Did the reformers change the way Catholics hold Mass?

Hey all, I was reading something on askhistorians (reddit) and the question was: “In medieval England, how “mandatory” was it for everyone to attend church services? Were there punishments for people caught skipping church?”

The answer is as follows:

“The shorter answer is that it kind of depends on what time period. Throughout most of the Middle Ages though, it wasn’t mandatory at all. Mandatory church attendance is a Reformation thing – Calvin supposedly was the first to put pews/ seats into his churches in Geneva so it would be easier to spot who was there and to make it socially harder for people to get up and leave in the middle of the service. Until then – and this is difficult to envision nowadays – the naves of churches were nearly empty. There was no seating at all. Services would be going on at the main altar or in side chapels and the rest of the church would either be (a) empty, or (b) filled with people just milling around. Pilgrims might be visiting shrines, beggars would be asking for charity, townsfolk would be conducting business or just chatting with others or looking on curiously at what was going on at the altars around them – in a language they didn’t speak (Latin), with the priests having their backs turned to the crowd and saying the mass softly but intently to no one in particular.
Through most of the Middle Ages, services were held by and for those who had a connection to God (priests, other religious, certain parts of the high aristocracy, etc.). The rest of the population was unimportant to the process of the mass - the conversation was between God and those who could talk to him and services were performed, like under the Israelites in the Old Testament, so that God would look kindly on the whole community. An individual’s relationship with God was irrelevant, inconceivable, until the late Middle Ages (at the earliest).
This is an excellent collection of primary sources that will get you started on learning more about the actual practice of medieval Christianity.
[Edit]: Some have picked up on my saying that people were “milling around” in the church. I didn’t mean to be flip there but simply to suggest that people would be watching what’s going on, talking with neighbors, chasing children who weren’t paying attention, praying on their own at shrines, etc. Simply that there were a variety of activities.”

This seems very different from missing mass for no reason being a “mortal sin” as I’ve heard. Also, the idea that Catholics sort of copied from Protestants.

Here’s the link: reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2dc68y/in_medieval_england_how_mandatory_was_it_for/

I don’t think this is correct. I believe that pews actually slightly predate the Reformation, for one thing, though the Protestants certainly made a lot of use of them by eliminating multiple Masses and stressing the centrality of hearing the Word. The basic picture of people “milling around” is correct. I have always assumed that Sunday and holyday Mass attendance was obligatory in the Middle Ages, but now I come to think of it I am not 100% certain just what canon law said.

The Mass was indeed seen primarily as a sacrifice offered by the priest, but the idea that laypeople were irrelevant is a caricature. See Eamon Duffy’s *The Stripping of the Altars/I for a picture of just how much people did participate.

The key thing for most laypeople attending Mass was seeing the Host as it was elevated. There were a lot of folk beliefs to the effect that people didn’t get older while attending Mass, that if you saw Christ in the Host you wouldn’t die suddenly that day or lose your eyesight, etc. Because multiple Masses were often going on in the same building on slightly different schedules, people would run around from one part of the church to another in order to see the Elevation as often as possible. Many laypeople (I don’t know how many and I’m sure it was probably a large minority, not a majority) went to daily Mass–one quote attributed to one sixteenth-century person is “I cannot be merry unless I see my Maker once a day.”

I think the article is correct in suggesting that the Reformation very much strengthened the didactic and disciplinarian elements of Catholicism. But whether the concept of a Mass obligation postdates the Reformation I’m not sure. I rather doubt it, though I suspect that it was understood rather differently given the realities described above. Certainly Sundays and holy days were public festivals and Mass attendance was an expected part of the proceedings. And people who didn’t attend Mass and/or didn’t behave with the proper reverence (very different from what we think of as reverence today in many ways) would quite likely come to be suspected of heresy. (In fact, there were people with Protestant sympathies in the 16th century who attended Mass in order to avoid suspicion, and Calvin denounced them as cowards and hypocrites.)


I was responding to the former.

I should have said explicitly that of course we know that the latter was obligatory–once a year–and that most people did not receive more often than that. Three times a year was considered frequent.


I was correct, then.


Thanks for a well detailed response.

Is it true that missing Mass is now a mortal sin?

