Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy
Saint Patrick’s Day Letter to the Archdiocese of New York
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
17 March 2010
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ in the Archdiocese of New York!
This is the day which the Lord has made,
let us be glad and rejoice in it! (Psalm 118:24)
I have been eagerly looking forward to my first St. Patrick’s Day as the Archbishop of New York – there are few places that celebrate it as we do here. We observe it with the Mass, parades, festivals and maybe even the pouring of a celebratory pint! All that is good, for Saint Patrick is the patron saint of the entire archdiocese, from the cathedral in Manhattan to the upstate counties. We take pride in him and celebrate him. We ask for Saint Patrick’s intercession, that with the benefit of his prayers we may be the Catholics we ought to be.
St. Patrick’s Day is always a grand day in New York. While we can enjoy the green beer and shamrocks, it should not be a merely superficial feast for us. It should be a day of particular prayer, commending to St. Patrick the archdiocese, our parishes, our hospitals and schools, and all those who are close to us – our families, our friends, and especially anyone who is suffering. We should pray for our own growth in virtue and holiness.
It is also a good occasion to look at how we are living the Catholic faith that has been handed on to us by so many generations – for some, the faith can be traced all the way back to St. Patrick himself! Might I suggest that we look together at one important aspect of living our Catholic faith, namely the Lord’s Day?
Since my arrival in New York I have been asked about many subjects of public controversy. I have tried to answer as best I could, considering all questions as opportunities to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet the daily demands of urgent items can mean that truly important matters are not emphasized. Can anyone doubt that Sunday, our observance of the Lord’s Day, is essential for the Catholic Church, for the vibrancy of our Catholic faith, for the clarity of our Catholic identity?
We Need Sunday Mass!
In a Catholic New York column, I mentioned that I received a Christmas card from an old friend a few months back, with the usual annual update of family news. The year previous, in 2008, his card had brought good news: he had landed a very prestigious and high-paying job as a geologist — the profession he cherished — at a mining exploration company in Montana. I was so happy for him, a friend since high school. He had explained in his card that the job was three weeks at a time, in a very isolated area of the mountains, then a week back home in Illinois with his wife and three children. He regretted being away, but he and his wife had agreed this career opportunity was well worth it.
Then came this year’s Christmas card with the news he had quit that job! Was it the money? Hardly, the card explained, since the salary was exceptional. Lack of challenge? Just the opposite, the news went on, as he really enjoyed the work. Why, then, had he quit?
Listen to this: “I missed my wife and kids, and I missed Sunday Mass. Up in the mountains, at the site, we were over a hundred miles from the nearest Catholic church, so I could only go to Mass one Sunday a month, when I was home. The job — as much as I loved it — was ruining my marriage, my family, and my faith. It had to go!”
Talk about an inspirational Christmas card!
The power, the meaning, the beauty, the necessity of Sunday Mass … Just ask my friend.
Anybody fifty or older can remember when faithful attendance at Sunday Mass was the norm for all Catholics. To miss Sunday Eucharist, unless you were sick, was unheard of. To be a “practicing Catholic” meant you were at Mass every Sunday. Over 75% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday.
That should still be the case. Sadly, it is not. Now, the studies tell us, only one-third of us go weekly, perhaps even less in some areas of the archdiocese.
If you want your faith to wither up and die, quit going to Sunday Mass. As the body will die without food, the soul will expire without nourishment. That sustenance comes at the Sunday Eucharist.
How’s this for a resolution for St. Patrick’s Day? Make Mass the centre of your Sunday!
The Sabbath as a Gift to the Jews and from the Jews
One of the joys of being Archbishop of New York is the close contact I have with our “elder brothers in the faith” – to use the wonderful phrase of the Pope John Paul II about the Jewish people. Catholics and Jews work, live, and pray together in this city as they are able to do in very few other places around the world. The welcome the Jewish people have given me here in New York has been a true blessing.
We can learn from each other, and one lesson that the elder brothers can teach the younger brothers is the importance of the Sabbath. Observance of the Sabbath is now, and has been since time immemorial, a constitutive part of being a Jew. Even if many Jews today, like Catholics, no longer observe the Sabbath, it remains a distinctive mark of identity.
The Sabbath is a gift from the Jews to the religious patrimony of the human race. What lies at the heart of this gift? It is our one protest against the tyranny of time. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it is our one refuge from the ravages of time. Or perhaps better still: It is our sanctuary from the daily, petty concerns which can easily fill up every available moment.
