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The Precepts, or Commandments of the Church

4 March 2016

We are all familiar with the Ten Commandments, laws given to the Hebrews by God that we have inherited. Many of us are less familiar though with the Precepts, otherwise known the Commandments of the Church.

These commandments are important. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that these precepts are obligatory, not because it wants to control our lives but because they constitute the minimum participation of a Catholic in the moral and sacramental life of the Church.

In other words, these precepts or commandments are the Church’s definition of our minimum encounter with God.

The Church’s precepts are:

1. To keep holy the day of the Lord’s Resurrection: to worship God by participating in Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation; and to avoid activities that might present an obstacle to the renewal of body and soul; for example, needless work, unnecessary shopping, etc.

Attending Mass on Sundays and holy days can be viewed by some as a drudge or an imposition, but we should learn to view it as a gift from God, as an opportunity for us to give thanks and praise for God’s blessings and mercy, and of course to be united with Christ in the Eucharist. This communion cleanses us of minor sins and gives us the grace we need to become more like Our Lord, and to take His Good News out into the world.

2. To receive Holy Communion and the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year, between the first Sunday of Lent and the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

The Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist are encounters for us with God’s mercy and grace. These Sacraments cleanse and heal our broken relationship with God, and the Eucharist is spiritual nourishment that can remit minor sin and help us to resist temptation. Who could think of these Sacraments as anything other than wonderful, God-given gifts, opportunities to rebuild our relationship with God? And yet while the queues for Holy Communion are not shrinking, we Catholics are avoiding the confessional more and more. Could it be that we have forgotten that we should be in a state of grace to worthily receive the Sacrament? Could it be because we have lost a sense of personal sin? Do we think we do not need God’s forgiveness? Could it be that we are too ashamed of our sinfulness to approach this source of Grace?

The Monastery of St John the Divine on the Greek Island of Patmos has a carving on the lintel of its door which translates as “a Place of Healing for the Soul”. This motto is appropriate for every confessional and every altar, because that is what they are: spiritual hospitals. We approach the confessional and the altar because our souls become sick with the effects of personal sin, and the church offers us the places and the graces where we can be healed. The Church asks us to receive these Sacraments just once a year. We should receive both more often.

3. To observe the marriage laws of the Church: to give religious training to one’s children.

The Church lays down certain rules about marriage which we are bound to follow. These rules include prohibitions against marrying close relatives, and also the time of the year where a marriage takes place, but most important is this:

If a Catholic was to be married in a registry office, this would not be considered to be a valid marriage by the Church. To be a valid marriage, bride and groom must exchange their vows in a consecrated church or chapel in front of a minister of the Church (a priest or deacon). This is because Matrimony is a Sacrament, an outward, sign of an inward life-changing grace which involves God fully in every aspect of the marriage. The sacramental dimension of marriage is deliberately ignored in a civil marriage.

God smiles upon the love of a man and a woman, expressed in all the ways we have been given, including the birth of children. Each family home becomes a domestic church where the children of Catholic parents first learn their prayers and should learn about the love of God and neighbour from their parents.

4. To support the Church: one’s own parish community and parish priests and the wider Church. This to be achieved through donation of both money and our time.

I have emphasised this commandment because it is one of the most important and at the same time one of the most disregarded by many faithful church-going Catholics. Perhaps it is because we all think that the Church is monstrously rich and doesn’t need our financial help. However, the fact is that the institutional Church is asset rich and cash poor. That means that for the day-to-day running of our parish, we are the ones who must support our church and our priest with our money and our time.

As a parish we depend on our weekly collections. From these, we keep the church heated and lit; it pays for our liturgical books; the publication of our newsletters and hymn sheets; the wafers and the wine we consecrate in the Eucharist; for the candles we light at Baptisms and Easter. The money from the collection pays for the water we use to flush our toilets, the electricity we use when cleaning the church, and of course the outstanding debt on the church building.

About 50% of our collection is “taxed” every week by the Diocese. This tax goes to pay diocesan staff; to partially fund Catholic schools; to contribute to the costs of educating our future priests and deacons and so on.

The sad fact though, is that the majority of money collected to support our parish church and priest is actually collected from a fraction of the people who fill this church every Sunday. It is through their generosity that the majority of parishioners can visit a clean, warm, well-lit and well-maintained church, a church which never runs out of wafers and wine. These generous fellow Catholics shoulder the burden we should all share equally. This is said with the full knowledge that some of us can’t afford to contribute much, for many reasons. However, many of us can contribute far more than we do.

I was speaking to a former work-colleague who drives a minibus for a Pentecostal church. He transports people to and from home to church, and also delivers food packages for the poorest members of the church and indeed to organisations like the Julian trust. All of this is paid for by the generosity of the members of this church, which in many ways is, materially speaking, far poorer than our own.

What an example, not just in the material giving, but also the giving of time and talents for the greater glory of God and the building of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

5. To do penance: including abstaining from meat and fasting from food on the appointed days of Fasting and Abstinence.

Self-discipline when it comes to the world of the senses is not in fashion at present. It seems that many meals have to be super-sized and honey-basted or otherwise mucked around with, and while there are increasing numbers of vegetarians, many people would feel in some way cheated if they were fed a meat-free meal.

Cooking shows featuring chefs who are given the same celebrity status as premier league footballers are increasingly popular. The numbers of cookery books in the bookshops far outnumber the pitifully few books about religion. For many people, food has perhaps replaced God as the centre of their lives.

We, though, who are called to be salt of the earth and light to the world, must be different. Our difference is that from time to time we deny ourselves some of the pleasures of the senses, in particular food. We eat less on these days, and we abstain from meat. This helps us to see food as a blessing which enhances our lives rather than as an idol. We recognise that food is a gift from God, and through self-denial we learn to be more grateful to God for these gifts.

Abstinence is actually one of our oldest Christian traditions. Dating from close to the first Pentecost, Friday, the day of the crucifixion has been traditionally declared as a day when Christians should abstain from meat to honour Christ who sacrificed his flesh on a Friday.

It should also be remembered that when we voluntarily give up something we enjoy, we are making a sacrifice, and any sacrifice made for love of God and our neighbour unites us more closely to Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.

To fast is to reduce the amount of food eaten, abstinence means to abstain from eating a type of food.

Canon Law still requires that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are allowed one main meal and two smaller “collations” on these days and we must not eat meat on these days, and we are expected to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. “Meat” is defined as the flesh of warm-blooded animals. So fish as a cold-blooded type of animal is allowed. This has been reintroduced since 16 September 2011.