Precepts of the Church
These “precepts” are the most important laws of the Catholic Church. They are meant for each of us. Through her precepts the Church, our loving Mother and teacher, puts before our minds the minimum participation which is necessary to maintain our Catholic identity. Recalling Our Lord’s words that the wise man “built his house upon the rock” (Matt 7:24), we can ask ourselves this Lent how far we are built on the rock of Christ, who is present in his Church and active in her life-giving sacraments, how firmly rooted we are in the community of faith which is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:1-13). The Precepts of the Church are to be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Nos. 2042-2043.
First Precept: “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labour.” From the earliest times the Christians celebrated the Eucharist on the Day of the Lord’s resurrection (see Acts 20:7). It is no surprise that the vision of St John in the book of Revelation, a vision deeply linked to the Christian liturgy, occurred “on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). St Justin Martyr, one of the first Church Fathers, wrote in about 150 AD: “on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place …”. He goes on to explain the reading of the Scriptures and the consecration of the bread and wine, and concludes: “Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God … made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” Christians understood that, now, the Old Testament commandant to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8) applied to Sunday rather than the Jewish Saturday. It was also clear to Christians that, developing the tradition of the Jews, the Christian sabbath calls for rest from our usual occupations, “to abstain from those labours and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body.”(Code of Canon Law 1247). The Catechism challenges us also when it adds: “Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week.” (CCC 2186) Sunday is rightly a time for recreation, yet a Catholic must prioritise the Sunday Mass for the simple reason that God himself must be given first place.The precept to be present at Mass on Sundays (or Saturday evening) is non-negotiable for Catholics: it is a “grave” obligation (CCC 2181). If it happens that we fail to observe it through negligence or without a serious reason, we should confess it in the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion again. If, on the other hand, we did have a sufficient reason not to be present, for instance we were ill, had to stay at home to look after young children, or were a great distance from a church, or have no choice but to work on Sunday during Mass, then we’re not obliged. We must further attend Mass on holy days of obligation that usually fall during the week, such as Christmas Day. The precepts of Church are not regulations trying to catch us out, but crucial reminders of what it means to be a Christian. Blessed John Paul II, in his encyclical letter on the Lord’s Day, wrote: “Sunday is a day which is at the very heart of the Christian life. From the beginning of my Pontificate, I have not ceased to repeat: ‘Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ!’. In the same way, 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 upon it and give it direction. … Time given to Christ is never time lost, but is rather time gained, so that our relationships and indeed our whole life may become more profoundly human.” (Dies Domini 7)
Second Precept: “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.” First we might ask: why do I need to confess my sins to a priest, and be forgiven by him? The cornerstone of our Catholic faith is that Jesus, the Son of God, lives and is active in the Church. He does not make us his friend from a distance: he enters our lives in Baptism; his passion and death are not simply historical events: they are made present in the Mass. In the same way, it’s through the Church, and his priest, that the Lord wants to pour his loving forgiveness into our hearts. There’s something else too: experience shows that to name our sins (under the absolute “seal” of the confessional) and to hear the words of absolution is the only forgiveness that is totally satisfying and healing for us. The words of Jesus to his Apostles concentrate this into a stark and wonderful truth: “Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven”. (John 20:23, JB). If this, though, is the only ordinary way to be forgiven, why does the Precept tell us to go only once a year? Answer: the Precepts are minimum requirements. They remind us if we are neglecting something really important. Some saints have gone to confession every day; it’s still a popular practice in many places to go to confession each week; every month or six weeks is the recommendation of many priests. So, in her love for us, Mother Church won’t let us go more than twelve months without a firm tap on our shoulders. Then, what should we confess? We must confess serious sins (also called “grave” or “mortal” sins) – these are sins directly against the Ten Commandments, if we have done them with full knowledge (we knew it was wrong) and full consent (it was our own free choice). For a serious sin, we must go to confession before receiving holy communion. But the Church strongly recommends and the saints gently but very firmly advise us that we should also confess smaller (“venial” or “everyday”) sins, because it “helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.” (CCC 1458). Here is one of the geniuses of confession: by urging us to examine our conscience thoroughly, we often find some sins we weren’t even noticing. Does this Precept apply to everyone? It applies to all over the “age of discretion” – that is, to those with sufficient maturity to make free choices. Normally it’s those who are of the age to receive first holy communion. Do I have to go to annual confession even if I’m not aware of any serious sins? This Precept of the Church is a pastoral law, designed for our good, and it is best simply to observe it at face value. (Although Canon Law says that it’s only grave sins that you must confess, the Precept doesn’t vanish into thin air!) If I do just go once in the year, when should it be? There is no strict rule about this, but the traditional answer is Lent or at least Eastertide. What if I’ve not been to confession for a long time? Just, calmly, make an examination of conscience, find a time to go to the confessional, explain to the priest that it’s been a little while since you came, and ask him to help you. The words of Pope Francis say it all: “Jesus receives you. He will receive you with so much love! Be courageous, and go to confession.”
