Mass Tourism


In the Catholic Church, holy days of obligation are those days that good Catholics (and bad Catholics) are expected to attend Mass. These days include various feast days of significance throughout the year as well as each Sunday which technically begins at sunset the prior evening in keeping with the biblical definition of the day[1]. With some exceptions, such as illness or ignorance, failure to attend Mass during a holy day of obligation is regarded as a mortal sin, i.e., one that will sever one’s covenant bond with God.

Once upon a time I would have thought the observance of such rules and regulations would have seem legalistic and dead formality. But if you can think of one’s union with the church as a marriage, our obligations to one another in matrimony does not start and end based on our feelings and spiritual temperature. We do according to our commitments and oaths, especially at times when we don’t feel like it.

When at home, I don’t find this obligation burdensome since there is no other place I’d rather be on Sunday then at the Solemn Latin Mass at St. Catherine. But when I am out of town on a weekend I get nervous about popping into an unfamiliar Catholic Church unannounced. From all appearances, observant Catholics and parishes worldwide seem to expect this sort of thing without proper invitations and calling cards. My pre-Catholic mindset still holds to the idea that I church is a locale and its community; the Catholic mindset views the church as the universal community of the faithful with a reach that is worldwide. Nevertheless my type-A personality requires algorithms, protocols or rules of engagement. Let’s face it, even though the structure of the Latin Rite Mass is pretty much the same novus ordo, there is significant difference that would cause the neophyte to be wary.

This month I had the opportunity to fulfill this obligation at the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Because our rental was from Sunday to Sunday, it was not possible to coordinate Mass at my home parish on the second weekend. There was a church, Our Lady of the Seas, in Buxton, which listed a Saturday Vigil Mass at 5:30 on their website. Internally I hemmed and hawed, knowing I would go but nervous about doing so. To combat these fears I coined an approach that would take the edge off—I would consider myself a Mass Tourist, collecting liturgical experiences as practiced around the world. I would get there early, walk around and take pictures before attending Mass.

I arrived early at a church that sat on the edge of the sound, built in recent years with what looked like vinyl siding. I was tickled that the structure had flying buttresses like the cathedrals of medieval Europe but oddly protected with the same vinyl siding. A circular prayer garden for meditation resided near the structure; near that was a trail head that walked visitors toward the sound with the Stations of the Cross.

In the foyer was a statue of Mary, Our Lady of the Seas, which was themed accordingly—the pink and green hues of the shore arranged upon shells and similar ornaments of the deep. Our Lady holds baby Jesus in one arm and the globe of the Earth in the other. Hand carved by Italians (who else!), the objet d’art was a one of a kind work that the parish was very proud of from the blurb on their website.

Inside, the sanctuary was lined with wood panels. A large panoramic window looked out over the sound so completely that one only saw a horizontal line separating the sea and sky. The tabernacle was located to one side in a simple wooden box of a minimalist, Scandinavian design. Individual chairs backed by individual kneelers populated the center and wings of the interior.

The order of the Mass was a bit casual at first but the communion rite was standard. From casual greetings and things said by the priest, it was apparent that many in the congregation were vacationers like me. I took away one peculiar memory: the communion music was a hymn that I recall from long, long ago. Funny how it was lodged in my memory since it was likely I did not hear it but a few times. Neither my mother or my sister Janet recognized it when I asked about it later. The work is called “Gift of Finest Wheat” which had the ring of an ancient traditional. I looked it up later and, to my surprise, it was composed in the 1970’s—probably the time that I had heard it first.

Here is a YouTube of it



[1] This creates a convenient Vigil Mass on Saturday to meet your obligation if you have stuff going on Sunday.

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