ON SANCTIFYING SUNDAYS & HOLY DAYS
The Holy Face of Jesus from the image of Veronica's veil
(The veil is kept in St. Peters Basilica, Rome.)
“Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.” — Exod. 20:8
On Sanctifying Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
*Reprinted with permission from Catholic Family News
We read in the book of
Exodus that God made laws for the Jewish people through the ministration of
Moses. It was on Mount Sinai, whither Moses had gone to implore Heaven’s
blessing on the arms of His people, that God, in the midst of thunder and
lightning, made His law known to him. It was there that Moses concluded this
renowned covenant between the Lord and the people of Israel. This law, which in
all things bears the stamp of God’s wisdom, we call the Ten Commandments.
With the exception of the third commandment, we have already considered the law
as delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. By this third commandment we are commanded
to keep holy the Sabbath day. It is well known to you, my brethren, that the
Apostles fixed the Sabbath on the Sunday, or the first day of the week, to
consecrate this day in a special manner.
They did this because of the great mysteries which took place on this day,
particularly the glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the head and founder of
our holy Church, and the Savior of all mankind.
It follows, then, that for us Christians it is a grave and holy duty to keep the
Sunday, and the same duty holds good for the appointed holidays of
obligation; and of this obligation I intend to treat in the first part of this
sermon, and in the second part to consider how this obligation can be carried
In order to discover the origin of the seventh day’s rest, first we must look
back to the creation of the world. Holy Scripture tells us that, when God drew
the universe out of nothingness and created heaven and earth, He employed six
days for this
purpose, although it was possible for Him to have perfected all in one single
instant, and when all was complete He rested on the seventh day. (Gen. 2) He
not only rested but He blessed and sanctified that day. By this He desired to
make known to man, His creature, and for whom He had created all things, that he
also must sanctify the seventh day, and thus in a special manner acknowledge the
greatness, the supreme power, and the goodness of his Creator, and of the
Creator of the universe.
Through the sin of our first parent, this law became still more necessary. For
then he was sentenced by God to labor, and by the sweat of his brow to eat his
bread. Sin, moreover, has inflicted serious wounds upon his soul, so that he
cannot attain his eternal salvation without great graces from God, and without
an unceasing struggle. He must, then, after a labor of six days, give a day of
rest to his exhausted body, and on that day pray to God in a particular manner
for the necessary help and strength to enable him to conquer his spiritual
enemies, and to obtain his inheritance, which is everlasting life.
Therefore, from the beginning of the world, one out of the seven days was set
apart to praise God, to offer Him gifts and sacrifices, to meditate on His
divine perfections and on His holy laws, and on which to turn the mind to the
eternal and perfect rest, which ought to be the principal object of all our
And, my brethren, wonderful to relate, the remembrance of this institution has
been preserved, even among pagan nations. When we read their annals, we find
that among the Egyptians and Greeks, in India and in China, one day out of the
seven is specially dedicated to the observances of religion.
Nevertheless, this law was more expressly defined by God on Mount Sinai, where,
as you have already seen, He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, the leader of
the people of Israel. The third commandment is thus announced: “I am the Lord
God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of
bondage ... Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou
labor, and shalt do all thy works. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the
Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work on it, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter,
nor thy man. servant, nor thy maid servant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that
is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made Heaven and earth, and the
sea, and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: therefore
the Lord blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”
Behold, my brethren, the law of God; and make a note here of the word remember.
For this word shows that the sanctification of the seventh day, which is here
prescribed, was already in practice, and that the covenant into which God here
solemnly enters with His people was less a new law than a solemn renewal of a
law already in existence, and which dates from the foundation of the world.
Sunday: From Apostolic Times
Now, the day of rest and of sanctification, the Sabbath, as I have explained,
has been changed by the Apostles to the Sunday, and this observance has been
adhered to till the present day. “And on the first day of the week,” — thus it
is that St. Luke speaks in the Acts of the Apostles, — “When we were assembled
to break bread.” (Acts 20:7) — That is, according to interpreters of Sacred
Scripture, on a Sunday they had gathered together to offer up the holy
Sacrifice, and to receive Holy Communion. In the first Epistle to the
Corinthians the Apostle St.
Paul writes: “On the first day of the week let every one of you put apart with
himself, laying up what it shall well please him.” (16:2) These words show
clearly that on that day the faithful assembled together, and on that day the
Apostle also prescribed the gathering in of the alms for the poor.
