ASK FATHER: Mass obligation when there’s treacherous ice and I’ve fallen before.

From a reader…


A woman in my 60s now, having had a couple of bad falls one requiring surgery, the other requiring weeks of bedrest . . . the church parking lot and walkways usually icy, frozen, unplowed, untreated, and no matter what, it’s a far walk from the car to the door. Can be treacherous. My husband asks me to stay home from church until a warm day melts the bad stuff . . . we understand the parish budget doesn’t allow for plowing shoveling treating . . . is it displeasing to God for me to miss Mass? (I do watch and pray along on EWTN).

Be at ease.

There is an axiom of ancient Roman law which the Church also holds: ultra posse nemo obligatur, that is, no one is obliged to do what is beyond his power to do.  Put another way, God does not ask of us what is not possible.

While we all have Sunday and Holy Day obligation to fulfill, there are occasionally circumstances and reasons why we just can’t do it.

If people are impeded from attending Holy Mass for a serious reason, for example if they are invalids or they are ill, or even if they are, like you are, afraid of slipping and falling on the ice during winter, then they are excused their obligation.

That’s a serious concern, by the way.  I slipped on ice and broke my leg once, so I know where you are coming from.  And I was pretty young at the time.  As an aside, I don’t get why people laugh when others slip and fall.  It’s not funny.  Perhaps they do so, because such a sight makes them nervous and relieved that it didn’t happen to them.  But I digress.

Mind you, people do not fulfill their Sunday or Holy Day Obligations to attend Mass by watching a recording or transmission of a Mass, regardless if they are shut-ins or not. So, watching Mass on TV, etc., can be a holy and pious thing to do, but it does not fulfill the obligation strictly speaking.

However, in your case, your obligation is excused.   You can stay at home.  Moreover, you will have followed your husband’s request in the matter, which is also a good thing.

Remember too that canon 1245 gives to pastors the right to dispense or commute the obligation of observing Sunday, a Holy Day of obligation, or a day of penance.  You could give the parish a call and ask the pastor to commute your obligation to some other good work.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. APX says:

    Church parking lots are notoriously bad for being icy. My grandmother fell in the Cathedral parking lot and broke her collar bone. I can assure you the cathedral has the funds to pay for parking lot maintenance. Our parking lot at our church (which also has a wonderful hill in it) gets quite icy and I’ve fallen back into my car a few times. The way I get the pastor to get someone out to salt it is to remind him of possible lawsuits. It gets the ice taken care of quite quickly.

    Yes, ice is dangerous. Both my mom and brother have suffered severe broken legs from slipping on the ice.

  2. Amerikaner says:

    Good post.

    What about when one suffers from a bad case of the flu and doesn’t want to spread it to others at Sunday Mass?

  3. dbf223 says:

    To expand on this: during flu and cold season, don’t we also have an obligation in charity NOT to attend mass when we have might spread some illness?

    We have small children, and particularly when our youngest was newborn, it was a serious concern that she could have gotten seriously ill from a seemingly routine sickness. We still went to mass and tried to sit away from people, but several times noticed parents tending to children coughing badly. Sure, we could and should have gone separately to mass, gone to a less crowded mass, etc. Still, the point remains: if you are sick or are caring for someone who is sick, STAY HOME.

    Just because you physically can make it to mass one day, doesn’t mean you should. In charity, consider the elderly, the very young, others with weak immune systems, and those who care for any of the above – such people have not only the obligation to attend mass, but the right to do so without catching a cold from you.

    [There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Much depends on the layout of the church, the circumstances of your family, the nature of the illness, etc. However, if you or your loved one is in bad shape (and you ALSO don’t want to share) then stay at home. These are prudential judgments. That said… remember well that God cannot be fooled. ]

  4. Stefan_Jetchick says:

    Canadian solution to such problems (I have a pair, also bought one for my Mom, neighbor, etc.),51676,40911

    I’ve wasted money on many other kinds. This is the “least-sucky” I’ve found. Ideally, we would be cats, and we could expose or retract sharp claws in an instant! (and our claws would grow back when worn out by using them on asphalt!).

    [Hmmm… I’m not sure that this would resolve this lady’s challenges.]

  5. Imrahil says:

    Dear dbf223,

    while our Reverend Father is quite right when he says that there is no one-size-fits-all answer,

    I’d be inclined to offer an imho nearest possible approach to such an answer. This would be:

    1. If it’s the actual flu, we have;
    2. if it’s a mere cold, we haven’t.

    The rationale being that colds are a part of normal life, and if we once started to claim that minimizing our neighbor’s risks of such category, there’d be frankly no room to do anything with a good conscience any-more. In other words, scrupolosity would then be a necessary implication of the principle and not just an ill state of mind; and we’re meant for the freedom of the children of God and not the prison of scrupulosity.

