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Obligation and Desire

Thought for the Day - BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

Monday, 16th May, 2022

Good morning. The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have issued an invitation to Catholics to return to weekly Mass attendance from Pentecost. They refer to this as “the Sunday Obligation”, which was suspended during the pandemic.

The Sunday Obligation has its roots in the belief that worshipping God is the most fundamental human vocation and duty. The right to freedom of religion enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that people of many creeds share this belief. But for me, the language of obligation is difficult, for it suggests hierarchies of authority and obedience which sit uneasily alongside modern sensibilities.

The authority of Catholic Church leaders has been undermined by the sex abuse crisis and also by what Pope Francis calls clericalism – the tendency of some priests and bishops to see themselves as an unaccountable elite, remote from and out of touch with the realities of everyday life. Those who wanted to return to weekly Mass have probably already done so, and those who have not (myself included) are unlikely to do so because the bishops say we must.

For some of us, the last two years have been a time of spiritual reckoning and reawakening. The pandemic reminded us of how dependent we are on one another and how fragile our lives and institutions are. It was also a time when our cities fell silent so that even in the most built-up areas we could listen to birdsong and become aware of our natural surroundings. I doubt if any of us feels we are still the same person we were when this crisis began, and for some that means our faith too is being rediscovered and reimagined. There is no normal to go back to, and new ways of believing and belonging must now emerge as we rise to the challenges of a world in crisis.

In the Catholic tradition, worship has its roots not in duty but in desire, not as an obligation but as an expression of yearning for the source of the love, beauty and goodness of creation. The Mass uses the simple language of human hunger and natural abundance to express this. The Eucharistic prayer speaks of the fruit of the earth, the fruit of the vine, and the work of human hands. This is earthy language: grace transforms nature’s goodness into nurture for our hungry souls.

When my spiritual hunger draws me back to the Sunday Mass, it will be because of desire and not obligation. It will be because I say with the psalmist, ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’

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