Third Precept: "You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least in the Easter season." Should we only receive the Eucharist once in the year? First, we remember that the Precepts of the Church tell us – rather clearly, not beating about the bush – what our minimum duty is to remain in communion with Christ’s Church. In fact, this Precept throws light on some important aspects of our faith. Although we are indeed encouraged to receive Holy Communion at each Mass (see CCC 1388) we are not obliged to do so. Perhaps we have broken the Eucharistic fast (at least one hour abstaining from food and drink, except water and medicine, before receiving Holy Communion); perhaps we came into Mass so late that it doesn’t seem right to receive the Sacrament (after the Gospel, or the Offertory at the latest); perhaps we are conscious of a serious sin we have not yet confessed. In these circumstances we can still participate prayerfully in the Mass to receive spiritual fruits. But again, why does the Precept require that we receive communion only once in the year? For many centuries up to the Middle Ages, Catholics didn’t receive Holy Communion as often as we do now – perhaps only three times a year, at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Why? In these times there was a great emphasis on the holiness of the Eucharistic Mystery, and people were afraid to approach the sacrament lightly. To ensure that people didn’t stop receiving communion altogether, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), mindful of the teaching of Jesus that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53), affirmed that once a year, at Easter, was the absolute minimum for a Catholic to be united to the Lord in this sacrament. This was confirmed by the Council of Trent in 1551 and has remained in force ever since. It is at Easter that this obligation applies because the “paschal feasts [are] the origin and centre of the Christian liturgy” (CCC 2042). In other words, Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper as a memorial of his passion, and it is a pledge of our participation in his resurrection: Easter marks the time of the institution of the Mass, and the Mass directs us towards the eternal Easter of the Kingdom of Heaven. What does “the Easter season” mean in practice? It means any time from Palm Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday. (Obviously, put together with the second Precept, we realise that we should make our confession before our Easter communion). This precept is also called the “Easter Duty”. To summarise all the above: it is recommended to receive communion each time we are at Mass, yet bearing in mind the supreme dignity of the Eucharist, which we should never receive without good preparation including, at least from time to time, sacramental confession, the Church places the obligation on us of receiving Holy Communion once only in the year. A possible misunderstanding of this Precept might be that we only have to go to Mass once in the year! (The first Precept reminded us that we must be at Mass on Sundays and holydays, whether or not we receive communion). The rule of the Lateran Council that someone who fails to observe this third Precept should not be given a Christian funeral is of course no longer in force; yet it is a stark reminder of the seriousness with which the Church intends the Precept to be received. The Precepts of the Church can seem a little stern, until we realise that they are a safety net, designed to keep us from falling away from the loving heart of Jesus, beating in his Church.
