Called the “Commandments of the Church” or the “Precepts of the Church”, these five observances require all Catholics to act according to laws that make them more Christ-like in mind and heart. They are:
Attend Mass; abstain from servile work on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
Fast and abstain on the days appointed.
Confess sins at least once a year.
Receive Holy Communion during Easter time.
Contribute to the support of the Church.
What appears simple on the surface is actually spiritually deep and closely connected with salvation history. We need to understand what the precepts are, why the Church commands Catholics to observe them, and how they help to deepen a person’s relationship with Christ if we are to gain great spiritual benefit from them.
What the precepts are and what they do
According to Canon #49 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “An individual precept is a decree directly and legitimately enjoining a determined person or persons to do or omit something, especially concerning the urging of the observance of a law.” The precepts of the Church require all Catholics (determined persons) to do certain actions which lead to observing the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 1-17, Deut. 5: 6-21) and the Two Great Commandments (Deut. 6:4 and Lv. 19:18) which are the essence of Judeo-Christian tradition culminating in the imitation of Christ. Jesus enjoined all of his followers to live the Two Great Commandments in Matt. 22: 35-40.
The Baltimore Catechism, decreed by the Third Council of Baltimore, became the first episcopal-approved Catholic catechism for widespread use in the United States of America in 1885. Forming the foundational understanding of the Catholic faith until the 1960s, it remains in use today. The catechism addresses the two-fold obligation implied in the precepts this way:
What must we do to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves?
To love God, our neighbor, and ourselves we must keep the commandments of God and of the Church, and perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
“My dear children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18)
Likewise, it is no accident that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, revised by Pope John Paul II in 1997, places its discussion of the precepts of the Church in the “Life in Christ” section because they act as a guardrail keeping Catholics focused on Christ and following the narrow highway to heaven.
Why the Church commands Catholics to observe the precepts
The Church always has in mind the end for which man was created: heaven and joy with God for eternity. All precepts and laws enjoined on Catholics exist to uphold this truth. Ever solicitous of the spiritual welfare of the faithful and knowing the weakness of human nature, she gave us the five precepts to live, as a bare minimum, a moral life intimately nourished by the sacred liturgy to grow in the love of God and neighbor (#2041 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
How the precepts help Catholics deepen a relationship with Christ
The first precept, (CCC #2042), commands that Catholics keep holy the Lord’s day and holy days by attending Mass and abstaining from servile work.
The four purposes of the Mass are:
1. Adoration and praise
2. Thanksgiving for graces and favors
3. Petition: asking God to bestow His blessings on all men
4. Propitiatory sacrifice – making satisfaction to God for sins committed against Him
Celebrating the sacred liturgy means we consider who God is and who we are, adoring, praising and thanking him for everything he has done for us. It is hearing God’s word and petitioning God’s help to live it. It is considering the needs of the world and asking God to bless everyone. It is both re-presenting to the Father Jesus’s Sacrifice of the Cross and offering our lives to him at the same time. When we participate in any Mass we gain an ever clearer concept of what God desires each of us to be: the face of Jesus to others. Sundays are the days of Resurrection, holy days are days of special celebration. Both bring us to the fulfillment of the Covenant and draw us into the mysteries of salvation. The Church wants us to deepen our awareness of the great things God has done for us in Christ by setting these days aside to give special honor to God.
Servile work is sweaty labor. As God rested on the seventh day of creation, so He wills that the faithful do also, keeping the seventh day of the week for him. The Church has never condemned servile work done out of necessity on Sundays and holy days, but she wishes that we have times for rest and relaxation which our bodies and minds need. If a cow goes down or a horse foals on a Sunday, God expects us to do what is necessary as good stewards of creation. If the pipes leak or the house catches fire on Sunday, God expects us to take care of what he has given us to live. In matters where we have discretion, though, the precept is clear: Sundays and holy days are oriented towards honoring God, resting, and taking ourselves out of the ruts we find ourselves in the other days of the week. They are days of refreshment needed to continue on the narrow path.
The second precept, fasting and abstaining on appointed days concerns disciplining our minds and bodies so that we may overcome the concupiscent tendencies of human nature. It is also a way of preparing ourselves for celebrating liturgical feasts. If we live a life of self-indulgence, we cannot be focused on our relationship with God and our final end. We also fail our neighbor by not being available or capable of fulfilling the second Great Commandment. As Jesus fasted, so must we if we are to become like him and strong in spirit.
Confession is the Sacrament of Penance, or reconciliation with God. We cannot justly receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) if we have mortal sins on our souls. We are not prepared to receive Christ into our hearts if we are attached to serious sins and unrepentant. Confession once a year, the third precept, is the very least we can do, examining our consciences and admitting to God our need of his forgiveness for failing to live his laws. We must make a firm resolve to sin no more and avoid occasions which lead us to sin, a requirement for absolution. The Church encourages confession much more frequently than once a year so that we form habits of virtue and overcome vice, but once a year is required.
Easter season is the pinnacle of rejoicing in the Church. Christ has conquered death and opened the gates of heaven to man who has suffered because of Adam’s sin. Satan has been overcome by the Son of God made man and Christ’s resurrection heralds the final resurrection of all who follow him. In her fourth precept, the Church requires the faithful to receive Christ’s Body and Blood during this joyous season because the Paschal feasts are “the origin and center of the Christian liturgy” (CCC #2042). We encounter Christ in all the sacraments, but we are never closer to him than when we receive him in Holy Communion and likewise, in a mystical way, never closer to our neighbor. So much does the Church desire that all her faithful be unified through the Holy Eucharist in the Easter Season that she commands all Catholics to receive this Sacrament of unity at least once a year and during this time.
The final precept, contributing to the support of the Church, means that Catholics must help provide for the material needs of the Church, always according to ability. This precept is also contained in Canon #222 of the 1983 code. Priests cannot live on air and the Church cannot live without priests. Parishes must pay bills and keep up their buildings. The evangelical mission of the Church requires material support, too. The faithful may choose where to direct their donations and how much to give, but give we must to spread the Gospel and bring souls to God. When we give we also fulfill the second Great Commandment – to love our neighbor enough to ensure that he has the same opportunity to come close to Jesus, share the same love we enjoy, and the same chance we do to enjoy heaven someday. As we follow Jesus’s command to render unto Caesar his due and to God his due (Mark 12: 17), we draw ever closer to him in justice.
In the end, living these precepts is all about that perfect charity St. Paul writes of in his famous treatise (1 Cor. 13: 1-13), the charity which alone remains in heaven. Conscious observance leads us to be of one mind and heart with Christ for now and eternity.