St. Justin, martyr, who lived only a hundred years after Jesus Christ, says:
“That on Sundays all the faithful assembled in the Church, and that selections
from the Sacred Scriptures were read, followed by a sermon and general prayer,
afterwards the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered, during which the faithful
approached the Holy Table, and finally the collection was taken up for the poor,
the widows and orphans, and for all the faithful who were in necessity. (Apoc.
And to show their esteem and reverence for the Sunday, according to the
testimony of St. Clement of Alexandria and other holy fathers, the early
Christians were attired in white and costly garments, and their churches were
When, after an almost incessant persecution of more than three hundred years,
the Church obtained the long-wished-for peace, the law of sanctifying the Sunday
was several times renewed by the Popes and general councils; and even the civil
authority prescribed its observance. The first monarch who made the Sunday
Celebration a state law was the emperor Constantine the Great.
Theodosius the Great revived a former law, by virtue of which representations in
theaters were forbidden, and severe punishments inflicted upon those who dared
to disturb the divine solemnity. The emperor Charlemagne forbade, under heavy
penalties, the holding of worldly meetings on Sundays, and the disturbing of the
religious quiet of the Sunday by noisy games or plays.
These laws still exist, at least in part, in many Christian lands, especially in
England and Holland, whose governments nevertheless are Protestant.
(Note: This sermon was given in the first half of the 20th Century — ed.)
My brethren, let us remember that God’s law always remains the same. By God’s
grace we are Christians, and must carefully observe this great law of the Lord.
Formerly, Christians were persecuted and led to death because they kept the
Sunday holy, and you know how at the end of the 19th Century in France and
Belgium priests were cast into prison, and exiled for daring to practice our
Then we saw a vast number of Catholics leaving their houses in secret by night
to be able, in some house or shed, to hear the Mass of a hunted priest.
These times are past, we dare to hope that they will never return. Should not
we, then, my brethren, who now enjoy such perfect liberty, keep the Sunday as we
God said to Moses: “He that shall profane it, shall be put to death; he that
shall do any work in it, his soul shall perish out of the midst of his people.”
(Exod. 31:14) “Watch over your souls,” He says by the Prophet Jeremias, “bear no
burdens on the Sabbath day; let no one enter your city, nor depart from your
house. If you do not listen to Me,“ says the Lord, “then I will set fire to your
gates, it will destroy your
palaces, and shall not be extinguished.“ (16) These threats were truly
fulfilled, and when nearly a century later, Nehemias once more saw the people
trading with strangers on the Lord’s Day, he exclaimed: “How darest thou allow
such things! Was it not the profanation of the Lord’s Day which made our
forefathers so guilty, and which drew down all the evils on this city which you
In like manner God has always chastised the world on account of the profanation
of the Sunday, and He will continue to do so as long as the Christian world does
not return to its observance. What has become of these barbarous people who for
a hundred years held sway in France, and who, the more easily to root out the
faith from all hearts, suppressed the Sunday? One dragged the other to the
came to a miserable end.
Besides, experience has always taught, and will continue to teach, that Sunday’s
work does not avail. God does not bless this labor: He curses it, and makes the
profaner expiate his labor dearly, so by not respecting this law of God, a man
not only runs the risk of losing his faith, but is also often brought to
So much for the obligation of keeping the Sunday holy: let us now see in what
way we must sanctify it. The precept of sanctifying the Lord’s Day, my brethren,
binds us to avoid certain things and to perform others. The Catechism lays this
clearly. It states that we must abstain from all works forbidden on such days
and give ourselves up to devotion.
First, then, we must abstain from all works prohibited on such days. These are
all servile works, unless necessity obliges.
Servile works include the labor of agriculture, of the building trades, sewing,
washing of clothes and ironing, the carting of merchandise and such like. All
these works are forbidden, and we make ourselves guilty of mortal sin if we
spend a notable time at them. Should, under certain circumstances, needs of
religion, or the commonwealth, or our neighbor, or our own personal wants
require us to do servile work, we must in such case ask the necessary
dispensation from our pastor, who is authorized to this effect, and from whom
also we must seek advice in cases of doubt.
Then, again, selling and buying are prohibited. In certain cases of necessity
this may be permitted to a certain extent, provided that it does not interfere
with the services of God.
As regards other works, such as reading, writing, studying, teaching, music,
painting, travelling even for pleasure, if we do not consume too much of our
time over them, they are lawful. But we should not satisfy ourselves in hearing
a short Mass, and then spending the rest of the day in such works.
You will never prosper by doing servile work on a Sunday. If you want Heaven’s
blessing never work on Sundays. The words of Jesus Christ Himself should
strengthen you regarding this: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice,
and all these things shall be added unto you.” (St. Math. 6:33)
Thus we see, my brethren, what things are forbidden on the Sunday. Let us now
see what is prescribed on those days.