New York was home to one of the great rabbi scholars of the twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – an important contributing voice to the progress the Second Vatican Council made in our relations with the Jewish people. One of his most famous books was called simply, The Sabbath. His argument there, still fresh after almost 60 years, is that Judaism is a religion of time more than it is a religion of space. Humans can conquer space, but we are powerless before time. Words from the epilogue of that justly famous book are worth quoting at length:
“Technical civilization is man’s triumph over space. Yet time remains impervious. We can overcome distance but can neither recapture the past nor dig out the future. Man transcends space, and time transcends man. Time is man’s greatest challenge. We all take part in a procession through its realm which never comes to an end but are unable to gain a foothold in it. Its reality is apart and way from us. Space is exposed to our will; we may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power. It is both near and far, intrinsic to all experience and transcending all experience. It belongs exclusively to God.”
“Time is the process of creation, and things of space are results of creation. When looking at space we see the products of creation; when intuiting time we hear the process of creation. … Things created conceal the Creator. It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God…. On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.”
The power of the Sabbath! Rabbi Heschel makes the point in great depth, but the experience he speaks of is an ordinary one. It’s the daily grind – we work in the world of space, moving here and there, doing this and that. And then we do it again. And again. The Sabbath breaks though this repetition and inserts something altogether new – the taste of rest, a taste of peace, a taste of eternity. Of this Sacred Scripture speaks: there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10).
In recapturing our sense of Sunday, of the Christian Sabbath, it is important to grasp this key point, that the Sabbath rest is our liberation from the profane and our encounter with the sacred. The Sabbath is not rest so that we can work harder. Listen again to Rabbi Heschel:
“The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.. .. The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.”
Living for Sunday
Are we Catholics then living for Sunday? I am afraid if you were to ask someone today whether he lives for Sunday, he might think that you are asking whether he is a football fan!
Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in a family where no sooner were we home from Mass on Sunday than my father was putting the beer in the cooler and looking forward to the baseball game and a barbecue. But that was after we got home from Sunday Mass!
Do we Catholics think that Sunday is the “climax of living”? Do we look forward to Sunday as a day dedicated to the Lord which gives meaning and purpose to our whole week? Or have we become accustomed to a weekend mentality, wherein we sleep late, catch up on chores around the house, run errands, drive the kids to sports, do a little recreation and then fit Sunday Mass in between everything else, if at all?
Pope John Paul II, in an apostolic letter entitled Dies Domini (The Lord’s Day) wrote about the difference between the weekend mentality and a proper Christian Sunday observance.
“The custom of the ‘weekend’ has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people’s development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. All of this responds not only to the need for rest, but also to the need for celebration which is inherent in our humanity. Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a ‘weekend’, it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see the heavens. Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so. The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy, and the ‘weekend’, understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation.” (Dies Domini, #4)
As the pace of life quickens, we are in danger of losing weekend rest, let alone true Sabbath rest. So often our weekends have become periods of intense activity – some people might even find it a relief to get back to the regular routine on Monday morning after a frenetic weekend. In such an environment, we need Sunday all the more, to enter into the Sabbath rest of God, to worship Him, and to realize that our salvation comes not from the many good things we do, but from what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
The Church and Sunday
In that letter Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II speaks of Sunday as not only the Lord’s Day, but as the “Day of the Church”. Just as the Sabbath – the seventh day of God’s rest – united the Jewish people and marked the covenant, Sunday expresses what most unites us as disciples of Jesus Christ. We proclaim the Risen Christ, and so our time is marked by Sunday, the first day of the week, the first day of a new creation, the day of a new covenant.
The link between the covenant with Moses and the Sabbath is explicit. After all, the Third Commandment requires us to keep holy the Sabbath. No one would argue that commandments against killing, adultery or lying are optional for Christians. The Sabbath commandment comes before them. It is at the heart of the covenant God made with Moses, shaping the Chosen People. It should be no less for us Christians, with whom God has made a new covenant in Jesus Christ. Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made this point with his customary insight:
“The account of creation and the Sinai regulations about the Sabbath come from the same source. To understand the account of creation properly, one has to read the Sabbath ordinances of the Torah. Then everything becomes clear. The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant between God and man; it sums up the inward essence of the covenant. If this is so, we can now define the intention of the account of creation as follows: creation exists to be a place for the covenant God wants to make with man. The goal of creation is the covenant, the love story of God and man. The freedom and equality of men, which the Sabbath is meant to bring about, is not a merely anthropological or sociological vision; it can only be understood theo-logically. Only when man is in covenant with God does he become free.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 26.)
