“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” G. K. Chesterton

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday Morning Catechism: The Precepts of the Church

Because I want to use my blog for catechesis, I'm starting a new semi-regular (read "when I get around to it") feature here at LLATPOH:  Monday Morning Catechism.  Every, or most...maybe several....Mondays I'll have a post covering a specific aspect of the Catholic faith.  For the inaugural MMC, let's cover the Precepts of the Church.

What is a precept?  The dictionary definition of "precept" is "a command or principle intended especially as a general rule of action."  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the precepts of the Church are "obligatory...positive laws" given Catholics by "pastoral authorities...to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor."(CCC 2041).

Let's parse this a little before we move on.  The Catechism tells us in this paragraph that the Precepts are

  • Obligatory:  for a Catholic, the Precepts are not optional.  They are binding on us, and are things we must do in order to call ourselves Catholics.
  • Positive Laws:  the Precepts are things we must do-not things we should avoid doing.  Too often, the Church is seen by the world as giving people a whole list of things not to do.  It is true, there are negative laws that tell us the things we should avoid to keep from falling into sin.  But in phrasing the Precepts as positive statements, the Church tells us that being a follower of Christ is much more than merely avoiding sin.  It means we're to act.
  • The very necessary minimum:  as parents, want to help our children grow into responsible adults.  Part of that process includes giving them chores to do.  Susan and I gave our three chores from the time they were about four years old.  But we did not start out by making them mow the lawn or cook dinner.  They started small, picking up their toys or taking out the trash.  We started with the minimum that was necessary to teach them that everyone had responsibilities in a family to help keep a clean house.  Likewise, through the Precepts, the Church as our loving Mother gives us her children the few things that are essential for us as Catholics.  But essential for what?  What are the precepts minimally necessary for?
  • For the growth in love of God and neighbor:  this is the purpose of the Precepts.  They have been provided us by the Church as a sure guide to our growth as followers of Christ.  But the are not to be done merely outwardly;  we can't just go through the motions.  We are to perform these in a "spirit of prayer and moral effort"  so these outward actions can bring about our inward transformation.
So what are the Precepts?  The Catechism lists 5.

1.  Attendance at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; along with resting from servile labor.  The Catechism explains that this Precept "requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints....by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered."(CCC 2042)  In the United States, the Holy Days of Obligation (aside from Sundays) are:
  • December 8--Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25--Solemnity of the Nativity (Christmas)
  • January 1--Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God
  • 40 Days from Easter Sunday, or the nearest Sunday--Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord
  • August 15--Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary
  • November 1--Solemnity of All Saints 
As Catholics, to miss attendance at Sunday Mass or a Holy Day of Obligation for any but a serious reasons (such as illness of self or a child) is a mortal sin and should be confessed at the next opportunity.  But even if there is a valid reason, we should strive to meet our obligation.  It may involve extra effort on our part and adjusting our schedule, but such is the importance of Mass is that it's worth it.  Last Sunday is a case in point; we went out to our Suburban and it wouldn't start.  That was it, I thought, we'd miss Mass; but that was okay, after all, because it was not our intention.  But later that afternoon, we borrowed our neighbor's car and went to a Church near us that has a late Sunday afternoon Mass.  

What about "resting from servile labor?"  The Catechism explains this as "resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of those days."  The simplest application of this is to Sunday; simply, we should not work on Sundays and avoid anything that might distract us from honoring God.  But we should also be sure not to apply this legalistically.  (For years we were members of a very conservative Presbyterian church which had a very strict view of Sundays as the Sabbath;  not only was work prohibited, but activities such as going to the pool and playground, shopping, even watching television were not approved.  Reading the bible or discussing the morning sermon were acceptable.  I thank God to have been delivered from this perspective).  But what about Holy Days of Obligation that fall on regular workdays?   That's a difficult question and one each of us needs to work out on our own;  some days I took off of work, but in general I think attendance at Mass (either the day of or on the Vigil) and honoring the day by offering our regular work to the Lord as a way of commemorating is a good approach to take.

2.   Confession at least Once a Year.  This Precept, the Catechism says, "ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of sacrament and reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness"(CCC 2042).  The Council of Trent decreed that Catholics, "after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year." Remember, one must receive the Eucharist in a state of grace.  "Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession"(CCC 1457).

Of the five, this may be one of the most neglected.  There is more avoidance of this sacrament than any of the others, partly I think because many Catholics have accepted the predominate Protestant ethos in our country that says that it is enough to confess one's sin directly to Jesus;  Jesus, after all, not the priest, forgives sins.  If one is really, really sorry and tells Jesus he's sorry, that is enough.  Well, if that were all that was necessary, then it would (1) not be a sacrament, and (2) not be a precept.  One can say, in fact, after Baptism and the Eucharist, Confession is the most important sacrament.

How important?  So important that Jesus himself told St. Maria Faustina (as recorded in her Diary):
Write, speak of My mercy. Tell souls where they are to look for solace; that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to him one's misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Were a soul like a decaying corpse so that from a human standpoint, there would be no [hope of ] restoration and everything would already be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores that soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of God's mercy! You will call out in vain, but it will be too late. (1448)
As I've said in another post ,  my dear daughter Maggie wrote of her first confession on her blog.

