I make a conscious effort only to ask questions of penitents when it is really necessary, but this is one I ask a lot. I do it because missing Sunday Mass is a frequently confessed sin, but it is also one in which culpability is very often reduced by circumstances such as advanced age, infirmity, child care, etc.
It's a sin that I have pretty much avoided altogether in my own Catholic life, but whenever I ask someone why they missed Mass I feel a little bit of amused gratitude inside as I remember the one time a confessor asked it of me, and the whole confession ended up with the priest laughing out loud.
It all started in Assisi. In the spring of 1993 I was alleged to be studying philosophy at University College Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. We had a whole month off for Easter, so I and this other kid decided to wander around on the continent. We had no plan and no set itinerary. To this day I can only piece together where we were by liturgical time, since we always went to Mass on Sundays. I know that on the fifth Sunday of Lent we were in Paris. It's a miracle of Providence that we were able to get to Mass on time in Paris, as it was only from a chance comment from a guy with whom we were playing hacky sack on the grass in front of Les Invalides that we knew daylight savings time had started. A week later, on Passion Sunday, we were in Prague. I'll never forget it. Listening to St. Matthew's Passion read in Czech by one priest all by himself was pretty tiring. By the time of the Triduum we were in Verona; I remember going to the Vigil there and sharing my hand missal with a tall American girl. Catholic player I was, in those days. By the second Sunday of Easter, having split up with my traveling companion, I was alone in Assisi. It was there that I ran out of money.
Assisi was to be the last stop anyway. School had already started again back in Ireland, and it was time to think about getting home. Now there was a lot of random religious stuff I wanted to pick up in Assisi, so I counted out what money I had left to make sure I would have enough for the return trip and for my lodging bill at the pilgrim's house where I was staying. I calculated--or so I thought--how much I had left for religious articles, books, etc., and went out shopping. Unfortunately, I must have counted wrong, and found that after I had settled up with sister guest mistress, I was broke. All I had was my European train pass and a few Italian coins. I spent the last little bit on some fruit, and started to make my way back to Galway.
I remember that the train from Assisi to Florence left at 12:16. It was a Friday afternoon. So there I was, sitting with my backpack in the plaza of Santa Maria degli Angeli waiting around for midday. A gypsy woman came up to me and asked for money. What a joy it was to honestly say that I didn't have any! She said something in indignation and then went behind the bushes and urinated loudly. I have always wondered if this was supposed to be insulting to me. Then she came back. For reasons I have never been able to guess, she gave me a holy card of Our Lady of the Angels. I've kept it in my wallet ever since. It's been through the wash a few times, but has held up.
So on Friday afternoon at 12:16, I began my destitute journey from Assisi to Galway. Later that afternoon I changed trains in Florence and was on my way to Milan. I spent Friday night on the overnight train from Milan to Paris. Arriving in Paris on Saturday morning, I faced a crisis. You see, in Paris there are a bunch of train stations, and the one at which I arrived was not the one where I could catch the train I needed to get to Cherbourg, where there was a boat back to Ireland. And I had no money, as has been said. Luckily, in the course of our travels, when we had left one country for another, we tended to exchange our paper money but just throw the coins into our bags for souvenirs. So there I was on an otherwise lovely Saturday morning, unpacking my backpack full of foul socks and eccentric religious paraphernalia in a French train station, looking for a few old francs that I could use for enough subway fare to get me to Gare du Nord. The coins turned up, and I was on my way.
By Saturday night, I was in Cherbourg getting on the boat. (My train pass was good for the boat, too) On the overnight trip I met a bunch of Germans who were reciting lines from This is Spinal Tap. We made friends right away, of course. I was ashamed to ask them for something to eat, however. On Sunday morning we arrived in Rosslare, where I boarded a bus headed across the country. It stopped at every little place you ever heard of, and many you haven't.
Finally, at about 9 pm on Sunday night I arrived at Eyre Square in Galway, having been traveling without a break for two and a half days and without anything to eat. The problem: it was Sunday and I had not been to Mass. I knew that I had plenty of time to make the regular 10 pm Mass at the University, but instead I went to the ATM and got a pizza on the way home. My Irish roommates started screaming when I walked in; since I had missed a week of school, they had presumed my death, they said.
So, having chosen the pizza over my Sunday obligation, I went to Galway Cathedral first thing Monday morning for confession. I confessed to the priest that I had missed Mass the day before. "Why?," he asked. So I started to explain, "Well, on Friday I was in Assisi..." Now the Irish are a storytelling culture, and the priest was clearly enjoying the tale I had to tell. By the time I came to the end, he was laughing out loud. He told me that I had probably made the right decision, but nevertheless gave me absolution for the other sins, irregularities, and missings of the mark I had committed in the course of my travels.