What exactly is a precept? Miriam Webster says a precept is a command or principle intended especially as a rule of action. Simply, the Precepts of the Church are the minimum rules we are asked to follow as practicing Catholics. The precepts are given to us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in CCC 2041-2043.
- You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
- You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
- You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
- You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
- You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
Attending Mass on Sundays is what feeds and nourishes us spiritually. We can meet that obligation by attending a Saturday Vigil Mass like the 4:30pm Saturday Mass at SMOY or by attending Mass on Sunday. Attending a Mass on another day throughout the week, such as a Thursday or Friday, does not meet our Sunday obligation. One beauty of our faith is that when we are traveling or can’t get to Mass at a time our own parish offers it, we can attend a different Catholic church and still meet our obligation. The website, www.masstimes.org is a great tool to find a Mass at a time and location that helps us meet our obligation. Unless we are excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by our own pastor when we deliberately fail to attend Mass every week, we commit a grave sin and it needs to be confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The Catechism in number CCC 2193, tells us that “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound . . . to abstain from those labors 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." God rested on the seventh day of creation, not for Himself, but for us. In His great wisdom, He knows that we need to take a day to be with Him, to restore ourselves and to just love the Lord. Set Sunday aside for worshiping the Creator and refreshing yourself and your family.
Holy Days of Obligation are included in the first precept, so what does that mean for us? Holy Days of Obligation are every Sunday and special days on which we celebrate our most important Catholic feasts known as solemnities. On these days, we honor the mysteries of our Lord, we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we honor the Saints who have modeled a holy life for us.
In the United States, the special Holy Days of Obligation are:
- January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
- Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
- August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
- December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
- December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
- You may have heard Father Bedel call them Holy Days of Opportunity and that’s because they give us the opportunity to celebrate the beauty of our faith.
Just to keep it interesting, we’ll skip to Precept Three “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season” and see what that means for us. We just learned that we are obligated to attend Mass on every Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, so why would another Precept say that at a minimum we should receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter season? Shouldn’t we receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at every Mass? Today, most Catholics do receive the Eucharist at every Mass they attend, but it wasn’t always so. Historically, in the middle ages, many Catholics did not receive the Eucharist regularly due to feelings of unworthiness. They gazed at the consecrated host instead, which was a precursor to the devotion we call Eucharistic Adoration today. We see Precept Three being implemented around the 16th Century to encourage reception of the Blessed Sacrament. Some Catholics may not receive Holy Communion because they are not in a state of grace (they have committed a mortal sin) or they have not fasted one hour before receiving Holy Communion. This Precept goes together with receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year, which we’ll cover next.
The Precept to confess our sins at least once a year means we should receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a priest at a minimum of once a year. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not only a sacrament for having our sins forgiven, but it gives us the grace to be able to turn our lives around and combat those sins that we struggle with repeatedly. If we were carrying a heavy load, wouldn’t we set it down as soon as possible rather than carry it for a whole year? We would do what we can to dump that load quickly. Going to Reconciliation once a month is a great way to set down that burden here and now. God’s grace is waiting for us in the confessional, we just need to take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Has it been a while since you’ve been to Reconciliation? No worries, our good and loving priests understand, and they are here to help you through it. Just tell them it’s been a while and you might not remember exactly how it goes. There are laminated cards with the Act of Contrition in the confessionals, so you don’t have to have it memorized, and there are so many online resources to help you remember how to go to confession. You can start here: ‘
Precept Four binds us to “observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us that “Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.” Those of us aged 18 through 59 need to fast on obligatory days and those of us aged 14 and older need to abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. Fasting means a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. All these requirements for fasting during Lent are probably very familiar to all of us, and we greatly enjoy our Fish Fry Fridays during Lent at SMOY.
But, did you know that there are a few more obligations for fasting that we should be observing? We should fast for an hour, from everything except water and medication, before receiving the Holy Eucharist on Sundays or any days we attend Mass. If possible, our fast on Good Friday should be continued until the Easter Vigil. That means waiting to eat a large meal until after the Easter Vigil Mass on the Saturday before Easter. This helps us to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Many might remember abstaining from meat every Friday in their youth until Vatican II. The requirement to abstain from meat on all Fridays during the year was terminated as binding under pain of sin, but not eliminated in its’ entirety. Cannon Law 1250 tells us that “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” What that means is that on every Friday of the year, we should seek to observe voluntary self-denial and personal penance. Abstaining from meat every Friday of the year is one option but giving up something which we greatly enjoy such as coffee perhaps is another option on Fridays. Adding an extra Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet is also an option for doing penance.
The final Precept of the Church requires that the faithful help provides for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability. The Bible is full of examples of the Israelites donating a portion of their livestock and harvest to the Lord. In fact, it was prescribed that 10% of a family’s income be tithed to support the Temple. While we aren’t required to flat out give 10% as a tithe, we should be willing to give all that we can. In Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:38-44), we hear about the widow who gave two small coins, which though a nominal sum of money, represented her entire livelihood. The widow trusted that God would take care of her if she gave generously of herself. As we discern what amount to support the Church with, we should remember to trust God in the same way the widow did. Our support of the Church can also be through donations of our time and talent, but not in place of our treasure. The point of giving is not simply to maintain the Church but to enable it to spread the Gospel and bring others into the Body of Christ.
Those are the Precepts, the minimum rules for living life as a Catholic, but as with anything in life worth doing, the minimum is not enough. Commit to being a wholehearted Catholic and go over and above these minimums. Jesus went over and above for you.