What is it a Catholic really must do?
You don’t have to go to Mass on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. You do have to fast, unless for some reason you don’t. You don’t have to go to confession for your venial sins, though you ought to, but you do need to confess your mortal sins. You need to go to Mass on Sundays, unless for some serious reason you can’t. You need to generally rest on Sundays, and allow other people to rest, but exactly how much restaurants and house chores are implicated in all this is a matter of some discussion. And I certainly hope you pray, but there is very little in the way of mandated-prayer for Catholics. Use your discretion.
A few weeks ago I found myself in one of those awful sports-mom scenarios, praying for a kid’s game to end so we could get to Sunday Mass. My prayer was answered, we raced over the river and through the woods (yes, literally) to dash to the last-chance Mass. I thanked the priest on the way out for holding a 7pm service. We had a serious case of bare-minimum Catholicism going on that weekend, and I won’t claim it’s the only time I’ve been in such situations.
When people ask questions like, “Can I have protein shakes between meals on a fast day?” it’s easy to jump on the What kind of Catholic are you?? wagon. Surely you don’t mean to use the letter of the law to get out of any real obligation? Surely you love our Lord more than you love protein shakes, right? Right??
The reality is that if you’re living the bare-minimum Catholic life, you might be a slacker. It’s possible. Maybe you’ve somehow got it into your head that the love of God is a complete abandonment of self to one’s personal whims and preferences, except for the odd precept someone remembers to publish in the parish bulletin. If that is so, might I suggest that you work on your concept of love? Your friends and family thank you.
The other possible reality is that your life is not so simple. The vast bulk of the Christian life isn’t a case of following a set of clearly-defined rules, any more than you can raise children by following a checklist of to-do items. We have to make decisions. Part of our on-going formation as little images of God is the process of deciding, minute by minute, which way to go. How to proceed.
Into this process, the Church gives us a few floors to keep the bottom from falling out. How often do you need to go to Mass? Well, it would be wonderful to go every day. But at the very least, organize your life so you can make it on Sundays and Holy days, unless there’s some serious reason you truly can’t attend. It would be wonderful for your Sundays to be devoted to one long restful, joyful expanse of prayer, fellowship, and works of mercy. But at least get to Mass.
The closer we find ourselves to the bare-minimum, the more closely we need to examine our lives. If it’s all I can do to squeeze in a Sunday last-chance Mass, I need to ask myself whether my priorities are in order. Perhaps they are, but it’s a question I need to scrutinize and revisit.
This is doubly true when I’m living just under the bare-minimum. I’ve been that person who is too sick to attend Sunday Mass. It happens to nearly everybody sooner or later. At times it can be patently obvious — if vomit is coming out of your mouth, you really must stay home.
At times the results of an examination can be weirdly convoluted: Every now and again a respiratory virus goes through that isn’t so bad you couldn’t sit in the rear of an empty church, but if your only option is to be pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with the frail elderly at Mass who really will catch your thing and succumb to pneumonia, yes, staying home might be the real answer. Manslaughter is not a love-of-neighbor behavior.
But imagine for a moment you are only very weak and ill, and lately you have in fact been unable to rise from the bed long enough to physically get to Mass, sit through a service, and go home again. There may come a moment in your convalescence when you reach the borderland of the precepts. And thus the bare-minimum is waiting for you, saying, “If you really can come this Sunday, then do so. It’s important.” When you are living just under the minimum, you live on watch for the opportunity to finally rejoin the rest of the faithful.
Of course many of us skating through the bare minimum of this precept or that one aren’t staggering home from twelve hours at the operating table (on it or working over it). Our lives are full and demanding, and we spend our powers on any number of pursuits that cause us to barely be able to observe the tenets of our faith. We can make a long list of needless time-wasters other people clutter their lives with, thus explaining their deplorable piety. Ours, of course, are worthy exceptions.
The bare-minimum is where relentless discernment pounds on our doors. It’s the flashing yellow light telling us to watch for the curve ahead and the falling rocks. Pay attention! You’re traveling through hazardous territory here!
The bare-minimum is the guard rail keeping us from going over the edge of the narrow road. Within the bounds of the road the Church has set for us, we each pick our path as best we’re able. The precepts of the Church keep us pointed in the right direction; complete abandonment to the love of God is what gets us where we’re going.