ASK FATHER: Missing Mass in a winter storm

From a reader…


This Sunday morning a big snow storm made the roads look treacherous.

I live 10 miles from church. I assumed Mass was cancelled but could find no texts or other notices either way. Later, I found out Mass was, indeed, celebrated (to a congregation of 15). I shall confess my failure to attend Mass. I’m concerned I’ve incurred a mortal sin. What do you think?

I don’t think you have to confess that as a mortal sin.  You made a mistake in judgment about the cancellation and there was a big winter storm.

In the case of a serious winter storm, or similar circumstances, one no longer has the obligation to attend Mass.

There are a couple of principles in law which help us understand our obligations.  First,  ultra posse nemo obligatur… no one is obliged to act beyond his powers and nemo ad impossibilia tenetur… no one is held to the impossible.

If you travel some place and there is no Mass, you are not obliged to go to Mass.  If you are sick or someone in your care is sick, you are not obliged.  If the weather or conditions are really bad, you are not obliged.

It may be that some did brave the storm.  That also may have been highly imprudent.  They might say, “I got to Mass and back, no problem. Therefore it wasn’t ‘impossible’.”  Maybe so.  But maybe not, under your circumstances.

Of course I am not talking about seeing a few snow flakes curl down and saying, “WHOA! It’s snowing! I’m staying in.”  God cannot be fooled.  However, if you know that it’s going to be full blizzard by the end of Mass, that’s another snow-cone altogether.

Even though we are not bound to the impossible, we also remember that being Catholic also means that we have obligations which sometimes require sacrifice.

Also, your proper, territorial pastor has the ability to dispense or commute the obligation (can. 1245).  Holy Church 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” (can. 1248, 2).

Pastors, parish priests, can commute the obligation to a recitation of the Rosary or reading Sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospel of the day, and spending time in quiet contemplation.


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  1. Cafea Fruor says:

    It may be that some did brave the storm. That also may have been highly imprudent. They might say, “I got to Mass and back, no problem. Therefore it wasn’t ‘impossible’.”

    Yep. I braved the last storm we had (about 8″ of snow in 18 hours) and walked the 2 miles to evening Mass because it didn’t seem that bad. I do it frequently, and after all, I’m a Midwesterner and love walking in snow, so I was happy to do it. Bad idea. The snow was heavy and very wet, so my scarf and hat were soaked by the time I got to church, and the storm unexpectedly REALLY picked up while I was at Mass. When I’d left home, the buses were running with only minor delays, and I planned to return by bus, but because of the intensified storm, bus service was canceled during Mass, which I didn’t know until after I’d already waited almost 40 minutes for my bus home. So I was left in the dark, feeling frozen to the bone, with heavy winds and snow, and with a soaking scarf and gloves, which meant that if I’d walked back home, I’d probably end up with hypothermia or frostbite on my hands–plus, the wet snow was becoming slicker after sundown, so walking would be very difficult and slow, increasing the time spent wet and cold. I was finally able to hail a taxi, but even the cab was sliding all over the place, and it was pretty scary. I’ve never been more grateful to get home. In hindsight, I realize that not staying home was actually pretty imprudent.

    I’ve come to think that I think that we, with all our technology, cars, and infrastructure, trust too much that they will work, and we forget that winter weather can be quite dangerous and change quickly. You have to think of conditions not just when you’ve leaving home but plan on the possibility of them becoming worse, and you have to think of the people whom you might be putting in danger for you to get home (in my case, the cab driver who had a long way to go to get home himself). You also have to think of what might happen if your method of transportation fails you. Maybe, when deciding whether to go anywhere in the winter (not just church), we should ask, “Would I (and my family) be safe walking home if need be?” If you’re five blocks from church or work, then you might be fine because you can walk. But if you live 10 miles from where you’re going, can you see yourself walking 10 miles back if need be? Getting a flat tire or not having a bus back home in mild weather are inconveniences, but in winter storms, they can bring about injury, sickness, or death.

  2. MrsMacD says:

    Dear Cafea Fruor; Is it such a bad thing to bring about injury sickness or death to get to Mass? My Irish ancestors didn’t think so. God bless them. If there’s anything worth risking your life to get to Mass is probably it.

    [I’ll leave this comment in place as an example of how NOT to think.]

  3. TonyO says:

    It may be that some did brave the storm. That also may have been highly imprudent. They might say, “I got to Mass and back, no problem. Therefore it wasn’t ‘impossible’.” Maybe so. But maybe not, under your circumstances.

    Very true, Father Z, thank you for saying it. The 15 people who got to mass – maybe they all have 4-wheel drive vehicles, with snow tires. If you don’t, you might not make it. Maybe they lived within 3 blocks of church. Everybody has to make a judgment based on their own situation, not on some ideal conditions or some average. Ideal and average might not apply to you. On average, people are not very sick – but if YOU are very sick, you can’t make it. Same with storms.

    I don’t think you have to confess that as a mortal sin. You made a mistake in judgment about the cancellation and there was a big winter storm.

