This is a question I have heard quite a lot in the parish, and it is an important question. It seems like a simple enough question that should have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The answer to this question is not this simple though.
How often have we heard, “If you miss Mass on Sunday then you are guilty of committing a mortal sin.” Many of us were taught this from our childhood. We also learned in CCD or religion class in grade school that people who are guilty of mortal sin and don’t repent go to hell. But this raises a question with many people. “So if I miss Mass on Sunday am I going to go to hell?” “How can God be a loving God if he sends me to hell for only missing Mass on Sunday? That doesn’t seem very loving.” “Missing Mass on Sunday can’t be that bad that God is going to send me to hell.” “I believe in a loving God; I don’t believe God will send me to hell for missing a couple Masses throughout the year.”
It is often for these reasons, among others, that people don’t believe missing Mass is mortally sinful. People rationalize. "If it is not a mortal sin to miss Mass then what is the big deal if I miss Mass a couple times a month." "I’m a good person and I have a lot of stuff to do, and I just don’t have time to go to Mass every Sunday.” It would be easy to say this, and how very often have we all done so.
The problem with all of this is that many of us did not pay close attention in our CCD or religion classes. We remember what mortal and venial sin is; and if we don’t remember, our Protestant brothers and sisters are more than willing to remind us.
Venial sin is all of the little sins and faults that we commit that chip away and harm our relationship with God and others; but venial sin does not totally sever our relationship with God. Mortal sin, on the other hand, totally severs us off from God. The only way to repair and come back into relationship with God is by going to confession. Venial sin hurts our souls; mortal sin gives death wounds to our souls. Most of us remember these definitions and could probably give examples of each. Mean things said to others in frustration would be venial sin; murder would be mortal sin. So how can missing Mass on Sunday be a mortal sin? Is missing Mass on Sunday really the equivalent in God’s eyes to murder?
These definitions of mortal and venial sin are pretty straightforward enough; which is why we remember them. What we forget often is that we were most likely taught about another type of sin: grave sin (another common name for this is ‘serious sin’). What! You might be asking; I have never heard of that. Well, there is a good chance that you were taught this at an age where you probably didn’t understand the difference between mortal sin and grave sin. If on the other hand you were never taught this in CCD or in your religion class then you are the victim of something that has plagued the Church for the past 30 years: bad catechesis.
So what is grave sin? In order to understand what grave sin is you have to understand completely what mortal sin is. Mortal sin is deadly; it literally kills our relationship with God. Mortal sin is the worst possible thing EVER. Why is this? Mortal sin destroys our relationship with God, and if we persist in mortal sin, it eventually will kill our very own conscience. Our conscience tells us what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? But if we commit mortal sin we are in effect telling our conscience that ‘wrong’ is ‘right’ and after a while we can make our conscience believe ‘wrong’ is ‘right’.
Think about a person who is a murderer. That person most likely began treating other people badly a long time before they became a murderer; but after treating people badly for so long the person decided that other people had no worth and thus was able to justify killing another person. This is often the case although not always this drastic. The murderer has in effect killed his conscience and severed his relationship with God. Now Christ pours grace perpetually upon that murderer trying to bring him back to him offering forgiveness; but it will be very difficult for that man to accept Christ’s forgiveness because for him he has done nothing ‘wrong’ and he is not sorry because his conscience is telling him that what he has done is ‘right’. His belief in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is reversed. When the murderer first started out abusing people he knew it was wrong somewhere deep down, but he choose to continue doing so, until his conscience was so desensitized that it no longer knew ‘right’ from ‘wrong’.
This is what mortal sin is. This is what mortal sin does to us. So how can you tell if you have committed a mortal sin? What is the point where a sin goes from being venial to mortal? There are three conditions for a mortal sin to be a mortal sin.
1. It has to be of ‘grave’ matter.
2. You have to know it is of ‘grave’ matter.
3. You have to actually act with your full consent (thinking about murder vs. actually committing murder).
So it has to be a ‘grave sin’, you have to know it is a ‘grave sin’, and you have to actually commit the grave sin.
