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Catholic Activity: Teaching the Sacraments



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Parents must first explain the visible signs of the sacraments of Holy Eucharist, Penance, and Confirmation in order that children may understand what they signify.


It is startling to come to understand that God's grace is God's life. For then the familiar formula, "The sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace" becomes "to give life." Suddenly the whole doctrine of the sacraments falls into place, and teaching them is quite simple after all.

For example, with the Holy Eucharist the emphasis is on food and eating. As parents we point out to our children that if they do not eat the right kind of food regularly, their bodies will not grow strong and big, but will become weak and will waste away. And this is exactly how Our Lord taught about the life of our souls: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you" (John 6:54).

So we will use our experience with food, eating, strength, sickness, health, life, and death to learn about our need for this sacrament. We will place the Eucharist in its setting — the Mass — and compare it with a festive meal.

The Mass is a banquet to which God invites all His sons and daughters. The altar is the table and the altar rail is its extension. Here the meal is served. Just as we would never go to a party given by someone we love and refuse to eat at his table, nor should we go to Mass and refuse to eat at God's table. The Holy Eucharist is the food of life which God wants to feed us so we will not die, but grow strong and holy.

But a child may say after Holy Communion, "I don't feel any different."

We do not always feel our bodies growing taller and stronger after eating a meal, either, but in time we can be measured and see that we have grown. Our spiritual growth may be slow too. But growth is certain if all the time we are trying to love God and do as He wishes.

"Are the Hosts pieces of Jesus? Is each piece a separate Jesus?"

There is only one Christ, and these small white Hosts which each of us receives draw us all together in the one Christ. They are not "pieces of Jesus" because God does not exist in pieces. There is only one Jesus. He has made it possible for all of us to be drawn into Him in this sacrament; and just as each one grows stronger and holier, so all of us together grow stronger and holier when we eat this food. This means that the Church grows stronger and holier because all of us together, living Christ's life, are the Church.

A boy in his teens decided he would no longer go to daily Communion. "It looks to me like people get into the habit of going to Communion and it doesn't mean a thing to them anymore. I think you ought to go less often so it will have more meaning."He was right about one thing — the Holy Eucharist does not sanctify us automatically — but he had forgotten something else. "What is this sacrament?" his parents asked him.

"It's food."

"Yes. Now suppose you decided not to eat any more food at our dinner table until we had your favorite meal. How long do you suppose you could go on running around the basketball floor, playing varsity ball?"

"I get the point."

Clearly, we are not able to function as strong and useful Christians if we are not nourished by the Holy Eucharist. As for spiritual dryness at Holy Communion, we must all suffer this, even as the saints did. God does not always give a feeling of great spiritual joy with this sacrament, but if we make a great act of faith in His presence and power each time we go to Communion, we will continue to grow strong and holy. In time, we will depend less upon our emotions to appreciate this sacrament.

There are many stories to help us with our teaching on the Holy Eucharist, and they inspire Christians of every age. One of the greatest types of Christ in the Old Testament is Joseph, whose brothers betrayed him and years later were reduced to begging him for food so they would not die (Genesis 37: 39-45).

The story of the manna in the desert was used by both Our Lord and St. Paul to teach about the Holy Eucharist (Exodus 16:1-15; John 6:28-51; I Corinthians 10:1-5). Still another story helps to picture the Mass as a meal, given by a king, to which all are invited. David invited Miphihoseth, the grandson of Saul, his former enemy, to come and live in his palace, sit at his table, and eat with "the king's sons" (II Kings 9).

And of course the gospel story of the loaves and the fishes shows us how Our Lord prepared His Apostles for this sacrament. In the discourse following the miracle we hear Him teach of the marvelous union between God and man in this sacrament (John 6:1-70).

It is unfortunate that preparation for first Confession is always combined with First Communion, because the impression is given that these two sacraments are interdependent. It is not Confession-and-Communion but Mass-and-Communion which are inseparable. It is not at all necessary that one go to Confession each time before one receives Communion, unless there has been serious sin.

First of all, Penance is a life-giving sacrament, established by Christ for those who lose the life of God by serious sin. Secondly, is it also for those who struggle to love Christ more faithfully and grow in His life — those who are not dead by sin but weakened, and want His strength and love renewed in them.

Long before time for first Confession, the children in the family have already had an experience that is an image of their meeting with Christ in this sacrament. Each time a child has admitted his small offenses to his parents, has been gathered into a forgiving embrace to be comforted and encouraged to try harder next time, he has entered into the mystery of God's forgiveness.

We have wonderful stories to help us teach of God's loving forgiveness for sinners who are truly sorry. In the parable of the prodigal son, Our Lord describes the love of a father for a lost son (Luke 15:11-32). He teaches the same lesson when a sinful woman anoints His feet with her tears and ointment in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). And the story of David in the Old Testament, his sin with Bethsabee, his remorse, God's forgiveness, is the arch-type of the sinner's relation to God (II Kings 11:12).

Three things are necessary if the sacrament of Penance is to "work," and we can explain them quite simply in the language of children.

