Sunday Precept and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Share this Entry

Q: Canon 1248 of the Latin-rite Code of Canon Law states that a day of precept is fulfilled by assisting at Mass celebrated in a “Catholic rite.” On that basis, would attendance at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy currently fulfill the precept? The Holy See’s Ecumenical Directory of 1970/71 specifically allowed this, but no mention is made one way or the other in the current (1993) version. — C.Y., Butler, Pennsylvania

A. here is the full text of the canon:

“1248 §1. A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.

“§2. If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

Since Canon 1248 specifically states that the precept must be fulfilled in a Catholic rite and makes no exceptions, some canonists aver that this canon effectively abrogated the privilege granted in the 1970 Ecumenical Directory which allowed this exception.

Therefore the absence of any specific mention of this privilege in the revised “Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism” could be interpreted either as a definitive abrogation of the privilege or simply the recognition of the state of the case after the promulgation of the Code.

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches has a similar disposition, although organized in a different way so as to adapt to the particular situation of the Eastern Churches. Thus Canon 881.1 states:

“The Christian faithful are bound by the obligation to participate on Sundays and feast days in the Divine Liturgy, or according to the prescripts of their own Church ‘sui iuris,’ in the celebration of the divine praises.”

It must be noted that here there is no mention of attending “anywhere in a Catholic rite.” This is probably because these Churches are very strongly bound to the participation in their own liturgical tradition.

However, Canon 883.1 does take into consideration the possibility of those who are far from home. To wit:

“As regards feast days and days of penance, the Christian faithful who are outside the territorial boundaries of their own Church ‘sui iuris’ can adapt themselves fully to the norms in force where they are staying.”

In practice this means the following.

A Latin Rite Catholic may fulfill the precept by attending any Catholic Mass from Saturday evening through all day Sunday.

Many, but not all, canonists state that Saturday evening means after 4 p.m.; others say after 12 noon. In some dioceses the bishop has determined the hour by decree, and this is a legitimate exercise of his authority in an area that has not been determined by the Holy See.

The Latin Catholic fulfills the Sunday precept even if the liturgy celebrated was not that of the corresponding Sunday, for example, if he attended a wedding, funeral or even an evening Saturday Mass in a religious community which habitually celebrated its daily Mass in the evening.

He or she may also attend any Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy, making every effort to respect the traditions of each liturgical family regarding such things as posture, fasting and the reception of Communion.

The Eastern Catholic, within the territory of his own Church, should preferably always attend his own rite. Outside of this territory he should do all that is reasonable to attend his own rite. Otherwise, he should attend another Catholic celebration.

In places where several Catholic jurisdictions overlap, such as in some parts of India and the Middle East, Catholics occasionally attend one another’s celebrations as a sign of harmony and the common faith.

There are one or two ancient but small liturgical families of which there is a Catholic and an Orthodox branch. In places outside of the traditional homeland where there is a sufficient number of faithful, but an acute shortage of priests, the Catholic Church has agreed to share priests with the Orthodox so as to assure the continued celebration of this liturgical tradition. In such cases both Catholics and Orthodox worship together.

Otherwise, a Catholic does not fulfill his Sunday Obligation attending an Orthodox celebration.

Should a Catholic be in a situation where there is no Catholic Mass available, the Sunday obligation ceases, since nobody is obliged to do the impossible. As we have seen above in Canon 1248.2, the Church highly recommends some alternative form of sanctification of the feast such as a celebration of the Word. This, however, is a recommendation and not an obligation.

Should a Catholic find himself in a situation where there was no Catholic Mass but there was an Orthodox celebration, then the Catholic could attend this celebration as an alternative means of sanctifying the feast, although not in fulfillment of the Sunday precept.

If the laws of the Orthodox Church allow it, the Catholic could also receive Communion (Canon 844.2; Eastern Code 671.2).

A Catholic should always inquire beforehand if this possibility is available. If unable to ask because of language barriers, it is better to refrain rather than risk contravening the spiritual tradition of fellow Christians.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

Share this Entry

Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation