What is servile work?

Another post of mine reminded me of this question that I have long wondered about. We are required to abstain from servile work on Sundays and holydays of obligation. This was established when virtually all work was manual labor. That is no longer the case. Given that, I’ll ask whether my interpretation of servile work is correct. Here it is: I believe that “servile work” means not working for somebody (i.e. not working as a servant, hence the term “servile”.) I have a desk job, and in accord with this belief, I take vacation time on all holydays of obligation and will not come in to work on Sunday. I am fortunate in that my bosses understand this as an obligation of my faith (and vacation time is ours to use when and as we choose.) However, because I sit at a desk / computer all week, I believe that it is all right to do lawn work,weed, light pruning, etc. on Sunday. Sometimes my wife comes out and we work together and we’ve even made it a family project. To me, this is genuinely refreshing and relaxing (much better than all of us watching TV on the couch), and I take a great deal of pride in a mission accomplished. Is my interpretation correct?

In my understanding, this would still be servile. I’ll see if I can go find a resource, but I recall the explanation I was given saying something to this effect: “whether one enjoys the work makes no difference, it is still servile and to be avoided”.

My understanding right now is that servile means work done with you hands: farming, being a mechanic, construction, lumber jack, fisherman, assembly line worker, etc…
Exceptions are made for public services: so firemen, police, doctors, EMT’s, utility workers, and slightly suprisingly gas station workers, piolts, and all much of the resturant and transportation industry.

I take notes on semons that I hear sometimes, here is a selection of my notes from a sermon on keeping holy the Sabbath: (I put quotes where I’m directly quoting him and double quotes where he’s quoting another person)

Keeping Holy the Sabbath –

  1. Going to Mass
  2. Not doing any unnecessary servile work.

“What is Servile Work?
The sort of work traditionally done be manual laborers. Includes: plowing, drilling, digging seed, gardening, lawn mowing, mechanicing, welding, loading, plastering, house painting, folding laundry, ironing, or sowing.”

Servile work subjective or objective?
“Moral Theologian Davis, “Servile work may not be done without necessity for pleasure or recreation. It remains servile, whatever the motive may be, even if no wager are taken for it.””

“St. Alphonsus, “The intention of the worker is not able to change one kind of work into another.””
“St. Alphonsus additionally points out that if one does more than 2 to 2.5 hours of unnecessary servile work on a Sunday or Holy day of Obligation he is guilty of mortal sin.”

“Why does God forbid servile work on the Sabbath?
Simply so we may relax, read good spiritual books, and recuperate both body and soul that we may better serve Him and our neighbor.”

“What about Commerce?
Things like going to the grocery and the mall is forbidden.
However, on special occasions and not as a general rule, people may sell wares on Sunday because of special business opportunities.
For example; A vendor capitalizing on a certain fair, festival, rodeo, or opportunity not normally available.
Also going to a restaurant or a café is okay. As is buying gas.”

“What work is okay?
What used to be called “Liberal Works”.
Things like singing, reading, studying, writing, painting.
Also “Common Work” which all classes of men do.
This would include traveling and preparing meals.”

“Also necessary servile work, such as feeding livestock, changing a flat tire, and setting up the alter are permitted.
Necessary servile work is also permitted in police, firemen, medical personnel, taxis, gas stations, restaurants.
Also playing at attending sporting events or going hunting are both fine, as long as they are kept with the proper perspective of the Lords day and not seen as more important than the Lord or His Mass.”

End of Sermon Notes.

Oh, I don’t know who Moral Theologian Davis is, sorry. Hope this gives some direction, I’ve found Father’s words useful. :slight_smile:

From the Baltimore Catechism:

Q. 1254. From what do servile works derive their name?
A. Servile works derive their name from the fact that such works were formerly done by slaves. Therefore, reading, writing, studying and, in general, all works that slaves did not perform are not considered servile works.

I’m not sure I agree with this because studying, as by a full-time student, can be mentally exhaustive and detract from observing the Lord’s day.

Whoever “Moral Theologian Davis” is or was, it’s a little hard to accept that it’s OK to go out and kill animals, but sinful to stay in your own back yard and weed the cucumber patch as relaxation.

