The Catholic Church is often viewed as a religious organization with all these rules to follow. However, in reality there are only a handful of obligations, which stipulate the bare minimum of what is required to lead a life united to Jesus Christ.
These rules are called the precepts of the Church and are meant to be viewed as guideposts along the pathway to Heaven. They help us keep focused on the end goal and stay on the right path. Without them, we can easily wander aimlessly through life, not knowing where to go or what to do, hoping that we will reach the end.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor” (CCC 2041).
The precepts lay out the minimum we need to follow. It’s always possible to go above and beyond the minimum and the saints are examples of men and women who did exactly that by living “heroic virtue.” The saints weren’t satisfied with only a passing grade, but wanted to excel and reach the top of the class.
At the same time, we should take care not to consider “obligatory” things that the Church herself does not. Virtue is found in obedience.
Here is a brief summary of each precept, giving you an idea of the very few obligations that Catholics are instructed to follow. They are not given to be oppressive, but to lead us to an eternity of peace and happiness.
The first precept (‘You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation’) requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.
The second precept (‘You shall confess your sins at least once a year’) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.
The third precept (‘You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season’) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.
The fourth precept (‘You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation’) completes the Sunday observance by participation in the principal liturgical feasts which honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.
The fifth precept (‘You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence’) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
Additionally, “The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.”