Chronic Illness, Catholic Guilt and the Sunday Obligation

Chronic Illness, Catholic Guilt and the Sunday Obligation January 14, 2018


I haven’t been to Liturgy since Christmas.

I wanted to go. But with this sickness, I couldn’t. And I can’t go this Sunday either. Yesterday I was well enough for a walk, but sudden changes in weather are among the twenty or so things that make my chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia flare, so today I slept all day and I’ll be just as bad tomorrow. In the morning, I’m going to Saint Mattress and praying with my icons. I honestly don’t know when I’ll next get to liturgy. I’ve been averaging twice a month lately.

I was very grateful that, earlier this evening, another of my chronically ill friends voiced her own doubt that it was okay to stay home from Mass because of her condition. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own condition again. Most everyone has figured out by now that you shouldn’t go to Sunday Mass if you have the flu or something else that you can pass on to other people, but I’ve heard very little about other types of illness. And I’ve heard quite a few able-bodied Catholics grousing that people don’t try hard enough to fulfill their Sunday obligation, and reminding us again and again that not trying hard enough is grave sin. I don’t think they’re trying to make us feel guilty or unsure we’re trying hard enough, but we do anyway.

I know that I’ve struggled a lot with guilt about it. I’ve tried going to church during a flare and it didn’t kill me, after all. But it exhausted me even more and made the flare last  longer. And stumbling around Church in a disoriented haze is like a signal flag designed to alarm nosy fellow parishioners and concerned priests – to say nothing of giving my husband near panic attacks as he tries to determine whether or not he needs to call an ambulance.

I reassured my friend that she didn’t need to be afraid to stay home from Mass due a severe bout with depression. Mental illness is illness, and illness is a valid excuse. Someone else chimed in that a priest and canon lawyer had told her the same thing; it was fine to stay home. A third person commiserated that she herself was so ill, due to a genetic disorder, that she hadn’t been to Mass at all in months.

I would guess that, among my readers, there are many people struggling with the same doubts. We’re chronically physically or mentally ill. We’re not contagious. We don’t “look sick.” We’re not at death’s door, at least no more than usual. We feel the way we most often do: horrible. And we honestly don’t think we have the spoons to go feel horrible at Mass. It will make us even sicker.

But then the doubt kicks in.

Missing Sunday Mass without grave reason is a serious sin. Does this count as a “grave reason?”

After all, Mass is so important. And we’re so used to feeling horrible. And anyway, it’s just hour– maybe two if you’re Eastern Catholic or attending the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite. Do we who are chronically ill really have “grave reason” to deny the Lord an hour at Liturgy once a week?

It’s just an hour.

It’s just an hour in a location which isn’t your home, where you can’t turn up the thermostat if you get a chill or turn on the AC if you have a hot flash.

It’s just an hour in a location where you have to keep your shoes and socks on even if your feet suddenly swell up. You’re supposed to be in your best, itchiest clothes, no sweats, no pajamas, and you definitely can’t take your bra off if you start to get a rash.

It’s just an hour where you have to stand, kneel, or sit up straight on a hard bench. You can’t lie down even if you have a dizzy spell.

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