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The Precepts of the Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, recognized throughout the Church, is divided into four basic parts; the third of these is entitled: Life in Christ. It is clear, that while this section should be an essential part of every catechist’s training, that is not always the case.

The catechetical document was brought about in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and introduced to the world on October 11, 1992, the thirtieth anniversary of the convening of the council. It includes a discussion of the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, principles of social justice and morality, the virtues, and the Precepts of the Church. Each topic is dealt with in complete Christian understanding as a part of the social and spiritual being who is living in Christ. A series that will examine aspects of this uplifting document begins with a look at the Precepts of the Church. (CCC #2041-3)

A precept by its very definition is meant to be a general rule that guides thought or behavior. This section of the catechism is where one will find some of those ‘commandments’ that aren’t listed with the other ten. Perhaps the most common of these is the very first: that one shall attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. This, as with the other precepts, is also listed in Canon Law.

Many might think this rule is already governed by the third commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day. It’s the inclusion of holy days that makes it different. Through various documents as old as the Church itself the importance of the Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy has been declared and reaffirmed many times. This is the weekly remembrance of the first Eucharist and first Easter and the fulfillment of half the ecclesial equation: that people of faith commune with one another.

Because not every important celebration of the liturgy is on Sunday, certain days have been set aside for a deeper purpose including the celebration of the Eucharist in a fashion that resembles the Sunday Mass. Truth be known, many of those holy days have been transferred to the nearest Sunday, making it more accessible to the faithful. Precept and commandment both remind that work and action which draws one away from the contemplative and prayerful nature of the Lord’s Day shall be avoided.

Another ‘where does it say that?’ precept is the second, which calls the faithful to confession at least once a year, a pretty lenient ratio given how frequently most people sin. The catechism adds that it is necessary that we cleanse ourselves at least once a year in preparation to celebrate the Eucharist with a clean heart and to continue our baptismal promise of conversion and re-conversion and our understanding of the important power of forgiveness.

Did you ever hear someone say, “You only have to go to communion once a year?” There are so many things wrong with that statement, and they are all reflected in the third precept. The rule does say that one is only required to receive the Blessed Sacrament once and that, during the Easter season. One does not ‘have’ to go to communion at all if they truly believe that it’s more an obligation than a blessing and a privilege. Second, and the most important part of Catholic understanding is that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine we receive, so why would one who calls themselves faithful limit the number of times they draw the sacramental Lord into their hearts?

The fourth and fifth precepts would likely fall into the ‘I didn’t know those were still around’ category. The fourth is a call to observe the days of fast and abstinence recommended by the Church. Once again many of the requirements of old have been lessened to make the precept more accessible to Catholics. For the laity, these requirements all exist within the confines of Lent, and include Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and all the Fridays in between. It is still on the books that the Easter fast should begin with the consumption of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and conclude with the celebration of the Easter Vigil on Saturday, but most of us can count on one hand (or less) how many people go for three days without a full meal. Does anyone remember the days before Vatican II when one had to stop eating by midnight on Saturday in order to receive communion on Sunday?

The fifth precept calls the faithful to contribute to the Church. Immediately some ears will shut because of the call for money, but in the words of the principles of stewardship it’s about time, talent, and treasure. So if all that was heard was treasure, the listener missed the most important part. We all have certain gifts and in some cases that may include wealth. For those persons, a fair share is just, but for those who don’t have a pot to…well, let’s just say no one was given by God without a unique gift. For some, it might include labor such as cleaning the church, while for another it might just be reading a story to a group of kids. It is possible to stand on both sides of a soup line, server and recipient. Remember that the greatest commandment was to love God completely and to show that love by the way we care for one another.

When one arrives at the pearly gates, there is a fair chance St Peter won’t ask if they ate meat on Friday of the Third Week of Lent, 2014 (Ever visit Long John Silver’s on Ash Wednesday?) or that they hit the confessional on an annual schedule. The five Precepts of the Church are essential guidelines to encourage and give hope to those who choose to practice their faith more fully. If you seek the presence of Christ in your life, why would you want any less?