Holy days of obligation are inconvenient – but that’s the whole point

A pilgrim with a rosary wrapped around her hand prays during the World Youth Day closing Mass on Copacabana beach (Photo: CNS)

Today is the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, one of Britain’s few remaining holy days of obligation where attendance at Mass is compulsory – other than Sundays, of course.

Over the past few decades, bishops’ conferences have reduced the number of these days, with major feasts such as Epiphany, the Ascension and Corpus Christi transferred to Sundays, in the hope of making Church life more convenient for the faithful.

“How many people really have time in our modern world to attend Mass on a weekday?” the bishops’ thinking goes. “If we move the obligation to Sunday, more people will turn up, and will therefore be less likely to fall away from the faith.”

The trouble is, there is little evidence this actually works. In fact, there is much to the contrary.

In 1972, sociologist Dean Kelley published the groundbreaking book Why Conservative Churches are Growing. He argued that denominations that place more demands on adherents inspire greater loyalty in their followers. This, he explained, is how more conservative churches were thriving, or at least declining less slowly, while mainline liberal denominations were collapsing.

Four decades later, it is difficult to argue with his thesis. The Church of England, which has undergone a rapid course of theological liberalisation – another way of making the faith less demanding – has experienced an equally rapid decline. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Britain has only managed to keep its numbers relatively steady thanks to immigration.

Another sociologist, Laurence Iannaccone, argued in 1994 that, instead of putting people off, more demanding churches “raise overall levels of commitment, they increase average rates of participation, and they enhance the net benefits of membership”.

Taking people out of the ordinary, requiring them to make a sacrifice – even if that sacrifice is just their time – ultimately increases their wellbeing because it brings them into a community of other committed believers.

There are signs that the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is beginning to realise this.

In 2011, the bishops reinstated the requirement for Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, saying in a statement: “The bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.”

What better way for Catholics to express their identity than to go to Mass?

Requiring the faithful to take time on a major feast day to come together in a collective act of worship reinforces community bonds and makes Catholicism a more prominent part of their lives. The benefits are not only spiritual, but also social.

Perhaps one day soon the bishops will move feasts like Corpus Christi, the Ascension and the Epiphany back to their original dates. They would be making a very wise decision if they did.