The Easter Duty of Catholics: A Precept of the Church
A message from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
The Precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayers and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2041).
The Precepts of the Church are as follows:
1. Attendance at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
2. Confession of serious sin at least once a year
3. Reception of Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season (ordinarily Easter Sunday through Pentecost Sunday)
4. Observance of the days of fast and abstinence
5. Providing for the needs of the Church
That the Catholic Church would have a list of obligatory precepts should come as no surprise to anyone, especially Catholics, although many Catholics today are unaware of their existence. They are, however, rarely taught in Catholic religious education classes these days and even less frequently mentioned in formal preaching.
Laws are an ordinary part of every human society and the Catholic Church is no exception. The Catholic Church is a universal community of doctrine (faith and morals), worship (prayer and sacraments) and law (discipline and order). The Precepts of the Catholic Church do not replace the Ten Commandments of the scriptures mentioned above; they are an addition to them, a set of minimum expectations of behavior, established specifically to bind baptized members of the Catholic Church.
When were they “established” and “by whom?” Let’s answer the second question, first. St. Thomas Aquinas defined law as “nothing more than a dictate of right reason for the common good made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated” (Summa Theologica Ia IIae, 90.4). The Precepts of the Catholic Church fulfill the elements of that scholastic definition and were promulgated by legitimate ecclesiastical authorities over the centuries.
When were these precepts established? From the fourth century AD on, certain customs and practices in the Catholic Church gradually began to appear, binding the Catholic faithful with the “force of law.” The third of the scriptures’ Ten Commandments – “remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy” – became obligatory as Catholics were required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days and to receive the sacraments. Fasting and abstinence at certain times and during special seasons of the Church year became requirements and tithes were imposed on the faithful for the support of the Church and its ministers. Non-observance of these laws or precepts was considered sinful and penalties were incurred by the disobedient.
The Precepts of the Catholic Church are not considered obligations of Divine Law, as in the case of the Ten Commandments. They are not considered requirements of the natural moral law which presents universal principles self-evident to human reason – innate or naturally binding – without needing to be promulgated.
The Catholic Church’s precepts are positive laws, applicable to and binding on the baptized faithful because legitimate Church authority has declared them so as a necessary expression of the common good of the Church community. They are not negligible or optional elements in the life of Catholics but, rather, they are visible, spiritual signs and supports for what the Catholic Church believes and teaches: the centrality of the Eucharistic celebration; the confession and forgiveness of sin, especially serious sin; the reception of Holy Communion, especially in recognition of its fundamental connection to the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord, celebrated during the Easter season (Easter Duty); the observance of physical acts of Penance for the sake of ongoing conversion; the provision of material support for the Catholic Church and its works by both the clergy and the faithful, without which the mission of the Church would be significantly impaired and limited.
Easter Duty, as a Precept of the Church, draws the Catholic faithful directly into the heart of the Paschal Mystery, hence the importance of Eucharistic reception during the Easter season (ordinarily Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday). Although most Catholics receive Holy Communion frequently throughout the year including Eastertime, Easter Duty sets the minimum obligation and expectations for those who do not.
The Precepts of the Catholic Church are a vital part of its long history and traditions, revealing some of the many ways, among others, in which the Catholic faithful contribute to their own spiritual and common good as members of the Catholic Church by building of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
The pandemic has presented obstacles for many of our ordinary practices in the Church. As far as Easter Duty in the Diocese of Trenton is concerned,
1. Those who are not prevented or impeded from doing so for reasons related to the pandemic, should observe the Precept of the Church “to receive Holy Communion during the Easter season.”
2. Those who are prevented or impeded from doing so for reasons related to the pandemic or other physical infirmity or disability, may postpone fulfillment of their Easter Duty until a time before the First Sunday of Advent (November 28, 2021) when it is possible to receive Holy Communion either in Church or at another time/place mutually arranged with their parish. Any questions should be referred to the parish priest.
3. Those for whom it is impossible to fulfill their Easter duty are excused. The ancient tradition maxim in Church law applies here: “No one is bound to do the impossible.”