Not long ago, I took part in an online discussion about the problem of Sunday shopping.
Most serious Catholics, and indeed most serious Christians, have problems in theory with the idea of shopping and running errands on Sunday. Such baldly commercial use of Sunday doesn't seem to fit well with the notion that Sunday should be a day of rest from labor, a day set apart for worship (primarily at Sunday Mass), family togetherness, community outreach, and engaging in activities centered around the Corporal and Spiritual works of mercy.
Yet despite our affirmation of the notion that excessive shopping on Sunday is ordinarily a thing to avoid, many of us have found ourselves needing to run at least some small errands on the Lord's day. There is the family whose single car is in use by Dad all week; there is the family who lives an hour from the nearest town and only travels to town for church on Sunday; there is the family whose members must often work on Saturday, or who are unexpectedly called in to work on a Saturday morning at least a few times a year. There is the mother who has been tending sick children all week, who dashes out to the store on Sunday afternoon because the poor ill little ones are finally well enough for her to leave them for an hour or so; there is the family whose children participate in sports, which are scheduled all weekend long all over town.
My family does tend to run some errands on Sundays. One of the reasons for this is that both the Sam's Club and the Costco nearest to us are a lot closer to our parish church than they are to our house. When gas prices first started to surge, we discovered that we couldn't really afford to make that trip three times a week (once for choir practice, once for Mass, and an additional time for shopping). I ended up with a compromise: when I need to do the "big" warehouse store shopping trip, we generally go on a Saturday, or even a Friday night--but we only do this once a month or so. If we need to stop at the warehouse for minor things (I buy my contact lenses there, for instance) we stop in after Mass on Sunday. In this way we can avoid draining our gas tank while doing the most "servile" of the shopping trips on a day other than Sunday.
Many families have made these compromises, trying to keep Sunday holy while avoiding an overly Pharisaical interpretation of the commandment, recalling Jesus' reassurance that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The present reality of our lives in America in the twenty-first century sometimes makes the "work" of shopping a necessity, even on a Sunday. While I agree that there is much that can be done to restore to Sunday something of the character of a day of rest, I also think that sometimes our laments about the complexity of our lives in this day and age are based on a certain forgetfulness of the reality, and complexity, of the lives of Catholics of the past.
My grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great grandmother and so on might never have needed to shop on a Sunday; indeed, if they desperately needed something that day they would probably have had to beg a neighbor to let them borrow whatever item they lacked, as stores were closed as a matter of course. They did view Sunday as a day of rest, and carefully avoided doing any excessive number of chores, or any work that wasn't strictly necessary. But did that mean that their Sundays were far more restful than mine?
Picture a Catholic woman seventy or eighty years ago. She is the mother of a growing family; she may live in town, or she may--more likely--live on a farm. If she lives in town, within walking distance of a Catholic church, her Sunday begins very, very early. In order to attend Mass, she slips out of the house not long after dawn, and attends the earliest Mass scheduled--a low Mass, with no music, that will be over in half an hour or so. She does this so that the baby can remain at home; the practice of taking the smallest infants to Mass is a relatively recent one. Depending on how far she has walked, and how early the Mass began, she may be home by six-thirty a.m.
While the rest of the family (except baby) dresses for whatever Mass the school children are required to attend (Catholic school children attend Mass with their classmates, under the watchful eyes of the nuns who teach them; they do not sit with their families at church) Mother takes care of the baby, and then begins to prepare the substantial breakfast that Father and the children, who have been fasting from midnight on, will be expecting once they return. There are no convenience foods, no microwaves, no shortcuts. The one item that may already be prepared will be the special bread Mother made yesterday when she did the week's baking, but other than that, she is cooking a pretty full meal.
Once the family has returned home and consumed this meal, Mother, along with any daughters old enough to help, will clean up the table, the dishes, and the kitchen. The younger children will play; Father might read the paper; and Mother, too, will get some time to relax...until it's time to begin the preparations necessary for the much anticipated Sunday dinner.
For the mother who lives on a farm, this process will be similar. She may attend Mass with the family if Baby is old enough; but she will be up just as early, if not earlier, to do her share of the essential chores, which must be done whether it is Sunday or not. Her husband will also put in what to most of us today would seem like a full day's work before leaving for Mass--and there will be another round of chores in the evening, too.
Neither the first mother's attentions to her family, or the second mother's attention to the chores that keep a farm running, in any way violated the commandment to keep Sunday holy; what must be done of necessity or what charity prompts us to do may be done without breaking the Sabbath. Compared to what women of the past had to do simply to meet the needs of their families and their state in life, most of us enjoy amounts of leisure on a Sunday that are unprecedented. While we must avoid the toxic materialism of our culture as much on Sunday as we ought to do every day of the week, there is no doubt that taking care of a necessary errand or two doesn't break the commandment to keep Sunday holy any more than the hours of work our female ancestors had to do on that day did.
Of course, if it could be proved that if serious Christians didn't shop on Sunday all the stores would be able to close that day, the question might be a different one; unfortunately, I think that even if all serious Christians were to boycott Sunday shopping as a matter of principle the stores would hardly even notice, in a nation where shopping is as much a pastime as a necessity.