    It is possible to be even clearer: the judgment you have to make here is not ONLY “whether Mass was being said” but also “whether under present conditions it is safe to try to get to Mass”. A definite and certain “no” to EITHER question rightly justifies not leaving for Mass.

    A less than definitive “probably not” for the first would NOT, I think, justify staying home, if getting to Mass were easily accomplished. (You mostly should get to the church, if doing so is freely possible, if there is even a modest chance Mass will be said or even a modest chance you are wrong in your guess that no Mass will be said: you present yourself for Mass, it is up to the Church to provide it.) But a definitive “yes” for the first (i.e. that Mass would be said) and a strong “probably not” for the second (about whether it is safe to go) is also an upright moral foundation for not trying to get to Mass. Making a mistake in “whether Mass will be said” does not undermine staying home if it is unsafe to go out.

    Further: there is a difference between “making an honest mistake”, and “finding an excuse”. From the outside, one person usually cannot be absolutely certain whether another person has made an honest mistake or merely found an excuse, but if you carefully examines your own motives beforehand, and takes sufficient care, you can usually discern whether you are being honest or dishonest about your judgment “I cannot safely get to Mass” (or about your evaluation of the evidence by which you decide “probably Mass will be cancelled”). Saying a prayer for guidance and help in discerning is also a good step.

    If a person is being honest in his effort to judge, being mistaken in his conclusion (and then not going to Mass) does not constitute even a venial sin, much less a mortal sin. An error in the intellect (contrary to the intention) is not a defect of the will, and sin takes places in the will: you don’t sin in an honest mistake of judgment.

    Holy Church 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

    One strong solution that covers it would be to find EWTN’s mass online and watch and pray along with that. It’s not the same as going to mass, but it does get you into the prayers of the mass of the day, the readings, etc. (OK, so it’s the Novus Ordo – can’t have everything.)

  4. RKR says:

    and offers live streams of Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

    [Which, though interesting, does not fulfill an obligation.]

  5. Stop and think: if you think God expects you to be at Mass, even if it means:

    – leaving someone sick at home without care, or;
    – risking your life — or the lives of others (taxi drivers, emergency personnel) — by traveling in dangerous conditions, or;
    – to make a perfect judgment, somehow with clairvoyance, so you can know exactly what the weather is, where you are, where church is, all points in between — and what it will be; and
    – if you err in any of these, you have committed a sin

    Ask yourself: what sort of image of God have you created in your mind? If you were expecting people to visit you, for something admittedly, supremely important, and bad weather hit: would you make these expectations of anyone you loved? Would you, really?

    I do not believe it. But even if you really are that severe, God is not.

    God never wants us to be too lax, nor does he want us to be too strict. He gives us the Holy Spirit to make a right judgment, which obviously must align with his. It does not honor God to choose to be more severe than he is; on the contrary, it disfigures him in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others.

  6. Ellen says:

    I face this sometimes, not often since I don’t live in a state where there is a lot of snow. But when there is significant snow, I usually don’t try to go to Mass. I am not good at driving in the snow. I am almost 70 and I really can’t afford to fall down. My parish parking lot is northern facing and collects snow and ice which takes a long time to melt.
    So if I feel like I can’t go to Mass safely, I don’t. I read the prayers in my missal and I make an act of Spiritual Communion.

  7. BrionyB says:

    I’m all for making an effort to get to Mass on days of obligation (I was happy to walk 7 miles on Christmas Day, as there was no public transport running and I don’t drive) but not taking foolish risks with your life. Especially when doing so might put others at risk, and/or you have children or others dependent on you.

    If anything, you could argue there’s a moral obligation NOT to do it in those cases.

  8. ARPugsley says:

    Fully agree with BrionyB above…. I believe it can be morally wrong to risk one’s life if others are dependent on you. I used to be a lot more stringent about getting myself to Mass in inclement weather (early in our marriage, my wife and I trudged two miles through a near-blizzard (roughly a foot and a half) to get to Mass and to help them shovel snow so folks could walk the steps and sidewalks), but now we have a baby dependent on me for survival. Suddenly, even a moderate snow storm becomes an impediment. Mind you, I have the flexibility in my schedule, and the foresight (usually) to know that if the snowstorm hits on Sunday morning, that I can make it to Saturday evening Mass (usually).

    Also, for those of us living in the South, two inches of snow is a whole heck of a lot more dangerous than it is to those of you living in Wisconsin/Minnesota. People (including me) act as if the apocalypse has come, don’t know how to drive, and the government does not treat roads as well as they do up North. On the other hand, sometimes 6 inches of snow disappears within hours as the temperature shoots from 30 to 60, so sometimes you just have to be on your toes. :)

  9. William says:

    If a pastor wants to commute someone’s obligation to go to Mass, is there a particular way this is supposed to be done? Or is “God understands that you must work at the hospital during the only available Mass times” sufficient?

  10. Marion Ancilla Mariae II says:

    Where I live, the roads are usually treated fairly well, but we’re subject to a lot of melt and refreeze, so that as long as the temps are at 37 or below, you’re walking or driving on a “hard candy shell” of ice.

