ASK FATHER: Sunday Mass obligation when traveling to remote places

From a reader…


I travel to many places that don’t have a church (e.g. remote areas of Nepal; Bhutan; Ladakh) so I can’t attend Mass. What do I do? Pray the Rosary?

This question has been answered many times, but here is a…

GUEST RESPONSE from Fr. Tim Ferguson:

There are two axioms rooted in ancient Roman law which effectively mean the same thing: Ultra posse nemo obligatur and Nemo ad impossibilia tenetur. No one can be held to the impossible. The Church has utilized this Roman law principle as well. No one can be obliged to do something which is impossible. If you are traveling in a place where there is not a Mass available, you are thereby not bound to attend the Holy Mass.

I can hear the indignant replies already: “Well, I take my Catholic faith seriously unlike everyone else. I would NEVER travel to a place where it would be impossible to fulfill my Sunday obligation!” or the plaintive, “Surely your travel plans can accommodate a quick flight to Kathmandu where the Church of the Assumption has Sunday Masses!” or even the strident, “If this person took his faith seriously, he would quit his job if it required him to be away from Mass on Sunday! Harumph! Harumph!”

Respondeo dicendum quod – the Church recognizes that, while hearing Sunday Mass is a serious obligation which should not be dismissed lightly, there are legitimate situations where a good and faithful Catholic finds himself or herself in a situation where attendance at Mass is not possible. The necessities of one’s employment, military service, the due (and legitimate!) cause of the occasional vacation, the human need to explore our world – even the very Christian task of spreading the Gospel to all corners of the earth, all of these things can leave one in a place where Mass is not held.

Mindful that one is not bound to the impossible, but also mindful of the grave obligation that one assumes upon being Catholic, one should firstly consult with one’s proper pastor or chaplain. They have the ability to dispense or commute the obligation (canon 1245). The Church also provides that, if attendance at Mass is not possible, taking part in a liturgy of the Word celebration be a priority, and if that, too is not possible, spending “an appropriate time in prayer, whether personally or as a family, or as occasion presents, in a group of families” (c. 1248, 2).

Were I the pastor in question, I would consider commuting the obligation to a devout recitation of the rosary as well as reading the Sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospel of the day and spending time in quiet contemplation if at all possible.

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  1. iamlucky13 says:

    “No one can be held to the impossible” isn’t clear guidance when it is reasonably possible for us to, for example, plan a vacation (even so far as choosing a vacation destination) around Mass availability.

    If the Church does hold it reasonable to occasionally travel entirely of our free will to a location where we know we won’t be able to attend Mass, I’m actually quite happy to know that. I have two or three times in the past asked my pastor at the time for a dispensation for a vacation, but always wondered if they were making up their own interpretation of conditions for a dispensation because they don’t want to seem rigid.

    Or perhaps this is a rule where it is actually intended for the pastor to have fairly broad leeway interpret the appropriate circumstances?

    Does anyone know if there is any more official commentary on the topic of recreational travel and the Sunday obligation? Perhaps from a bishop’s conference or even the Vatican?

  2. iamlucky13 says:

    Related trivia – A Franciscan priest, Father Juan Perez, is known to have been a friend of Christopher Columbus, and even helped him convince Queen Isabella to fund his voyage. Many assume he accompanied Columbus on his 1492 voyage, but others contend the lack of mention in Columbus’ log suggest otherwise. However, it also seems possible that, especially since Spain was a Catholic nation, having a priest aboard ships on long voyages at the time was so common it merited no mention.

    He is recorded as having joined Columbus for his 1493 voyage.

  3. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I usually look to see if and where Mass if available before I travel anywhere on vacation or for work and try to make plans accordingly. To be honest, I have found some real gems of Catholic orthodoxy scattered across these USA because of this.

    To me an internet search for Mass as part of my trip planning seems the requisite minimum for a Western Catholic with the total knowledge of the interweb at my daily fingertips. I have on one or two occasions been fooled by un-updated Mass schedules (probably the work of nefarious liberal nun-on-the-bus types) for out of town Mass times and no Mass was happending when I showed up to attend, but I felt I did my due diligence and was at peace.

  4. hwriggles4 says:

    A case in point and a good example:

    Last summer, I was on a cruise ship off the coast of Hawaii with some good Catholic friends. We were supposed to be docked in Maui on Sunday, and our first plan before doing anything else was to attend the 10 am Mass in town. However, a tropical storm had rolled in, and due to rough water, our ship went out further and stayed at sea all day Sunday. Also due to the storm, the cruise line notified all the passengers by email, phone, and text that the boat was leaving Honolulu three hours earlier than scheduled, so we had to cancel some other activities that day.

    Therefore, none of us got to make Sunday Mass that day. Sometimes, these things happen. Your car can break down, a child can get sick, a volunteer EMT or firefighter can have a long run (been there, done that, hello), travel can get delayed due to weather, you may be backpacking in the Rockies, your boss may have an urgent project due on Monday , etc. Circumstances come up. You want to make God laugh, make plans.

  5. rdschreiner says:

    Ironically, we were in Corinth Greece on a Sunday. I had previously researched Roman Catholic parishes in Greece and not surprisingly, found them rare outside of Athens. I asked my pastor for a dispensation given doubts about the situation. I believe attending Greek Orthodox services would’ve allowed me to fulfill the Sunday obligation, but it was confusing with the language barrier to ask the hotel staff to find the directions to the nearest Church and the service times.

  6. Spade says:

    What if you travel somewhere where a Sunday Mass is technically available but it’s really really really bad? [This was already answered.]

    Lookin’ at you, OBX. [English, please.]

  7. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Were I the pastor in question, I would consider commuting the obligation to a devout recitation of the rosary as well as reading the Sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospel of the day and spending time in quiet contemplation if at all possible.” Quite right, but I would underline, here, that ‘Necessity is its own law’, and therefore commutation, while advisable for several reasons, is not required.

  8. Moro says:

    I had read somewhere that if someone is more than a one hour drive to the nearest mass, he/she is dispensed from the Sunday obligation. For those with work conflicts, the Saturday vigil may be an option of them (depending on personal circumstances). I think that local dioceses or bishops councils should make a clear provision for medical and public safety personnel as to what they should do in the event that neither a Saturday vigil mass or Sunday Mass is available to them (i.e. Rosary plus readings and going to mass on another day of the week). One example of accomodation for work conflicts is in the UAE where Sunday is a work day and Catholics can satisfy their obligation on Fridays.

  9. Spade says:

    OBX means “Outer Banks, North Carolina”.

    I’ve mentioned it in the comments here before. The last mass we went to there we were ordered to all stand after communion for “unity of position”, a random poem was inserted between the second reading and the Gospel, and then the cantor (who advertises her gig singing at masses as “performances” on her website next to appearances at bars and such) was selling her CDs in the back of the church again.

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