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Do Online Masses Fulfill a Catholic’s Sunday Obligation?

A listener asks Father Dave about watching live streamed Masses online. Cara says, “Since COVID, I have been to an in-person Mass a handful of times, preferring to attend online. I especially enjoy the Masses from St. Paul the Apostle. The music and sermons inspire me spiritually. How is this viewed? Should I be making more of an effort to go to Mass in person?”

Father Dave first notes that only attending online would be permissible for a daily Mass, but does not fulfill a Catholic’s Sunday obligation – even following the COVID-19 pandemic. “When the pandemic was at its worst, bishops around the world waived the rule of the Church that we are obliged under penalty of sin to attend church in person on Sundays. So what some people think is that ‘Oh, well, once COVID hit, bishops made it okay for watching online to count as our obligation.’ That was never the case. The obligation is to go to church in person.” Once the worst of the pandemic passed, the dispensation from this obligation was lifted.

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Pre-pandemic and now, the Church offers Mass through technology for those who are ill or homebound. “Even from back in the days of radio, some churches have the tradition of broadcasting the Sunday Mass for those who genuinely cannot make it. The Sunday obligation is adhered to by those that are physically able and are not prevented by some good reason,” he continues. “Sometimes people will come to confession and say, ‘Father, last week I was in the emergency room hooked up to an IV, and I couldn’t get to Mass.’ That’s not a sin; you’re not obliged to get there if you really can’t get there.”

While watching Mass online does not fulfill the Sunday obligation, Father Dave notes how it can be beneficial for our faith lives. “If you are nourished greatly spiritually by the music or the preaching that you see online at our church, whether you’re talking about Sundays or a daily Mass, then please add or maintain that as a component of your spiritual life,” he says.

To help us reframe our thinking towards an obligation, Father Dave cites a portion of his book, “Mass Class: Your Questions Answered.” He begins, “I think in our modern life, ‘obligation’ is a dirty word. People don’t like to be told what to do or have rules…rather than use that word obligation, what if we substitute the word ‘commitment’ for obligation?” 

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“I have a friend who wakes up at the crack of dawn every day to do some sort of punishing CrossFit type of exercise class. She’ll often post to social media sweaty, red faced selfies, and tell the tale of how the class kicked her butt,” he continues. “She’d be the first to admit that she doesn’t like going to this class, and there are plenty of days that she doesn’t want to go. But she’s committed to going because she sees the value in exercise on a regular basis for her own personal health, and as a motivation for others in her life. Commitments almost always involve some sacrifice, but we deem those to be worth it because what we’re committed to is of a higher value.”

Father Dave notes that attending Mass in person is crucial to receiving the Eucharist as the source and summit of our faith, but the obligation is separate from this. “We come together because it is about being other-centered. That’s everything that Jesus, from the very first moment, was all about; he’s calling guys from the beach and saying, ‘Come follow me.’ He didn’t just do individual relationships; it was always about gathering a community,” he says. “There’s a reason for that, because when we’re in community we’re aware of each other’s needs. Can you tune in at home and find out from the parish eblast what the needs are? Sure you can. But there’s a human dimension that a lot of people identified that they really missed during COVID, the human dimension of gathering together.”