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  7. Adaquano says:

    My broke he ankle slipping on ice in a parking lot in 1994, any serious ice storm now and she stays home. What is important to note is that God understands our hearts and knows if we’re only looking for an excuse to skip Mass.

  8. “… in your case, your obligation is excused.”
    Yes! Yes! And 1,000 times, Yes! Excused, not dispensed, EXCUSED!
    Agimus, qui cogitant recte, tibi gratias, Pater.

    [Sometimes it’s the little things that please so much. And this provides me with the excuse to dispense some Latin joy… [Nos] agimus, qui cogitamus. … Agimus recte cogitantes…]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  9. hwriggles4 says:

    First, I live in the Southern United States. We don’t get snow and ice as frequently as Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Boston, but when we do (once every few years) we don’t have snowplows and the kind of equipment readily available up north. Also, many don’t have the driving experience, so it’s an advantage to stay home if you can’t feasibly and safely make it to Mass. The last time this happened on a weekend, I went to the 7:30 am Sunday Mass at a closer parish, making sure I drove slowly. Most priests will understand why you stayed home.

    Second, when Hurricane Harvey rolled in, several Houston area parishes were flooded, making it nearly impossible to attend Mass. The priest at my mother’s parish sent out a flocknote saying he was having Mass, but if it’s not safe for you to leave your house, stay home.

    Third, maybe an organization like the Knights of Columbus can volunteer to get to church early on Sunday mornings in places like Minneapolis and put sand and salt out on the parking lots and shovel walks. It’s a service to the parish, and won’t cost the parish a dime. It also shares the good works of Charity from the Knights, and it shows support for the clergy.

  10. robtbrown says:

    Imrahil says:

    while our Reverend Father is quite right when he says that there is no one-size-fits-all answer,
    I’d be inclined to offer an imho nearest possible approach to such an answer. This would be:

    1. If it’s the actual flu, we have;
    2. if it’s a mere cold, we haven’t.

    What if it’s light flu compared to a heavy cold? Besides, if someone is coughing or sneezing all over the place, the last place to be is in a crowd.

  11. dbf223 says:

    Imrahil (and Fr. Z),

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written. The approach I generally take is, if I would stay home from work or school, I stay home from mass too.

    The point I intend to highlight is, there are a good and legitimate reasons to stay home from mass besides “I was kidnapped by terrorists and my family didn’t pay the ransom for me in time.” Sometimes, people of a certain disposition might think they are being great Catholics by still showing up for mass, even if they have legitimate reasons to stay home; or still taking the whole family to mass, even though little John Paul is coughing and spewing snot all over everything he gets near. We need to consider that there are other people impacted by our presence, and our colds could turn into their hospital visits. In charity, we should be careful about where we sit, which masses we go to (and at which parishes), and whom we approach during mass, if we make the decision to go.

  12. Fr. Kelly says:

    Another angle on this is to consider the two levels of obligation we bear on Sunday.
    From Divine precept, we are bound to keep holy the Lord’s Day. (In the Christian dispensation this is Sunday.)
    The obligation to fulfill this by attending Mass on Sunday (or Saturday evening) is of Church law, and as such can be dispensed by the Church Cf. Canon 1245 cited in the post. What’s more, Church law is only binding on those for whom it is possible to fulfill. As Fr. said above, we are not bound to the impossible. Hence, if it is not possible for us to attend Mass on a particular Sunday, the obligation ceases. Fr. reminds us that, although we do not have an obligation, watching a Mass for shut-ins might be a very good idea and spiritually helpful.
    Perhaps this analogy might help. It is important to a family for each member to be present at the evening meal. Family meal times comprise a very important part of the building up of a family community. Nevertheless, it can happen that, on occasion one member or another may, for good reasons have to absent himself eg perhaps father has to work late on a big project at the office. The family misses him, but he cannot be blamed for what must be. However, when all is said and done, even though there is no blame for missing the family meal, he is still hungry.

    The one who misses Sunday Mass, even if it be blamelessly, has still missed his spiritual nourishment.

  13. I think that great care should be taken when excusing ourselves from obligatory Masses. God does indeed ask the impossible–humanly impossible; our perfection as he himself is perfect (he provides the grace, as we cooperate; of course). To those–especially the young–who have chronic illness or pain that makes it challenging to be at Mass I say “Go”. The matter is, as Father Z expresses it, quite different for the elderly who know that they have brittle bones and might fall on ice. Whereas, for the young, although falling can become problematic, as Father Z also pointed out, it is unlikely that falling on ice will become greatly detrimental to health.

    The Mass is too important for us to miss unless it is actually–not nearly–impossible for us to assist there. I will not bore people with the many connections that support my view.

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