The goal of creation is the covenant! The reason anything exists at all is because God wanted to make a covenant with His people. And if the crown of creation is God’s covenant, how does this act in history remain a present reality? The Sabbath keeps it alive, inserting continually in history the saving work of the Lord, revealing that history in its true depth is the story of God loving, saving, redeeming and sanctifying His people!
The idea of the Sabbath making present the covenant reminds us Catholics immediately of the Mass. In the Mass, the one sacrifice of Calvary, the new covenant ratified in the Blood of the Lord Jesus, is made present anew. It is not another sacrifice, but the one sacrifice of the Cross. Is it not repeated, as though Christ were being crucified again, but rather made present to us across time and space.
The heart of Sunday must be the Mass! How could it be anything else? The Mass is nothing else but the supreme work of the Lord Jesus, and nothing else will do to mark the Lord’s day, the day of salvation, the day of the Church!
There are many things that I have to do as Archbishop of New York, but there is nothing more central, no blessing greater, no work more important than offering the Mass on Sunday, whether it be in the morning at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or later in the day in our parish churches. No matter how much we accomplish during the week by our efforts, nothing can compare to what God does at Mass – drawing together His people into the new covenant, fashioning them together into the communion of the Church, sanctifying them by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and nourishing them by the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus offered on the Cross for the redemption of the world! How can this not be the heart of our week? How can we not live for Sunday and the Sunday Mass?
On this first St. Patrick’s Day as Archbishop of New York, let me make this appeal to all the Catholics of the archdiocese: Make Sunday Mass once again the heart of your week! Put the Sunday Eucharist at the heart of your parishes and your families! Live once again for Sunday!
A Word to my Brother Priests
I consider it a special gift of providence that my first year here in New York has coincided with the Year for Priests. I love being a priest, I love inviting young men to become priests, I loved my years working in the formation of priests. I love the priesthood, and I love my brother priests! Without them, I could do nothing. Without them, the Church could do nothing, for we would then be without the Eucharist, without Jesus truly present in the Blessed Sacrament.
In this Year for Priests, we have heard marvellous testimonies from Catholics about how much they love their priests, and how much they appreciate the hard work they do for the sake the Gospel. Too often, the priest’s work is thankless task, but in this year our priests have heard their people thunder thank you! I add my voice to that chorus of gratitude!
If we are to recapture our sense of the Lord’s Day, our priests will lead us. We often hear people tease their priests that they only work one day a week – Sunday! That’s in good fun, for parishioners know that a priest’s work in never done, but there is something to that. For Sunday is the day of our greatest work. It is the Lord’s work, and we are at our most priestly when we consecrate the Lord’s Day by leading the people in the Lord’s own sacrifice. Many priests, who prudently begin preparing their Sunday homilies early in the week, are always thinking about the next Sunday. They live from Sunday to Sunday as it were, their eyes fixed during the week on the Lord’s Day to come. Our priests need to share that sense of Sunday with their parishioners, so that the Church as a whole lives from Sunday to Sunday.
In this year dedicated to Saint John Vianney, it was a gift to make a retreat in Ars last month with the priests of the archdiocese. It was bracing to read the saintly pastor’s homilies, which in their intensity and directness are not what we are accustomed to today. But even if we do not preach as our patron saint did during his time, we can look to him as a model for courageous preaching. Listen to what he preached soon after arriving in Ars, when he notice that Sunday observance was not what it should have been in that village:
“You keep on working, but what you earn ruins your soul and your body. If we ask those who work on Sunday, ‘What have you been doing?,’ they might answer: ‘I have been selling my soul to the devil, crucifying our Lord, and renouncing my baptism. I am doomed to hell. I shall have to weep for all eternity for nothing.’ When I behold people driving carts on Sunday, I think they are carting their souls to hell. Oh! How mistaken in his calculations is the man who toils on Sunday to earn more money or accomplish more work! Can two or three francs compensate for the wrong he has done himself by violating the law of God?”
Hearing those words, we immediately protest: Life is more complicated now and our culture makes it necessary for some to work. Fair enough, but St. John Vianney’s words remind us that we should at least feel a sense of urgency about Sunday observance. Let’s face it – we priests, myself included, have let the words “Sunday obligation” disappear from our vocabulary. But they have not disappeared from the Ten Commandments, or the precepts of the Church, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or simple common sense about practising our faith!