Fourth Precept: “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” The background to this Precept is the idea of Penance. Sometimes we call Confession the “Sacrament of Penance”, but here we’re speaking of Penance in a slightly different way: Penance as a virtue. This virtue flows over, derives from, sorrow for our sins. Penance takes the form of concrete acts (individual things we decide to do, often difficult ones) which, offered in love to God, purify us from the effects of our sins, so as to make us new us in his likeness. Crucially, Penance includes accepting the sufferings we experience in everyday life – even big ones – by uniting them with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. It is an act of penance to put up patiently with a headache; it is an act of penance to show love to someone we don’t like. This is actually a central feature of our faith that today can be a bit overlooked: in fact, it is the ladder on which we climb to heaven. So, what of “fasting” and “abstinence”? Right from the early days of the Church, Christians placed great importance on denying themselves food and drink as a particularly effective form of penance. Our Lord himself said of his followers: “The days will come, when the bridegroom (Jesus) is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” (Luke 5:35). Spiritual masters have shown that by frequent self-denial in this way, the body, somewhat “tamed” in its desires for food and material things, allows the spirit to rise up more easily to heavenly things: the soul becomes a little freer, prayer becomes easier, the truths of faith are more striking. Penance, then, is something we should all give serious attention to. To help us, the Church has established certain common times, in which all Christians should give more priority to penance than usual (experience shows that we easily try to shirk it!). First, Lent. In this season especially, the Lord calls each Christian to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24): readying our souls for the momentous events of Holy Week. We each think of whatever penance we can do. Traditional practice (for many centuries) was to eat nothing in Lent until the evening; later it was relaxed to allow a bite for lunch and a snack even at breakfast time. Could we do more? Now: the Precept itself. It covers every Friday of the year (unless a major feast day falls on a Friday). On Fridays, all Catholics of 14 years or more must abstain from meat, in honour of the Lord’s passion. In South Africa, it is permitted to replace this with abstinence from something else (e.g. dairy products) or even to adopt some charitable practice (e.g. visiting the sick) or time of prayer, but we must do some special penance each Friday to fulfil the Precept. Many bishops (including the late Bishop Coleman) have indicated that abstaining from meat is to be preferred. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of both fasting and abstinence. Abstinence from meat is obligatory on these days; those under 59 should fast by eating only one full meal and (if desired) one or two snacks. Those with very good reason are of course dispensed where necessary (e.g. the sick or pregnant women). The Precept is binding: if we “substantially” set it aside (e.g. ordering a steak on Good Friday; ignoring the Precept totally on other Fridays) it would be material for confession. Unfortunately in recent decades this Precept has not always been well explained. Especially, many have been left with the impression that there is no such thing as Friday abstinence. This is by no means the case. However, if you were under this impression, you certainly were not at fault if you haven’t been observing this part of the Precept. Now however is the time to start! Let’s remember its meaning is positive: as Lent prepares us for Easter, so Friday prepares us for the celebration of the Resurrection each Sunday. Finally: we should not choose to fast in such a way that it seriously affects our work, studies or health. If in doubt about the Precept on a given occasion, ask a priest.
Fifth Precept: “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” The Church is indeed a divine institution, but it is also human. It exists in this world, and so it has need of the means to live and work in the world. The origins of this Precept lie in the Old Testament: the Jews were obliged to give ten per cent of the fruits of their fields, and produce, to the ministers – that is the Levites and the priests – as a tithe. Why ten per cent? Ten was seen as the “perfect” or “complete” number (think of the 10 commandments). So if ten stands for my complete income, whatever it may be, then it can be divided into ten parts (each of ten percent), and one whole part of my income I give to God. Here is the key to understanding the Precept: I have received everything I have from God, and so, each year, I return to him (in and through his Church), as a kind of sacrifice, a portion of what he has given me. The spiritual meaning of the Precept unfolds further if we turn to the New Testament. We see the zeal with which, in the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians sold property and laid it at the feet of the Apostles (e.g. Acts 4:34-35). St Paul’s words ring out: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6). And reflect further: the giving of gifts binds us closer to others; so our contributions to the Church unite us more fully to our fellow Christians in the community of faith. What are “the needs of the Church”? Canon Law expands: we give material support to the Church for “those things which are necessary for divine worship, for apostolic and charitable work and for the worthy support of its ministers” (Code of Canon Law 222). The first is not to be forgotten: the worship of God – first of all church buildings, and then for the sacred liturgy. Apostolic work includes the whole mission of the church: including the administration of parishes, the support of poorer churches, and the proclamation of the faith. Charitable work (e.g. St Vincent de Paul) is the service of Christ in his poor. Finally, the clergy need to be supported. Well spent, our offerings can be of enormous value in assisting the mission of the Church. Does the practice of tithing still apply? Many Christians, past and present, have kept to this ancient and biblical practice. Ultimately, the Church does not specify any amount but leaves it to our decision. St Paul says: “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7) Does that mean no guidance at all? To those who ask, 3-5% of income has been suggested in this diocese. Could we give, additionally, a further 5% to charity? (Many good causes are supported by second collections.) These figures may sound high, but if they get us thinking seriously, including about how we spend our money in general, they serve their purpose. It has been said: “A person who has love for the Church will give an appropriate offering.” This parish continues to be a generous one. Individually, however much or little we have, the Precept reminds us that it is our Christian responsibility, indeed obligation, to support the Church.
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