Questions about Sunday’s day of rest are among the most common found in our mailbag. What kind of activity is permitted on a Sunday? How much activity is too much activity? What does “servile work” mean? What are my responsibilities as a parent to my minor children? Should I insist on limits to their activities? The list seems to be endless.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives important direction and context that are essential for guidance. It teaches that “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest” (CCC 2185).
A second essential is that “Christians who have leisure should be mindful of their brethren who have the same needs and the same rights yet cannot rest from work because of poverty and misery” (CCC 2186). This context is important to fully understand and apply the teaching about the Lord’s day into our life and spiritual practice.
We know the directive to “keep holy the Sabbath” is anchored in our spiritual tradition, and we understand there is a lived reality of the tradition. For example, Christians traditionally keep Sunday holy, not the Sabbath that Jews keep from Friday night until Saturday evening.
As part of our developing tradition, we also understand that, at one time in the not-too-distant past, many Christians would be categorized as men and women who experienced poverty and misery. Most Christians once were poor and unable to determine when they would work, how they would work, what kind of work they would do, or how they might organize their day or week. Most Christians were not part of the landed aristocracy but were tied to the land in servile work for the landowner. This historical reality helps us understand the guidance in the CCC.
The prohibition against servile work on Sunday was aimed directly at landowners, those people who were able to control work and production. As Christians they were prohibited from requiring their workers to engage in work on Sundays and holy days. This was the only way ordinary people would be able to enjoy any kind of rest and respite from daily toil. In a sense, the ban speaks more to the question of power than it does to work.
Today, most Christians are no longer tied to the land, nor is servile labor part of their work life. They are generally free to decide on their own about work and rest. What is important is the CCC’s direction for the “appropriate relaxation of mind and body” along with “proper worship.” The emphasis has changed as the reality of living has developed and evolved.
In today’s religious practice, discernment is more important—and more difficult to apply—than a ban. In discerning a practice to follow, we have to determine how to apply the value of a concept or teaching. People with the scrupulous condition are inclined to choose a prohibitive, clearly defined expectation. Of course, a variety of self-styled experts are quite willing to list directives to follow. But that “easy way” is most often not the best way.
As tempting as it might be to identify an expert and follow his or her direction, a more mature, integrative, and healthier approach is to think through and decide to apply the spiritual practice that works best for you. One “size” does not fit all. In fact, your spiritual practice will not remain constant but will change with the circumstances of your life. What may be useful and appropriate at one point may not necessarily be the best way at another point.
I will not provide you with a list of activities that are acceptable or a list of activities that are prohibited because no listing could be truthful or complete. I will, however, give you helpful direction: Be generous with your choices and as nonrestrictive as possible. Another way to look at it is to choose to be celebratory and grateful. Enjoy life, people, experiences. Engage in life.
Most especially, never restrict or overly discipline your life in the name of God. The Lord does not require or demand such a response from you. It does not give honor to God and does not make the day holy. In the Christian tradition, Sunday is the Lord’s day, the time to celebrate living and all of life.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR