If I’m even one second late for my job, my paycheck shrinks. The company I work for must be punctual to make a profit.
So I wondered, does God dock us for missing even a few minutes of mass? How much of the mass are we required to attend to meet our Sunday obligation? Is there a point when we shouldn’t receive communion when we’re late? And what about leaving early?
There are different answers to these questions, depending on whom you talk to and when the question was asked. Before Vatican II, Catholics had to at least be present by the offertory. One reason bells rang when the cloth was removed from the chalice was to make people aware of this cutoff. Other theologians said it was necessary to be present at least as the Gospel is read.
The liturgical reform of Vatican II shifted the emphasis to the overall unity of the mass. Theologians don’t specify a cutoff point for the obligation. The underlying assumption seems to be that we should be there for all of it but since Canon law doesn’t give specifics about the obligation, we probably shouldn’t be scrupulous about it either, one writer says.
And there’s nothing in church rubrics that says we can’t go to communion, no matter how late we are. The same goes for leaving early. In most cases it’s not a sin and it won’t count against our obligation.
This sounds like the church has put us on the honor system, but what’s at stake is the honor we show the Lord. We have to consider our motivation for being late or leaving early, and whether we feel we should receive communion. Is it there a good reason for missing part of the mass or has it become a habit?
I’m late to mass occasionally and I have left early. If my boss set up a weekly meeting I don’t think I’d get in the habit of coming late or leaving early. Fr. Edward McNamara, writing for zenit.org offers that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit deserve much more respect than any human authority or relationships.
It comes down to whether we’re treating the mass as a holy and important event. If it doesn’t seem like it, we should consider that during an examination of conscience. “If the matter is not mortally sinful because of lack of full knowledge or lack of free consent, one can still receive communion,” according to Catholic Answers Apologist Michelle Arnold.
As far as leaving early goes, Fr. McNamara offers a few more thoughts. We worship together and we give thanks for the mass as a body through the closing prayer when we all say “Amen.” Also, mass is connected to our Christian life and mission, so the final blessing and dismissal send us out to share that with others. If we leave after communion, we miss the blessing.
It might seem easier to have no guidelines about coming to mass late or leaving early but I think it’s harder. It forces us to consider whether our hearts are in the right place.
Father Tom Margevicius, Liturgical Theology instructor at St. Paul Seminary, writes, “The question to ask should not be, “What’s the least I must do for God?” but “How much can I do?” If THAT were one’s mindset, then if because of circumstances beyond one’s control (accident snarling traffic, or a colicky baby) one arrives late to the liturgy, one will not feel the need even to ask the question. ‘Lord, you know I tried my best. It’s not my fault that I arrived this late. May I commune with you even during this unfortunate circumstance?’”