Finally, just remember that once a year is a precept;  we should not read this legalistically and decide we only need to go once a year.  I think that if you go less than at least once a month, you're missing innumerable graces.  And these days, who can't use as much grace as possible.

3.  Receive the Eucharist at least once a year, during Easter.  Again, this is the bare minimum for a Catholic;  the once a year reception is closely related to the once-a-year confession.  The assumption is made, I believe, that if you are not regularly receiving the Eucharist, you are not regularly attending Mass;  therefore you are in mortal sin;  therefore you need to go to Confession before receiving the Eucharist at Easter.  But while the Church requires attendance at Mass every Sunday and every Holy Day of Obligation, it does not require reception of the Eucharist;  this is a holdover from earlier times when people received the Eucharist infrequently.  Regular reception of the Eucharist is in fact a relatively recent historical development; so for someone who is a regular Mass attending Catholic, this precept may seem a little odd.  It seems, on the other hand, to give the irregular Catholic a pass in a way.  They can miss every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, go to confession, receive the Eucharist on Easter Sunday, and go merrily along the remaining 364 days of the year.

Again, though, I think we need to look beyond such a narrow and legalistic reading of the precept.  The precept gives no one a pass; a person who misses every Sunday is committing a mortal sin, and unless they are in great health and never leave their house, are constantly endangering their soul.  No one would say an "Easter only Catholic" is in fact a good, or even proper, Catholic.

The precept, as with Confession, serves as a reminder to us of the great importance of the Eucharist--the source and summit of our life.  The Catechism says of reception of the Eucharist that "the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily."  As I have written before, I have received great graces from the daily reception of the Eucharist.  Unless you live in an area without a nearby Catholic Church, I strongly recommend this discipline for the growth of your soul.

4.  Observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.  Such days, the Catechism says, "ensures the times of ascesis [the exercise of self-discipline] and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us to acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart" (CCC 2043).  Since the Second Vatican Council, in the United States the days of abstinence from meat are Ash Wednesday  Fridays during Lent, and on Good Friday; fast days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Traditionally, all Fridays were days of obligatory abstinence from meat;  today, it is not a requirement, but a discipline individual Catholics might choose to adopt. Last year, Cardinal Dolan posted an article on his blog that the restoration of the tradition might help us regain our identity as Catholics.

I must admit, this has been a difficult one for me.  Partly, it's because of the legalism I've encountered concerning it; as an Anglican, one woman I knew adhered strictly to the rules of abstinence (which in the absence of the Pope and real sacraments was all an Anglican had to convince themselves that they were really an truly Catholic) that she didn't think anyone else should have meat either.  When we had a reception on a Friday night at Church, all the dishes were meatless--but we had boiled shrimp and smoked salmon.   Sorry, but there is nothing penitential about shrimp or smoked salmon.  But when done with the right spirit, there is real spiritual benefit.  Symbolically, giving up flesh meat reminds us that our Lord gave up his fleshly body on the Cross for our sins.  It is something that we should somehow remember every Friday of the year;  giving up meat is a relatively easy way to do that.

5.  Help provide the needs of the Church.  Of this, the Catechism says "the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability."(CCC 2043).

When people read this, they immediately jump to giving money.  Of course, this covers the giving of monetary support to the Church.  The question usually asked is, "how much?"  Coming from a Protestant background where tithing was emphasized, that was a question Susan and I had.  So, we did some research and came to an astonishing conclusion:  the Catholic Church does not specify a specific fixed percentage.  Tithing was an Old Testament regulation, one that we are dispensed from under the New Covenant.  But this does not mean we are not to give to the Church;  we are required to, but the amount is left up to us.

But I also think we need to look beyond a narrow and legalistic reading of the Precept.  It does cover monetary giving to our local Parish, but it is not limited to this.  There are a couple of other aspects we should consider.

First, every Parish has needs other than monetary.  For a Parish does not just run on money; it also runs on people.  Men and women are needed to teach children and adults the faith;  servers are needed for the altar; help is needed to maintain the physical plant of the church.  In some Parishes, particularly large and affluent ones, people may actually be a greater need.  When considering the help we can provide, we should look at our time and talents as well as our treasure.

Second, the Church means more than the institution of the Parish.  The Church is the Body of Christ;  each individual person in the pews makes up the Body.  Every person in the Church has a need; it may be monetary, but it could be an intangible.  Perhaps there's a single mom who needs help with her unruly young teenage son; maybe an elderly widow needs some yard work or household repairs done;  maybe a young High School student is struggling in calculus and needs a good grade to get a College Scholarship.  We are so used to thinking about meeting needs through institutions that we forget that as Catholics we are individually called to practice both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy;  in doing so, we are fulfilling this Precept.

I hope that I've shed some light on these 5 Precepts.  Just remember, though, that I'm just a catechist;  I'm not a trained theologian nor am I a priest or deacon.  If you have further questions, please go to your parish priest;  they are there, not just to Sunday Mass, but to provide help in growing in your Catholic faith.

Next week (hopefully):  The Ten Commandments.


No comments:

Post a Comment