I have also never seen the “servile work” rule applied to Holy Days of Obligation. Most of the (few remaining) Holy Days in the U.S. are regular work days. I don’t recall ever hearing that going to your regular job on a Holy Day is mortally sinful, despite what St. Alphonsus is quoted as teaching (the “2.5 hour rule”) – assuming your Mass obligation is met. I do not believe the Church teaches this.

The idea that “setting up the altar” would even be remotely considered “servile work” (but permitted !) is so far over the top that I think that his whole line of reasoning is suspect.

Also, what happens if your work is done for charity? For example, volunteering to work in the kitchens, make beds, clean up, etc. for a night shelter. People are still homeless on a Sunday, and still need food and shelter.

The 2.5 hour rule sounds very legalistic. I’ve heard that there was a period of really strict legalism about the Sunday obligation around the 17th-18th century, but that it was later relaxed, maybe this comes from there. I’m not sure this has ever been the official teaching of the Church.

Smber2c, where do you go to mass? It sounds like your priest is great at expounding Church teaching, and doesn’t pull his punches, though some of it sounds a tad legalistic.

Also going to a restaurant or a café is okay.

But then you’re making others serve you. Isn’t that also sinful, because you’re making them do servile work on Sunday?

I’d heard it was five hours, btw…

I have been employed by the Church and Father had no qualm’s on having me make sure the Church was fit for the parishioners. The temperature correct; the lighting all working; the sidewalk swept; the snow shoveled; the parking lot tidy; etc… all before I went to Mass myself. (And some times during if something was not just right and he saw me in the pew).

And isn’t a Priest himself doing his work (saying Mass) on those same Holy Days?

So, where does this stand today?

That’s why businesses close on Sundays.

I find all this getting a bit hair-splitting. And am especially annoyed by the arbitrariness of such ‘2.5 hour rules’ or ‘5 hour rules’ or what have you, which clearly have come from absolutely nowhere other than thin air.

I usually do paid work on Sundays, maybe four or five hours. I do so because I have bills and debts to pay, and I refuse to believe that God would prefer that I didn’t meet those obligations when I am able to. I am positive it would instead be a serious sin to NOT work and pay those bills and debts when I have the capacity, and I would work a full day Sunday if my obligations were greater.

Sometimes I shop, not for recreation or for non-essentials like clothes or anything, but for food. How is putting food on my table a sin, even if I could possibly (at greater cost of time and effort, mind) do so on another day. And why is shopping for groceries a problem when vooking the same groceries, or worse still going to a restaurant or cafe to eat, wouldn’t be?

It boggles the mind.

As a formerly longtime-lapsed Catholic, I just became aware of this “servile work” issue while listening to Father Corapi’s lecture on how to make a good confession.

It really never occurred to me that shopping on a Sunday is a sin! However, based on the standard being put forth here, I do think that either hunting animals or mowing the back lawn are equally qualified as servile work. I have done both in the past.

So as we head into Lent, and many will be going to Confession for the first time in awhile, I thought it would be appropriate to dig this up. I typically don’t like to resurrect an old thread, but there isn’t anything in here that is particularly time sensitive and could be dated.

I had a very productive Sunday - I did a lot of stuff around the house, and prepared us for the week ahead. Laundry, cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms, and cleaning my home office. By doing these things I am able to get to Mass during the week and to volunteer my time at a Catholic non-profit, and to work on my prayer time. Not to mention I enjoy the sense of accomplishment of taking care of my husband by keeping the house tidy - it’s not entirely “work” to me. And in between chores I worked on learning how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and we went to Mass.

So - I guess I need to go to Confession now. Right? :confused:


Here is one definition: catholicreference.net/index.cfm?id=36428

Of course it is Sunday…the Lords Day for Christians…not the Sabbath…which is Saturday…

from the Catechism 2042 The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.82

2184 Just as God "rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,"121 human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.122

2185 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.123 Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.

also read this whole thing from the Catechism;


and read this from;

Pope Benedict XVI:

