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Forcing Families to Attend Mass

When inquirers call into Catholic Answers, they sometimes share concerns about practices going on in their parish. Those concerns often center around the Mass and the proper celebration of the liturgy, but occasionally we are also asked about problems in parish life. Believe it or not, we also sometimes hear from parish staff, who can become frustrated with parishioners who do not seem to understand their obligations as members of the parish.

When I was looking through my archive of old questions and answers that I have worked on over my years at Catholic Answers, I was intrigued to find a pair of Q&As from opposite points of view on the exact same subject: forcing Catholic families to attend Mass. The first question came from the parent of a child in a parish religious education program, and the second was sent to us from a parish’s Director of Religious Education.

The questions both concerned a common problem in parishes—how to convince parents to attend Mass at the parish in which their child is enrolled in CCD in preparation for the sacraments of reconciliation and Communion. The parent was concerned that the methods being used in her parish were overly burdensome, and the religious educator was looking for legitimate ways to get parents in her parish’s program to attend Mass at the parish.

Let’s first look at this issue from the parental perspective.

A Catholic parent’s point-of-view

My daughter's second-grade CCD class was given a Mass attendance record, which they are to have the priest punch for them after Mass. Is this right?

My response: While the parish is well-intentioned in trying to get children in its CCD program—and, presumably, their parents—to attend Mass, the policy it has implemented to encourage this is problematic. Catholics have the right to fulfill their Sunday obligation “wherever Mass is celebrated in a Catholic rite either on a holy day itself or on the evening of the previous day” (canon 1248 §1, Code of Canon Law) and are not required to do so at their parish church. It would be particularly troublesome if the parish is conditioning the children’s reception of the sacraments of First Reconciliation and First Communion upon a completed attendance record, particularly since culpability for failure to complete such a record would be the parents’ and not the children’s.

I recommend talking to the pastor to clarify the parish’s intentions in this policy and the consequences for the children if the attendance record is not completed. If you remain concerned about the use of these “punch cards,” I recommend talking to a canon lawyer in your diocese for clarification of the relationship between your child’s right to receive the sacraments and the parish’s responsibility to ensure adequate preparation for those sacraments.

Now let’s turn to the other side for a differing perspective.

A Catholic educator’s point-of-view

I am the Director of Religious Education at our parish and I cannot understand why parents do not take their children to Sunday Mass but have them in CCD classes. Is there anything we can tell the parents to get them there? Can we tell them something about non-attendance? Can we require that they attend Mass as part of their class hours?

My response: I’m sorry, and I sympathize with how frustrating the situation must be, but the parish does not have the authority to intimidate, coerce, or otherwise compel parents to bring their children to Mass at the parish where the children are enrolled in CCD. Catholics have the right to attend Mass at any Catholic church that is recognized to be a Catholic church by its local ordinary.

What this means is that Catholics are free to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days at any Catholic parish they please. They are not required by canon law to attend Mass at the parish where their children attend CCD classes. Any form of unjust coercion, such as attendance sheets, rewards, or compulsory “class hours” is an unjust infringement upon this right. It should go without mentioning that any form of punishment for innocent children, who generally have no say in where their parents attend Mass, is also inappropriate and unjust.

The most religious educators and clergy in this situation can do is to leverage the power of persuasion. There are two ways in which this could be done, both of which could be used together:

  • One, the pastor could write an essay for a parents’ CCD orientation packet explaining the Catholic obligation to attend Mass and the benefits to families in the CCD program in attending Mass regularly at the parish where their children attend CCD. These benefits must not be tangible “pay-offs,” but should be an explanation that regular Mass attendance at the parish contributes to a “holistic” religious formation experience for children and parents alike, enabling the family to become more involved in the parish community. The pastor could also mention that regular family attendance at the parish makes it possible for clergy and other religious educators to accurately assess the children’s readiness for the sacraments.
  • Two, the CCD teachers can teach the Sunday/holy day obligation to the children as part of their curriculum. Catechists should avoid any suggestion that the children nag their parents, but they could be prepared to assist children who would like to attend Mass at the parish on Sundays and holy days in doing so. For example, the parish could look into ways to help families in the religious education programs to organize car pools; the catechists could speak to parents of a child’s desire (at the child’s request, and with his permission); parishes could determine if it is possible to schedule religious education classes to end near the same time the Saturday vigil Mass begins, etc.

If there are families with children in CCD who still do not attend Mass at the parish, the pastor might approach those parents privately to ask if they are attending Mass elsewhere on Sundays and holy days, so as to assure himself that the family understands the obligation to attend Mass somewhere. After that, the only thing left to do is to let go and let God.

Finding common ground

I sometimes find myself wondering why clergy and laity bring these issues to a non-involved third party to attempt to resolve. Granted, it is sometimes helpful to hear an outsider’s perspective, but I often think it would be more helpful for clergy, religious educators, and parishioners to sit down together to talk through these issues.

In many non-Catholic churches and non-Christian houses of worship, clergy and laity seem to work more easily together, perhaps because non-Catholic and non-Christian clergy oftentimes are employees of their congregation rather than appointees of a bishop. Of course, that arrangement is not possible in Catholic churches, but perhaps Catholic parishes could think about how to find ways to incorporate a more collaborative model of parish life, always seeking to do so in accord with canon law which states:

[The pastor] exercises the pastoral care of the community entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop, whose ministry of Christ he is called to share, so that for this community he may carry out the offices of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling with the cooperation of other priests or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of Christ's faithful, in accordance with the law (canon 519, Code of Canon Law, emphasis added).

By Michelle Arnold


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