The narrative from reddit conflicts with this:

St. Justin is the first Christian writer to call the day Sunday (I Apol., lxvii) in the celebrated passage in which he describes the worship offered by the early Christians on that day to God. The fact that they met together and offered public worship on Sunday necessitated a certain rest from work on that day. However, Tertullian (202) is the first writer who expressly mentions the Sunday rest: “We, however (just as tradition has taught us), on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude; deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the devil” (“De orat.”, xxiii; cf. “Ad nation.”, I, xiii; “Apolog.”, xvi).

These and similar indications show that during the first three centuries practice and tradition had consecrated the Sunday to the public worship of God by the hearing of Mass and resting from work. With the opening of the fourth century positive legislation, both ecclesiastical and civil, began to make these duties more definite. The Council of Elvira (300) decreed: “If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected” (xxi).



In the Apostolic Constitutions, which belong to the end of the fourth century, both the hearing of Mass and rest from work are prescribed, and the precept is attributed to the Apostles. The express teaching of Christ and St. Paul prevented the early Christians from falling into the excesses of Jewish Sabbatarianism in the observance of the Sunday, and yet we find St. Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century teaching that the holy Doctors of the Church had decreed that the whole glory of the Jewish Sabbath had been transferred to the Sunday, and that Christians must keep the Sunday holy in the same way as the Jews had been commanded to keep holy the Sabbath Day. He especially insisted on the people hearing the whole of the Mass and not leaving the church after the Epistle and Gospel had been read. He taught them that they should come to Vespers and spend the rest of the day in pious reading and prayer. As with the Jewish Sabbath, the observance of the Christian Sunday began with sundown on Saturday and lasted till the same time on Sunday. Until quite recent times some theologians taught that there was an obligation under pain of venial sin of assisting at Vespers as well as of hearing Mass, but the opinion rests on no certain foundation and is now commonly abandoned. The common opinion maintains that, while it is highly becoming to be present at Vespers on Sunday, there is no strict obligation to be present. The method of reckoning the Sunday from sunset to sunset continued in some places down to the seventeenth century, but in general since the Middle Ages the reckoning from midnight to midnight has been followed. When the parochial system was introduced, the laity were taught that they must hear Mass and the preaching of the Word of God on Sundays in their parish church. However, toward the end of the thirteenth century, the friars began to teach that the precept of hearing Mass might be fulfilled by hearing it in their churches, and after long and severe struggles this was expressly allowed by the Holy See. Nowadays, the precept may be fulfilled by hearing Mass in any place except a strictly private oratory, and provided Mass is not celebrated on a portable altar by a privilege which is merely personal.

Thanks–that confirms my suspicion that the article was wrong, but I couldn’t think of proof to the contrary off hand so I responded cautiously.

The point about Vespers is worth noting. I’ve run across references in medieval literature to Matins and/or Vespers along with Mass as a basic Sunday/holyday duty of devout people. My doubt concerned whether this was a canonical obligation or something that was very strongly encouraged and expected.


There isn’t any chart of certain actions or omissions being “mortal” sins, with another chart of ones that are “venial” sins. There are other factors involved as well.

BTW, if you have read the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, you will recall the advice by the arch-demon to his trainee, “murder is no better than cards if cards will do the trick”, and that whole section.

In any event, not sure why you put the word “now” in there.

Letter XII, p. 65, 1st American edition, 1947.


If one misses intentionally with no mitigating circumstances, yes, it is a mortal sin and one must confess it before receiving the Eucharist again. This includes not only Sundays, but all Holy Days of Obligation as well.

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” (CCC par 2181)

Vatican II addressed Reformation preference for vernacular Mass, hymns, communion in both kinds.

Do you really imagine that the Catholic Church made these changes because it was influenced by the “reformers”?


Is this just your opinion or do you have some evidence for this?

Just walk into any Catholic and most Lutheran churches and you see a free-standing altar Lutherans adapted after Vatican II. Latin Mass is extremely rare, so I have been told.

How is this evidence that the Catholic Church was influenced? Have you read any Vatican II document that somehow implies this?

The reason I’m a bit confused is that attendance didn’t seem to be mandatory according to what I posted. And the Eucharist wasn’t given weekly but sometimes annually. How does it go from not being a mortal sin to now being a mortal sin?

If this is all true, then do circumstances cause God to change His mind on what is gravely sinful?

The information that you posted is incorrect and has been refuted in this thread.

Yes that’s fair. But I’ve read before that taking the Eucharist was not a weekly occurance back in the old days? Is that also entirely incorrect? I am not a historian so I must ask.

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