    Our parish doesn’t seem to be able to get out in front of the condition of the parking lots and walkways during winter weather. The last two Sundays about 1/3 of the parking lot was coated with an ice slick (slush melted and refroze). Sometimes the parking lot is plowed, but not treated with ice-melt or sand. Plowing isn’t enough for walking safely. And the walkways and sidewalks are covered with frozen slush that’s very difficult to walk on.

    The two main entrances to the church are about 30 yards from the nearest parking spaces. So people have quite a walk from their car to the door of the church.

    I wish the Knights or a group of teens, young adults, or retirees would get out there and head this up. It’s really a mess.

  11. Cafea Fruor says:

    @Marion: I wish the Knights or a group of teens, young adults, or retirees would get out there and head this up.

    Challenge is, having volunteers, especially minors, do that sort of work can be an insurance/legal nightmare – if some kid slips and breaks an arm while shoveling snow, or if a helpful retiree has a heart attack, and your parish could be in trouble.

  12. RKR says:

    Did not mean to suggest watching EF (or any) Mass remotely would fulfill obligation; rather responding to comment about the NO Mass broadcast on EWTN, mentioned in an earlier comment.

    I never think of going to Mass as an obligation (though I understand it is), as it is the highlight of my week!

  13. Cafea:

    Of course it’s wonderful if volunteers can do these things, but as a practical matter, it doesn’t work that way. You cited good reasons already. The other is that with lots, you really have to have someone plow it; you can’t just shovel it. That limits your options. But above all, this is something that absolutely, must be done, if it can be done, on time, every time. And it has to be done fairly early, in order to get ahead of it as you say.

  14. APX says:

    It’s one thing to risk it when you live close to the church. It’s a whole different thing when you have to go a fair distance.

  15. LA says:

    My rule of thumb is: would I go out for another reasons? Shopping, work, visiting someone? If so, then go to Mass.

  16. MrsMacD says:

    I didn’t mean to insinuate that it was in any way a sin to stay home on Sunday when the weather is dangerous. What I was trying to put forward that it is not a sin to risk life and limb to be at Calvary. Our own Mother, Mary did it. The martyrs of the early church did it. They did it under the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England. The people in Ireland and Mexico did it not too long ago. Cafea Fruror was reproaching himself for going to Mass and the weather picked up and he had a heavy cross to bear. I don’t think he did anything wrong.

  17. Marion Ancilla Mariae II says:

    I realize there certainly could be liability problems if volunteers were to deal with the snow and ice on the parish campus.

    However, I would point out that there are also bound to be liability problems for the parish if it should not deal with the snow and ice, should a visitor be injured, or should there be an auto accident that’s more than just a “bumper thumper,” (i.e. serious injuries, and or very extensive damage. In such cases, the lawyers sue the other driver, the other drivers’ insurance company, the manufacturers of each car, the company the made the spectacles of the driver at fault, the parish’s insurance company, the pastor personally, the paving company who paved the parish lot, the Weather Channel . . . and just about everybody else in the free world. They do this, figuring the judge and jury will be willing to hold at least one or two of these accountable. And to see who has pockets deep enough to make the case worth the lawyer’s time.)

    Also, surely there are one or two parishioners who are contactors, or who by other means, have access to one of the newer compact plowing vehicles, (like a riding snow-blower) or to a pick-’em-up truck with a snow plow attached. And if need be, they should be compensated for doing this plowing with this specialized equipment. And if need be, maybe a special collection or two is taken during the winter season, at all Masses.

  18. Fr_Andrew says:

    I think it’s worth noting that while one can be physically or morally impeded from Mass, thus no longer have an obligation, in all cases right reason and prudence.

    A while back I had a man come to me and ask if he could be dispensed for six months to hike the Appalachian Trail. I told him it sounds like a great adventure, but no, he cannot be dispensed for such a long time without serious reason.

    The old manuals suggest a week or two a year where you make attendance impossible due to a vacation as within reason. To willfully choose to put oneself in an impossible situation without proportionate reasons is sinful.

    Ultimately that, as with possible bad roads, are judgements of the reason using Prudence.

  19. DonL says:

    Since I’ve been known to have gone fishing and hunting in real crazy weather, my personal rule of thumb has always been, would I dare go fishing/hunting now? Then, I have to modify that with , ‘I’m much more frail and older now (ninth decade of life), and unable to react to any even ordinary problems.”
    Honesty with myself is the key. I can’t remember missing more than a couple Masses in the last couple decades.

  20. Marion Ancilla Mariae II says:

    Wouldn’t someone hiking along the Appalachian Trail be able to take Sunday off to attend Mass at a local church? It would involve hiring an Uber pick-up(?) or hitchhiking on Saturday afternoon to the town where the church is located, spending the night at a hotel, getting cleaned up, going to Mass, and then taking an Uber back to the Trail. Now that there’s “Mass,” there’s no way anyone can say: I don’t know where there are churches, or what time their Masses are.

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