Iuxta dominicam viventes – living in accordance with the Lord’s Day

  1. From the beginning Christians were clearly conscious of this radical newness which the Eucharist brings to human life. The faithful immediately perceived the profound influence of the eucharistic celebration on their manner of life. Saint Ignatius of Antioch expressed this truth when he called Christians “those who have attained a new hope,” and described them as “those living in accordance with the Lord’s Day” (iuxta dominicam viventes). (204) This phrase of the great Antiochene martyr highlights the connection between the reality of the Eucharist and everyday Christian life. The Christians’ customary practice of gathering on the first day after the Sabbath to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – according to the account of Saint Justin Martyr(205) – is also what defines the form of a life renewed by an encounter with Christ. Saint Ignatius’ phrase – “living in accordance with the Lord’s Day” – also emphasizes that this holy day becomes paradigmatic for every other day of the week. Indeed, it is defined by something more than the simple suspension of one’s ordinary activities, a sort of parenthesis in one’s usual daily rhythm. Christians have always experienced this day as the first day of the week, since it commemorates the radical newness brought by Christ. Sunday is thus the day when Christians rediscover the eucharistic form which their lives are meant to have. “Living in accordance with the Lord’s Day” means living in the awareness of the liberation brought by Christ and making our lives a constant self-offering to God, so that his victory may be fully revealed to all humanity through a profoundly renewed existence.

Living the Sunday obligation

  1. Conscious of this new vital principle which the Eucharist imparts to the Christian, the Synod Fathers reaffirmed the importance of the Sunday obligation for all the faithful, viewing it as a wellspring of authentic freedom enabling them to live each day in accordance with what they celebrated on “the Lord’s Day.” The life of faith is endangered when we lose the desire to share in the celebration of the Eucharist and its commemoration of the paschal victory. Participating in the Sunday liturgical assembly with all our brothers and sisters, with whom we form one body in Jesus Christ, is demanded by our Christian conscience and at the same time it forms that conscience. To lose a sense of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, a day to be sanctified, is symptomatic of the loss of an authentic sense of Christian freedom, the freedom of the children of God. (206) Here some observations made by my venerable predecessor John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (207) continue to have great value. Speaking of the various dimensions of the Christian celebration of Sunday, he said that it is Dies Domini with regard to the work of creation, Dies Christi as the day of the new creation and the Risen Lord’s gift of the Holy Spirit, Dies Ecclesiae as the day on which the Christian community gathers for the celebration, and Dies hominis as the day of joy, rest and fraternal charity.

Sunday thus appears as the primordial holy day, when all believers, wherever they are found, can become heralds and guardians of the true meaning of time. It gives rise to the Christian meaning of life and a new way of experiencing time, relationships, work, life and death. On the Lord’s Day, then, it is fitting that Church groups should organize, around Sunday Mass, the activities of the Christian community: social gatherings, programmes for the faith formation of children, young people and adults, pilgrimages, charitable works, and different moments of prayer. For the sake of these important values – while recognizing that Saturday evening, beginning with First Vespers, is already a part of Sunday and a time when the Sunday obligation can be fulfilled – we need to remember that it is Sunday itself that is meant to be kept holy, lest it end up as a day “empty of God.” (208)

The meaning of rest and of work

  1. Finally, it is particularly urgent nowadays to remember that the day of the Lord is also a day of rest from work. It is greatly to be hoped that this fact will also be recognized by civil society, so that individuals can be permitted to refrain from work without being penalized. Christians, not without reference to the meaning of the Sabbath in the Jewish tradition, have seen in the Lord’s Day a day of rest from their daily exertions. This is highly significant, for it relativizes work and directs it to the person: work is for man and not man for work. It is easy to see how this actually protects men and women, emancipating them from a possible form of enslavement. As I have had occasion to say, “work is of fundamental importance to the fulfilment of the human being and to the development of society. Thus, it must always be organized and carried out with full respect for human dignity and must always serve the common good. At the same time, it is indispensable that people not allow themselves to be enslaved by work or to idolize it, claiming to find in it the ultimate and definitive meaning of life.” (209) It is on the day consecrated to God that men and women come to understand the meaning of their lives and also of their work. (210)


Thank you Bookcat. This was really very informative and a good learning experience for me. I clearly did not conduct myself appropriately, this weekend or in the past, according to all the documentation you provided.

You know - for me anyway - it’s just so hard to NOT work around the house when I have a day away from my paying job. As a working woman it is often difficult to balance work and life, and typically the paying job comes first during the week (with respect to where the hours go) and life has to catch up on the weekends.

I think a good thing for me to try to focus on this Lent is how I manage that time SO I can properly observe a day of rest. Not just from doing things, but spending the time appropriately in worship and prayer.

This in particular spoke to me:

**2185 **On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.123 Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.

Thanks again! :slight_smile: