Q&A: Is there an age when you can stop going to Mass? What about watching Mass on TV?


Question: My older sister told me that after age 80, you are relieved of the duty to attend Sunday Mass. I didn’t believe her until a friend who is 86 told me the same thing. I have never heard of this. Is it true? (Ocean View, Delaware)

Answer: I have never heard of this either! The relevant citation in Code of Canon Law, Canon 1247, indicates: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” But canon law never mentions an upper age limit for this obligation.

There are some obligations for Catholics which do have stated age parameters. For example, Canon 1252 tells us that the obligation to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday “binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year,” meaning that once a Catholic turns 59 they are no longer required to keep the fast.

That being said, nobody is bound to an obligation that is impossible or gravely difficult to fulfill. It can happen that by the time a person reaches 80, various age-related issues could prevent them from attending Mass in person. For example, health issues might leave them too ill to go out, and transportation might become an issue if the person is no longer able to drive.

But an 80-something Catholic in good health who was capable of physically traveling to Mass would be just as bound to observe the Sunday obligation as their younger counterparts.

At the end of the day, our discernment of whether we are excused from the duty to attend Mass is a matter of conscience. The Church trusts us to make this determination in good faith.

But if an older adult is having a hard time weighing whether their circumstances truly excuse them from the Sunday obligation, it might be helpful for them to ask for advice from one’s confessor or parish priest.

As per Canon 1245, a bishop or pastor can also “commute” the Sunday obligation to “some other pious work.” This means that the proper authority can essentially set some other prayerful activity as a substitution for the Sunday obligation for a specific person in a particular case. So, for example, if a senior citizen feels uncomfortable traveling to Mass, their bishop or pastor can “change” the Sunday obligation to something like prayerfully reflecting on the readings of the day or watching a televised Mass.


Question: Due to extreme weather, I’ve missed Mass a couple of times. My parish has a Facebook channel, so I watched the services there instead. I wasn’t able to receive Communion. In talking to the priest, though, he said that in such situations, a person can receive invisibly or symbolically, and either way still be fed. Could you comment? (Southern Indiana)

Answer: Watching a livestream or pre-recorded Mass is not the same as attending Mass in person and receiving Communion. But given the circumstances you describe, it sounds like watching Mass online was still a good way to be spiritually nourished in that particular instance.

Most Catholics are aware of our “Sunday obligation”; Canon 1247 of the Code of Canon Law states: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.”

A true, fully, conscious and active participation in the Mass is understood to require our literal, physical presence at the liturgy. Because of this, watching Mass on a screen would not fulfill the Sunday obligation.

That being said, the Church intends for all of our obligations to be rooted in common sense, and a foundational principle of the law in general is that nobody can be bound to do what is impossible. Therefore, if you are truly unable to attend Mass in person – whether that be due to inclement weather, illness, being at a great geographical distance from a Catholic church, etc. – then you are not bound by the Sunday obligation.

Even if you are unable, and thus not required, to attend Mass, the commandment to “keep holy the Sabbath day” still applies, and in that case we should still do what we can to keep Sunday as an especially restful and prayerful day.

My own thought is that attentively watching a broadcast Mass and devoutly following the readings and prayers would be very much in line with the personal prayer time Canon 1248 recommends for circumstances where in-person Mass attendance is not possible.

However, the graces attached to receiving the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in Holy Communion is not something that can be replaced by an online broadcast. But there are many beautiful prayers in our Catholic tradition for a “spiritual communion,” where we express our longing to receive Jesus, at least spiritually, even if we cannot receive him physically in the Eucharist.


Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].


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