One, we must be truly sorry we have been disloyal to our heavenly Father who loves us so much that He sent His Son to die in order to give us God's own life. Sin is always a betrayal of God's love. We will stir up genuine sorrow for sin if we think of the many ways God has shown His love for us.

Two, we must confess our sins to the priest with sorrow and a determination not to commit the same sins again. Confession gives us great strength and we must use it.

Three, we must accept our penance not merely as a punishment (hardly a punishment — three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys!) but as a pledge of our willingness to die to sin as Christ died for us on the Cross. The penances in the early Church meant this: the penitent admitted his guilt, accepted his condemnation as just, and was determined to return to the life of God again. Penance is the sacrament of reconciliation.

Older children often ask the question, "If God forgives sin as soon as we're sorry, why do we have to receive the Sacrament of Penance?"

Since we belong to the Church as members of the Mystical Body, and because its effectiveness among men depends upon the spiritual health and holiness of its members, the sins of any member always afflict the whole Body. Our sins are not just our private affair. They are very much the concern of the whole Church, and a formal apology is due even though it is made in the privacy of the confessional. Christ has designed this sacrament of rebirth into the life of His Mystical Body in a way that is just as formal as our initiation into this life at Baptism. In addition, the great graces of Confession which strengthen us, help us to resist temptation, come only after formal absolution.

We need to teach our children to tell why they have sinned. Then they will be making the best possible confession. We need to avoid teaching our children a list of sins that they recite in a "respectable" way. Such practice reduces the sacrament to a formula.

An excellent way to prepare a small child for Confession is to let him accompany the family to church each time they go to Confession. He could go up to the altar before the tabernacle and tell God in his own way the things he has done that are naughty, that he is sorry, and that he loves Him and needs the grace to be better the next time.

Now we come to Confirmation, a sacrament so closely associated with Baptism that it is correct to think of the two together. In the early centuries of the Church, Confirmation was administered immediately after Baptism. The reason is quite simple.

In nature, the newborn infant possesses within his body all that will develop and change him eventually from a child to a man. This is not so of the Christian who is newborn at Baptism as a child of God. He is given many dazzling gifts, but without Confirmation he cannot become a mature Christian. Confirmation makes it possible for the Christian to mature in God's life and be like His model, Christ, living perfectly as He lived, teaching His truth and giving example of it in his life, dying for it if he is called to do so. The Christian needs Confirmation to give testimony of Christ in this way, as we see in the before-and-after story of Pentecost. Why? Because for this kind of life he needs powers that belong to God himself and these are first made available to him in Confirmation.

The seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are the virtues of Christ shared with us in order to make us more than ever like Christ Himself. They are implanted in us in a special way in Confirmation. We can explain these Gifts quite simply.

  • Fear of the Lord: This is the awareness of the greatness, justice, power, mercy, goodness of God, inspiring us to do His will always, never to betray Him.

  • Piety: This is reverence for God, Our Lady, the angels, the saints, all His creatures and creations because He has made them and all the things He made are holy.

  • Knowledge: This is knowing the relation of the things of this world to the things of eternity, how to use them correctly in the service of God, how to choose between them.

  • Fortitude: This is the strength of Christ Himself shared with us; he martyrs are proof of the effectiveness of this gift.

  • Counsel: This is the inspiration to choose the things that are more perfect, above and beyond the demands of the law.

  • Understanding: This is seeing the reality that lies beyond the sign or symbol or article of faith — for example, "the Word made Flesh" as containing the humanity of Christ, the whole mystery of the Incarnation, God-made-Man.

  • Wisdom: This is the divine climate of soul which is produced by cooperation with the other gifts; it puts the soul in perfect harmony with God.

One important point should be made. Although the child's body is given the potential of all the powers of manhood, he may fail to cooperate with them and remain listless, irresponsible, inactive, never "becoming a man," as we say. The same thing is possible on the supernatural level for the confirmed Christian. He has in him the magnificent potential of Christian manhood — the power to be a martyr and a prophet, a witness. But if he does not cooperate with this power he will remain a mediocre Christian, hardly distinguishable from the unconfirmed.

No longer can we think of the saints as a chosen few singled out by God for special gifts, apart from the rest of men. Indeed, the gifts that make men saints are given at Confirmation, and men become saints because they have used those gifts.

Baptism brings the Christian to life, the Holy Eucharist feeds his life, Penance restores life if he should lose it, and Confirmation increases in him the living power of Christ, making him more like God.

MY APOSTOLATE I will discuss with my family the merits of celebrating at home the anniversaries of our sacramental feasts, making a list of our Baptismal days and annual Church feasts which would be suitable for celebrating our reception of the other sacraments: Corpus Christi, Pentecost, the Easter Vigil, Holy Thursday and others.

Many families prepare Baptismal candles for each of the members, to be lighted on their feast days and used at their places at the table and at prayers. Some parishes present Baptismal candles to the newly baptized when they receive the sacrament. I will discuss the possibility of this activity becoming an apostolate for one of our parish organizations with the parish priests, officers of the various organizations, other family people.

Activity Source: Homemade Christians by Mary Reed Newland, George A. Pflaum, Dayton, Ohio, 1964