So what is a grave matter/sin? Simply put, a grave sin is seriously breaking any one of the Ten Commandments. Well, you might ask isn’t all sin venial and mortal breaking one of the Ten Commandments? No. Venial sin covers a large multitude of things not included in the ten commandments; personal failings and faults due to our human nature, acts of laziness, acts of omission; things not covered by the ten commandments, as well as breaking the Ten Commandments in less serious ways; white lies, stealing paper clips and pens from the office, etc. Mortal sin is always involved in breaking one (or more) of the Ten Commandments in a serious way with full knowledge and full consent.
Now a mortal sin is almost always built up to by venial sins. The murderer doesn’t start out with murder, he starts out with venial sin; the venial sin (being mean to people out of frustration) eventually chips away at his conscience until he commits grave venial sin (intentionally being mean and cruel to people in word and action), which in turn leads to the mortal sin of murder.
All mortal sin is grave; some venial sin is grave, but not all venial sin is grave. When a person goes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation a person is required to confess all ‘grave sin’. They should confess both grave ‘venial sin’ and grave ‘mortal sin’; a person is not required to confess every venial sin because oftentimes we commit venial sin so causally that we do not even realize we are committing it. We can confess every venial sin, and this can be helpful, but our main focus in confession should specifically be focused on examining any grave sin.
‘Grave sin’ is in a certain sense very easy to understand. Anytime we directly break one of the Ten Commandments we are guilty of committing a ‘grave’ sin (CCC 1858); and before receiving the Eucharist we should go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (CCC 1385) You might think at this point that you would be going to confession weekly if this is the case; and maybe we can understand now why many of the saints were going daily.
Often we cannot tell the difference between our own ‘grave venial’ sins and ‘mortal sins’. This is because ‘mortal sin’ must be acted out with our complete consent and with understanding of what we are doing. Oftentimes we can’t accurately judge what our motives or intentions were in a given case. This is the role of the priest as the confessor; to allow Christ to work in him, so that you can see what you have done and receive forgiveness. Do not judge yourself; there is only one judge of the living and the dead, and it is not you. You might think a sin is merely a grave ‘venial sin’ when it is in fact ‘mortal’. This is why all grave sins must be confessed in confession, and the priest is there so he can help you distinguish between ‘grave’ venial sin and mortal sin.
So is missing Mass on Sunday a mortal sin?
It is certainly a grave sin if it is missed intentionally with no reason (CCC 2181). It can be a mortal sin depending upon your intention for missing Mass. However, if you have a proper and just reason to miss Mass then it is not a sin at all, not even a venial sin. This can be because one is sick or if you have someone to take care of that you can’t leave, like an elderly person or an infant. How about work? A pastor, speaking for Christ who as judge can judge your intentions, is empowered by Christ and the Church to dispense a person from their Sunday obligation; this can be for work related reasons (2181). This also means that if the priest, allowing Christ to speak through him, tells you your reasons for missing Mass are not sufficient, then you should attend weekly Mass. Missing Mass on Sunday should not be something which we try to get dispensed from; the Mass should be something that we look forward to whereby we can give something back to God. Missing Mass on Sunday, even when allowed, should be done always with a heavy heart and with regret. Whether or not one must actually work is more often a matter of choice than something one is absolutely forced to do.
Missing Mass on Sunday does not necessarily break the third commandment; you can still keep the Sabbath holy even if you cannot go to Mass. Certainly by participating at Mass one is keeping the Sabbath holy; the participation at Mass is in fact the normal and ordinary way that one keeps holy the Sabbath. What is important is that you keep it holy. Some people, unable to go to Mass on Sunday, do this by setting another day in the week aside for going to Mass, resting, and praying. But if you miss Sunday Mass for selfish reasons, then not only are you breaking the third commandment, but even worse you are most likely breaking the first commandment by placing something before God and serving a false idol.
A day of rest, the Sabbath, was given to us as a gift from God so that we could come into closer relationship with him. It was not meant to be a mandatory day that we grudgingly go to Church. The purpose of the Mass is to give us the perfect opportunity to come into closer relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the scripture verse “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Take Sunday as that gift from God whereby you can enter more fully into his Sacred Heart so that you can experience the love that Jesus truly wishes for you to experience.