What to know about being Catholic on the Church’s birthday

The Easter season concludes with the feast of Pentecost, often referred to as the birthday of the Church. It was on Pentecost that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, taking the form of tongues of fire above each of their heads, and these men were able to speak in languages until then unknown to them in order to spread the Gospel. Pentecost is a kind of fulfillment, in that it harkens back to the Tower of Babel, where God “[confused] their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another” (Gn 11:7). And so, Pentecost is a celebration of the Church itself, as well as a reminder of the call each of the faithful has to share the Good News of Christ’s resurrection.

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Pentecost is also a good time to reflect on the precepts of the Church, a short list of obligations the faithful are required to fulfill, as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In Paragraph 2041, the Catechism teaches that these precepts are “positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities … meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” If you’re practicing your faith, the odds are you’re already fulfilling them all. But a refresher never hurts, and reviewing the precepts meditatively can be made a prayerful exercise to renew your commitment to the Lord.

1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation

The first precept is pretty direct and requires little explanation. Participation in the Mass is an act of gratitude, humility, praise and petition. It’s a powerful and rejuvenating prayer that celebrates and encourages community. There is simply no substitution for time spent in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.

2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year

The second precept “ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness” (CCC, No. 2042). My relationship with the Sacrament of Confession has deepened over the years, as I’ve recognized my need for it and come to appreciate the grace that comes from it. We’re only required to confess once a year, but monthly or even weekly confession can have a profound impact on your prayer life, your relationships and your sense of vocation. If you’re going just once a year, prayerfully consider receiving this opportunity for God to bestow his grace on you more often.

3. You shall humbly receive your Creator in holy Communion at least during the Easter season

Sometimes we forget that attending Mass doesn’t automatically mean receiving the Eucharist. If we’re not in a state of grace — if we’ve missed Sunday Mass or Mass on a holy day of obligation, or if we’ve committed another mortal sin — we must not receive the Blessed Sacrament until we’ve received absolution in the Sacrament of Confession. Why during the Easter season? To connect “the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood” with “the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy” (CCC, No. 2042).

4. You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation

Wait, didn’t the first precept cover this one? Not quite. Yes, we need to attend Mass on holy days of obligation, but we also need to treat the solemnities like Sundays, with rest and celebration built in. Here’s the list of solemnities the Church in the United States celebrates with high honor:

  • Mary, Mother of God — Jan. 1
  • The Ascension of Our Lord — Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter (depending on your diocese, this solemnity is often transferred to the following Sunday)
  • The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary — Aug. 15
  • All Saints — Nov. 1
  • The Immaculate Conception — Dec. 8
  • The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (aka Christmas) — Dec. 25

(Note that holy days are sometimes different in other countries, and are sometimes transferred to other dates in the U.S., depending on when they fall in a given year.)

These “principal liturgical feasts” help to create a rhythm to the year and help us to draw closer to the Lord, our Blessed Mother, and the saints (CCC, No. 2042).

5. You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence

There is a time to feast, and there is a time to fast. The Catechism states that the latter “ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (CCC, No. 2043). Living liturgically, that is, in line with the Church’s calendar, gives balance and a certain sense of freedom that “you do you” culture can’t provide. The traditions of the Church are centered on an appreciation and respect for who we are as human beings, for the seasons we need to observe in order to thrive in mind, body and spirit.

Finally, “The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities” (CCC, No. 2043). This may be fulfilled in time, treasure or talent, that is, volunteering your time, offering financial donations, or using your skills to serve your parish or diocese.

Yes, these precepts may be read as rules, but they may also be understood as guidelines our loving Father has gifted us, his children, so that we can reach the heights of who we were created to be, sons and daughters in his image and likeness. Thank God for his Church and for our membership in it. Happy birthday, Holy Mother Church!

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