The other morning I went to a local church for morning Mass. The priest, noted for his off-the-cuff homilies, caught my attention with one comment.
Missing Sunday Mass is not a mortal sin.
That one stopped me short.
I knew that for a sin to be mortal certain criteria have to be met - full knowledge of the seriousness of the offense, willful intention, etc. - so that in many circumstances missing Mass without good reason may still not be mortal. The missing person may simply not realize how serious it is.
I also knew that there can be a variety of mitigating circumstances under which it is not a sin at all - being sick, caring for a sick person or a small child, being in a place where it is physically impossible to get to Mass, etc.
But I was certain that under the right circumstances it is indeed a mortal sin.
I could not talk to him at the time, but later when I went home I checked on line and in some of my books (including the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
As far as I could tell, my understanding was correct
This morning I went back to the same church. He was the celebrant again. After Mass, and after people had left, I asked if I could talk to him.
I mentioned that I had been troubled by what he had said. I explained that I understood that for a sin to be mortal certain conditions had to be met, and that there can be legitimate and non-sinful reasons for not making Mass. But I said that under certain circumstances, the Church teaching is that it is a mortal sin.
He started explaining that it wasn't a mortal sin, and then what mortal sin is, and I pointed out that I was aware of the conditions. I also pointed out that I had consulted some sources. He told me that I'd obviously misunderstood them and that unless there was continued, willful, knowing missing of Mass there was no mortal sin.
I told him that I agreed with his last point, but that the statement that he had made was a broad one that did not point out the nuances of the teaching. I said that people need to hear full and clear teaching in the homily. He told me that he knew the people at the Mass, and that they understood what he meant.
Later - why is it always later? - I realized I could have mentioned that he could not be sure that all those people did fully understand, that some of those people may not have been properly catechized, or that there might have been a visitor present who did not know what the official teaching is.
At the moment, though, I simply sensed the discussion was getting nowhere, especially when he started in about people putting God in a box and so on. I respectfully said that it would still be a good idea when dealing with complex issues in a homily to point out the nuances. Then I wished him well and left.
It is not my role to judge when people miss Mass. That's between them and God. I am a sinful man and I need to take care of my own soul.
Nor is it my role to judge this priest or his intentions. Only God can read what lies in a man's heart.
While I do not criticize him personally, I felt I had to address his words. They are potentially misleading. Part of his job is to teach the faith completely and accurately. Perhaps because I spoke to him respectfully, maybe this good priest will consider my concern and be more aware and cautious. I place that in God's hands.
I pray for this priest, even as I try to keep watch on my own words and the harm they can cause.