Is it a sin to work on Sunday?
By William J. Byron, S.J.
I recently heard a priest say that we should only do things like visit the sick or elderly and not do unnecessary work on Sundays. I can’t visit the sick or elderly every Sunday, and I feel better doing something rather than just sitting around doing nothing. This rather upsets me, as I don’t feel that baking cookies or raking the yard on Sunday is a sin.
-J.C., SOUTH DAKOTA
Your question raises the issue of what has traditionally been called “servile work.” Although Sunday is the first day of the week, not the seventh or “Sabbath,” the ancient practice of Sabbath rest has been carried over into the Catholic practice of refraining from ordinary weekday work on Sundays, i.e., reserving Sunday for rest, worship, and recreation. However, there is a lot of work for pay that simply has to be done on Sundays, and it is not at all sinful to do it. The planes, trains, and buses have to run on Sundays; the hospitals and restaurants have to be open to serve peoples’ needs. If employment obligations and economic circumstances permit you to rest on Sunday, you should, but neither should you worry if duty requires you to work.
The term “servile” (when associated with work in the Catholic tradition) connotes something of a slavish application of time and energy to manual labor, not to intellectual or artistic pursuits, and certainly not to the enjoyment of rest needed in order to return to work on Monday refreshed and ready to meet workplace responsibilities. Generations ago, good people with sensitive consciences worried about darning socks or sewing buttons on shirts on Sundays and often warned children not to do anything resembling work for pay on the “Lord’s day.” Some of those warnings may still be ringing in your ears. Let them pass.
You should, however, notice that many believers have a tendency to want to get their Sunday “obligation” out of the way and have that special day free for doing all sorts of things that are neither recreational or devotional. A balance must be struck.
There can be Sunday servility, almost an addiction, to televised sports, tinkering with the car, or tending to household repairs. These actions are not in themselves objectionable, but can be capable of diverting mind and heart from the gratitude that should prompt one to offer praise and thanks to God.
The old American vernacular would have you say, “much obliged,” as an expression of gratitude, another way of saying “thank you.” As creatures, all of us are obliged to give thanks to our Creator. We Catholic Christians are thus “much obliged,” and say so every Sunday in our eucharistic celebration. Eucharist means thanks-doing, thanks- saying, thanks-giving. We should think of Sunday worship more as “giving thanks” in and through the Mass instead of simply “going to Mass” because we “have to.” For us, Sunday is just another word for “thank you!”