The Curé of Ars may sound harsh to our ears today, but does not the basic point remain? If we do not spare an hour or so to worship God, then does He really occupy the proper place in our life? If the Lord’s Day is apparently no different to any other day, then can we say that He is truly Lord of our life?
I urge you then, my brother priests, to be bold in inviting people back to Sunday Mass who have grown distant from it! Encourage those who are faithfully present to truly make the Lord’s Day a day of rest, a day of the Church, a day for the family. All of us need to rededicate ourselves to Sunday! So much depends on it. For if we let our Sunday observance slide, when it is so clear that the Lord desires it, how can we hope to follow the Lord’s will in more difficult things?
Permit me to make another recommendation to my brother priests. It would bear good fruit in the Year for Priests to return to the apostolic letter Dies Domini. The Pope John Paul II issued it on Pentecost 1998, and obviously it is still highly relevant. It would make good spiritual reading for priests, and might also be suitable for adult faith formation groups, Catholic reading clubs, and parish councils. A deeper study of the theological dimension of the Lord’s Day may well give rise to pastoral initiatives that would further consecrate Sunday. Here I think of the noble tradition of Sunday Vespers, for example. Or Sunday might be a time for visiting the sick and the lonely, the infirm and shut-ins within the parish. Each priest and each parish will find their own ways of celebrating Sunday precisely as the day of the Lord and the day of the Church.
Threats to Sunday
There are many threats to Sunday observance. The more obvious ones may be easier to tackle head on. Do we need to work on Sunday? For some, there may be little choice, but for others it may well be possible to clear Sunday of unnecessary work. Sometimes, it may be a moment of evangelization to tell the boss, “I would like to have Sunday to worship God and be with my family.” It may plant a seed that bear good fruit.
Another obvious challenge is Sunday recreations – particularly children’s sports and other activities. This requires a firmer stand, as recreation is not as essential as work. At the very least, children’s activities should be organized in a way that permits the family to go to Mass, together if possible. There is no denying that this will occasion some sacrifice, but the development of a child is not well-served by indicating that Sunday Mass is secondary to other things. Social, sporting and other activities on Sunday can be a real occasion for family togetherness and fruitful rest. But if just getting to everything on Sunday leaves everyone in the family worn out, then some adjustments need to be made.
A more subtle challenge to authentic Sabbath rest is our communications technology. It is possible to be at home with the family on Sunday but engaged elsewhere, answering emails from work, text messaging friends far away rather than talking to family members in the same house. Indeed, with multiple televisions and computers in the same house, it is possible for members of the family to isolate themselves from each other. A twenty-first century update to Sunday observance may well include a deliberate setting aside of mobile phones, laptops and video games!
Objections to Sunday Mass
Many of you reading this St. Patrick’s Day message already are keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Keep it up.
How about giving this message to someone who no longer does, especially if he or she has stopped going to Sunday Mass? Get ready for the excuses:
– “Sunday is our only free time together.” (Great, what better way to spend that time than by praying together at Mass).
– “I pray my own way.” (Nice idea. But, odds are, you don’t).
– “The sermon is boring.” (You may have a point).
– “I hate all the changes at Mass.” (see below)
– “I want more changes at Mass.” (see above)
– “Until the church makes some changes in its teaching, I’m staying away.” (But, don’t we go to Mass to ask God to change us, not to tell God how we want Him and His Church to change to suit us?)
– “Everybody there is a hypocrite and always judging me.” (Who’s judging whom here?)
. . . and the list goes on.
And the simple fact remains: the Eucharist is the most beautiful, powerful prayer that we have. To miss it is to miss Jesus — His Word, His people, His presence, His Body and Blood.
Saint Patrick, Pray for Us!
We celebrate the saints because they remind us of what is truly important – to get to heaven! The saints are there already and they pray for us that we might follow them in drawing close to Jesus. That’s why the Blessed Mother is the greatest of all the saints, because she is the closest to her divine Son and wants nothing more than to draw us close to Him.
Our Sunday observance, above all our Sunday Eucharist, is our anticipation of that definitive Sabbath rest when we shall enter into the Lord’s Day that will have no end. We need Sunday here below so that we might not lose our path to heaven above! We live on Sunday now what we hope to live forever in heaven.
On my first Feast of Saint Patrick as Archbishop of New York, I extend to all my blessing, ask for a remembrance in your prayers, and promise you mine in return.
+Timothy Michael Dolan
Archbishop of New York