Father Booth’s Weekly Reflection

How Late Can I Be?

The obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation requires us to be present from the beginning of Mass until it ends. Some of the Mass, most of the Mass, or almost all of the Mass is not what the Church has in mind. Most Masses today run about an hour to an hour and a half. Most Masses start on time. With some exceptions, almost all parishes are more predictable in when a given Mass starts than the various airlines are about their departure times. A plane will not depart before the scheduled time except in extraordinary situations. Nonetheless, most airlines highly recommend arriving at the airport two hours prior to the scheduled departure time for domestic flights and three hours before an international flight. Some airports make it such that a full two hours is normally unnecessary while others are too crowded or too inefficient resulting in the need to arrive even earlier than two hours. Are we more likely to arrive at the airport hours ahead of the departure time than we are to arrive at Mass even a minute or two early? Or to put it differently, which is more important, making a flight or offering worship to Almighty God?

Again, Mass begins when the priest processes to the altar (English) or he genuflects prior to the prayers at the foot of the altar (Latin). Arriving late will happen from time to time for unforeseen reasons such as being delayed by a train, abnormally bad traffic, difficulty in wrangling children, and the other vicissitudes of life, but will not be sinful so long as the cause for being late was unintentional and unavoidable. However, there will be times when we choose not to leave early enough, perhaps because of trivial matters like watching one too many cat videos or reading one too many Facepage posts, causing us to arrive late, then we have sinned to one degree or another. If by making deliberate bad or neglectful choices we arrive after the Mass starts, we are culpable. It might be that one family member is to blame (unless they are below the age of reason) or multiple family members might be at fault. Those who were ready on time will be innocent of any sin associated with arriving late. But how sinful is deliberately arriving late? Again, if the cause for being late was unintentional and unavoidable, no sin is committed, but deliberate arrival after Mass starts is a sin. Some will say that culpably arriving late but prior to the Gospel is a venial sin while arriving after the priest begins to recite or sing the Gospel is a mortal sin. Others will say that if you arrive before the offertory, by virtue of your deliberate choices, it is a venial sin but arriving after the offertory is a mortal sin.

Currently, neither Canon Law or the Catechism makes such distinctions. Why not? It is the mind of the Church that we should strive to attend Sunday and obligatory Masses from start to finish. However, Baltimore Catechism #3, paragraph 237 states: ‘Catholics who have reached the age of seven years and have sufficient use of reason are bound under pain of mortal sin to hear Mass on Sunday. … A person should be present for the entire Mass, from the beginning to the last Gospel. It is a venial sin to miss even a slight part of a Mass of obligation deliberately and a mortal sin to miss a notable part. The obligation to assist at Mass is not fulfilled if the Consecration or the Communion is missed.’ Does this mean that stepping out with a crying baby or having to visit the restroom is sinful? Nope. Does this mean that a ten-year old child sins because his parents sinfully choose not to attend Mass? Not unless he can easily walk to church.

But what is a slight part of the Mass versus a notable part? Good question. The Baltimore Catechism does not define these terms. The Latin Mass at that time could be divided into the Mass of Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful, or into six major parts, or about three dozen smaller parts. The current Mass has four major parts: the introductory rites, the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the Eucharist, and the concluding rite with a total of two dozen minor parts. So, what is notable or slight?

Does this lack of specificity imply that Church has become lax? Hardly. By not specifying parts of the Mass that we can deliberately miss or ignore implies that all parts matter. Yes, some parts of the Mass, such as the consecration, are more important than others, yet those lesser parts still matter. Again, the principle is to attend Mass from start to finish. That is our obligation.

—Fr Booth