"....... today, I would strongly urge everyone to rediscover Sunday: do not be afraid to give your time to Christ! Yes, let us open our time to Christ, that he may cast light on it and give it direction."
Here is the challenge Pope John Paul II gives us in his recent Apostolic Letter on Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy (May 1998 n 7).
"For Christians, Sunday is the ‘fundamental feast day’ established not only to mark the succession of time but to reveal time’s meaning" (n 2).
"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’" (n 4).
"Since Sunday is the weekly Easter, recalling and making present the day upon which Christ rose from the dead, it is also the day which reveals the meaning of time. It has nothing in common with the cosmic cycles according to which natural religion and human culture tend to impose a structure on time, succumbing perhaps to the myth of eternal return.
The Christian Sunday is wholly other! Springing from the Resurrection, it cuts through human time, the months, the years, the centuries, like a directional arrow which points them towards their target: Christ’s Second Coming. Sunday foreshadows the last day, the day of the Parousia, which in a way is already anticipated by Christ’s glory in the event of the Resurrection."
What Pope John Paul II calls the "deeper meaning" of Sundays leads him to draw very practical conclusions:
"If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behaviour that we cannot be happy ‘on our own’. They look around to find people who may need their help. It may be that in their neighbourhood or among those they know there are sick people, elderly people, children or immigrants who precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering.
It is true that commitment to these people can not be restricted to occasional Sunday gestures. But presuming a wider sense of commitment, why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into people’s lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table." (n 72)
The Pope is encouraging us to rediscover the meaning of Sundays - the Christian beliefs "underlying the Church’s precept"(cf. n 6). In this way the "precept" or "obligation" is experienced not as an imposition but as the kind of thing people want to do and choose to do when they really appreciate Jesus and follow him. It is about being his disciples.
The Church describes Sunday as the "foremost holy day of obligation" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2177 ). Other "holy days of obligation" have always been added to the Sundays. In recent times it has become too difficult for many people to observe these extra holy days of obligation and so they have been reduced. Those which featured Our Lord (e.g. the feasts of the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Body and Blood of Christ) have been transferred to Sundays. Those which featured saints (e.g. Mary Mother of God (January 1) and All Saints (November 1) are no longer holy days of obligation but they are still days we should make holy, by participating in Mass if we can.
In New Zealand, we now have only two of these additional holy days of obligation, viz. Christmas Day and the feast of the Assumption, August 15. Mary’s assumption into heaven is also the patronal feast of the Catholic people in New Zealand. Having now only two of these additional holy days of obligation might be added reason to celebrate them well. Consequently, from now on they are holy days of obligation whenever they fall, including Saturdays and Mondays.
It is the meaning of all these days - Sundays and other holy days - that inspires us to join the Catholic community’s celebration of them. But insofar as there are some minimal requirements of actively being disciples of Jesus, we also speak of an obligation.
There are two parts to the precept that apply to Sundays and other holy days of obligation. They are:
the obligation "to participate in the Mass ... unless excused for a serious reason" (Catechism of the Catholic Church n.2180 ), and
the obligation to "refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body .... unless excused by family needs, employment or important social service" (cf. n.2185 ).
To assist Catholics to appreciate the meaning of our holy days, we are issuing a summary of the Pope’s recent letter on "The Day of the Lord" and we are republishing the letter written by the New Zealand bishops in 1988. That letter originally issued by the bishops who signed it then, is now re-issued in our names.
We admire all those Catholic people, especially young people, who are wanting to reclaim their Catholic heritage and identity. We also acknowledge those many others in society who are looking for more to life than its daily and weekly routines. The deeper meaning of Sunday and holy days concerns that difference.
We hope a copy of this present letter might be found in every Catholic home.
+ Peter J Cullinane, Bishop of Palmerston North
President of the NZ Catholic Bishops' Conference
+ Denis G Browne, Bishop of Hamilton
+ John A Dew, Auxiliary Bishop of Wellington
+ Leonard A Boyle, Bishop of Dunedin
+ John J Cunneen, Bishop of Christchurch
+ Owen J Dolan, Coadjutor Bishop of Palmerston North
+ Patrick J Dunn, Bishop of Auckland
+ Robin W Leamy SM, Emeritus Bishop of Rarotonga
+ Max T Mariu SM, Auxiliary Bishop of Hamilton
+ Thomas Cardinal Williams, Archbishop of Wellington