We must hear Mass on Sundays and holidays of obligation, and to fail in this
without good reason is a mortal sin. This obligation is binding on all who have
attained the years of discretion, and this duty must be performed devoutly —
that is, we must hear Mass from the beginning to the end, and that in an
edifying manner. It is a sign of little faith to leave the church, without
necessity, immediately after the blessing of the priest; and it is a sign of
total want of faith to be in church without sentiments of devotion, without
prayer book, or beads, just as if we were on the public road. The same applies
to coming to church dressed in an unbecoming, disedifying way.
Alas! how shocking is the conduct of many Christians in this regard. They affect
a behavior in church, which they would not permit in a respectable house in the
presence of the master of it. Surely the God of all sanctity deserves every
respect and reverence in His (holy) house!
To hear Mass devoutly, is, my brethren, the first obligation we have to observe
on Sundays and holidays. But is this all? Many think they have satisfied the
obligation of keeping the Sunday holy by hearing Mass, merely as though God had
to exact on this day. Does the sanctification of the Lord’s Day consist in
merely spending half an hour in piety? It is true, assistance at Mass alone is
commanded under pain of mortal sin, — but it is also true that they who content
themselves with this are constantly in the utmost danger of losing God’s grace,
and at the same time their eternal salvation.
The laws of the Church oblige priests to preach on Sundays, and to instruct the
Christian people, as well as to have church services in the afternoon or in the
evening, such as vespers, Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. But
if the faithful are free to come to them or not, it would seem to be futile to
prescribe such laws to priests.
Although we may attend these different religious services in all public
churches, nevertheless holy Church wishes that, on Sundays, we should assist at
the parochial Mass. This Mass is said for the parish and for all parishioners,
therefore it would be
unseemly for a family to be unrepresented by any of its members.
Yes! Sunday is the Lord’s day. Many good Christians, thank God, understand this,
and they are happy when the Sunday arrives, because they can satisfy their
devotion by praying more, by visiting Jesus Christ in His Blessed Sacrament, by
performing the Way of the Cross, by honoring Our Blessed Lady in the recitation
of the Rosary, by attending Sodalities, Confraternities and Sunday Schools, or
by performing other works of piety.
This, my brethren, is how you ought to keep Sunday. Perhaps you will say, “Must
I spend the whole of Sunday in prayer? Is it not lawful for me to allow myself
some recreation, some amusement?” Neither God nor the Church, my brethren,
you to pray the whole of the Sunday, and it is perfectly lawful for you to allow
yourselves some recreation on that day, after you have sanctified it by works of
devotion. But do not forget that the recreation which you indulge in must be
becoming, for, I ask you, would it be sanctifying the Lord’s Day, to give
yourselves up to sinful pleasures? Would not, then, the day of the Lord be
rather the day of the
devil? This, nevertheless, is the case with many who profane the Sunday, who,
after having spent the work-days tolerably well, abandon themselves to
drunkenness and all its sad consequences, to cursing and swearing, and to
impurity. Oh, my brethren, may this never be your conduct! No, do not change the
day of grace into a day of poison, the day of sanctification into a day of
I will repeat in a few words what I have said regarding this important matter.
To keep the day of the Lord or the seventh day is a strict obligation. God
prescribes this law to us and the Holy Church appoints its observance upon the
Sunday. Spiritual and temporal evils always have and always will be the
consequence of the transgression of this law.
We keep the Sunday by abstaining on that day from all servile works, and by
applying ourselves to the performing of acts of devotion, that is, by hearing
Mass devoutly, by assisting at the divine services as far as possible, by
hearing the word of God, by practicing other works of piety, and by guarding
ourselves from all sin.
Always, then, respect the Sunday. Give to your body the rest which it needs, and
when you feel tempted to do any forbidden work on Sundays, reflect that
according to the declaration of God Himself it is better to have less with a
quiet heart than much at the cost of your conscience.
Respect the Sunday, and spend it in devotion, and when in God’s house you are
kneeling before His holy altar, He, from the height of Heaven, will bless you
for time and for eternity. Every week you will obtain graces duly to fulfil your
holy duties and to sanctify your labor and sufferings. The year then will be
like a week, as the week is like the Sunday, your whole life will be spent in
the practice of all virtues, by which you will make yourselves pleasing to God
and to men; and when the gates of eternity shall open to you, you will enter
this everlasting rest of which
the Sunday’s rest is the image, and which God has prepared for and promised to
His faithful servants.
(Taken from Sermons From the Flemish (out-of-print))