The Enormous Power of the Bare Minimum: What If the Church Taught Its 5 Precepts?

Promoting the Precepts of the Church are the answer to the crisis of faith in the Church today.

In one way this is obvious. The crisis of faith in the world — the falling Mass attendance, lack of belief in the Real Presence, and the twin vocation crises of too few priests and dropping marriage rates — would by definition no longer be a  problem if people were following the Precepts of the Church, “the indispensable minimum” for Catholics, according to the Catechism.

But I think the Precepts of the Church mean more than that. Jesus Christ, God himself, entered our world with a radical new way of life that changed history and can change our lives and the lives of our families. We don’t have to guess at how to make sure we are living Christ’s life; we don’t have to see that goal as a daunting mountain we can never climb.

We just need to follow the Precepts of the Church.

The first precept is: “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.” 

You have to go to Mass every Sunday. Why? For the same reason you have to spend time with your spouse. In any human relationship, presence and communication are important. The more time you can spend in person with your spouse, the better your communication, and the stronger your relationship will be.

Jesus understood this well, so he is truly present in Mass, and communicates with us through Scripture, liturgy, and prayer. And it works: Keeping the commitment to Sunday Mass transforms your identity, since now you start each week in his presence, and embed your life in a Christian community throughout the year.

Second: “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”

Going to confession frequently is good, but going to confession once a year is enough, because confession should be a profound encounter where you search your life for places you have strayed from him and let Jesus bring you back.

Third: “You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.”

This precept may seem a bit archaic, since today, there is an expectation that nearly everyone receives Communion at every Mass. But the yearly requirement says two important things: First, that Sunday Mass is important whether you receive Communion or not, and second, that receiving Communion is a profound act that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Fourth: “You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation.”

We tend to think of these as days when “we have to go to Mass.” And they are that (find them listed here).

However, the Church says these are days when we “honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.” They embed us in the Church as it exists in heaven, so that we can embody that life in our own time.

Fifth: “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.”

This is a practice that seems all but lost.

Canon Law specifies that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting. We are good at that. But it adds that every Friday, all year long, is a day of abstinence from meat. Some national bishops’ organizations have allowed Catholics to offer an alternate sacrifice, but I recently discovered that hardly anybody is even aware that a sacrifice is required on Friday.

My family has found that, if we don’t abstain from meat every Friday, we soon forget to sacrifice anything — leaving us short of the minimum requirement for a Catholic life.

Promoting the Precepts of the Church solves the fundamental chicken-and-egg problem the Church faces worldwide.

The problem is, the Catholic faith can’t thrive without a Catholic culture, but a Catholic culture can’t exist without a strong Catholic faith. So which comes first?

They redefine every week, from Sunday Mass to Friday abstinence and every year, from the Mother of God to Christmas. They ensure that we live out Christ’s most fundamental message to repent (Confession) for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Communion.)

It’s a minimum standard with maximal effect.

This appeared at Aleteia.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.