of my good points: I didn't drink, I didn't stay out all night, and I kept my room clean (actually, that last point wasn't true, but it sounded good).
My Dad listened thoughtfully, and said: "You don't drink, you don't stay out all night, and you keep your room clean. And I don't beat your mother."
"What?? What's that got to do with it?" I exclaimed. "Of course you don't beat my mother."
"Precisely," he said. "And I don't expect any credit for it."
His point was that doing what you're supposed to do isn't a great accomplishment. It's what God and others expect of you; it's nothing to boast about.
There are a thousand homilies contained in the parable of the Prodigal Son, but the story I've just told leads me to the one thousand and first. Doesn't the older son want credit for doing his duty? Doesn't he want his father to praise him for nothing more than avoiding the ghastly mistakes of his younger brother?
I hate to pick on the elder son, since he often gets the worst of it in homilies, but his mistake can teach us something. No matter how badly others mess up—in our families, our Church, or the world—we still can't look to be patted on the back for doing what we're called to do.
We live in a time when words like duty and obligation are out of fashion. Yet the Christian life necessarily involves duty, even thankless duty. Jesus himself tells us "when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done." (Lk 17:10, NRSV).
St. Paul tells the Corinthians not to give him credit for his missionary service, because that's what he is obliged to do: "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). He's just doing what God told him to do, so he looks for thanks from neither God nor men.
We all have duties and obligations. Some come from family life—duties toward spouse, or children, or parents. Others arise from baptism, which is a source not only of rights but of responsibilities as well. Still other duties come from commitments we have made as priests or consecrated persons.
Today, I would like to speak about only one of our many duties as Christians: the obligation to attend Mass each Sunday. It may be only one, but fulfilling the Sunday obligation is the foundation of the practice of the faith (see CCC 2181).
In the simple words of the Catechism, "Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin" (CCC 2182).
But it's a mistake to think that missing Mass is simply breaking a Church rule. We know that keeping the Sabbath day holy is one of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism says "the celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart"—a command "to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship." Jews, Moslems, and Christians all agree on the need to offer weekly praise to God, even if we do so on different days.
For Catholics, though, Sunday Mass is more than just our weekly worship. The Eucharist "is at the heart of the Church's life" and Sunday is the day on which the mystery of Christ's Resurrection has been celebrated from the earliest times (see CCC 2177).
For the Christian, Sunday is "the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord's Day" (CCC 2174). In his beautiful letter "On Keeping the Lord's Day Holy" [Dies Domini, 1998], Pope John Paul calls Sunday "the weekly Easter," "the day of the new creation," "an image of eternity"—I hope he wasn't talking about long homilies!—"the day of Christ-light," "the day of faith," summing up by calling it simply "an indispensable day."
Despite those rich expressions of the wonder and power of Sunday, the late Pope was realistic, and he writes with insight about the obstacles that make it difficult to participate in the Sunday celebration.
To be honest, I wouldn't have completely understood what he meant before coming to this suburban parish. Now, I can fully appreciate what the Pope was talking about when he said:
"The custom of the 'weekend' has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities ... This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people's development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. …
"Unfortunately," the Pope continues "when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a 'weekend', it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see 'the heavens'. Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so."
You sure can't say he doesn't understand the situation families face when soccer games, recitals, ski trips, and meetings all take place on Sunday.
But understanding the situation doesn't mean surrendering to it. The Pope's letter continues with these powerful words:
"The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord's Day holy, and the 'weekend', understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation. This will require a genuine spiritual maturity, which will enable Christians to 'be what they are'… In this way, they will be led to a deeper understanding of Sunday, with the result that, even in difficult situations, they will be able to live it in complete docility to the Holy Spirit."
As a new school year begins, as the holidays end, we are invited to imitate the elder brother in the parable, by doing what we're supposed to do. But we may be surprised to find that doing no more than our duty will lead us to the same loving meeting with the Father that the younger son experienced, despite his sinfulness.