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Catholic Activity: Teaching About the Mass



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Suggestions on how to teach your children about the Mass, including understanding sacrifice and Christ as Victim. Note that some of the discussions about the Mass refer to the Tridentine rite. There is no longer a Last Gospel for the Novus Ordo. Other differences are also present, but the basic principles are excellent to instill in your child.


If the Mass is to be understood at all, it must first be understood in terms of sacrifice — not an easy subject for children. This chapter does not claim that they will grasp its entire significance with the first telling, but with repetition they will learn, and learning, love it, and their parents will both learn and love the more.

Sacrifice is a word that appears in the history of man since the very beginning. Man has always offered sacrifice to God. There are two reasons for sacrifice: one, to give adoration and praise to God, the Lord and maker of all things; two, to show sorrow for sins, the offenses of men against the all-holy God. And because it contains these two elements, there are two important parts to a sacrifice: the offering itself, and the destroying (or consuming) of the offering.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

Now in the beginning man did not count his riches in money, or houses, or cars, but in the flocks that fed him if he were a herdsman, or the food his gardens produced if he were a farmer. These were his treasures. When he thought to choose something to offer as a sacrifice to God to show Him how he loved Him, he chose the most precious things he owned: the finest lambs or kids or beeves born to his flocks, or the most perfect fruits that grew in his fields. The things he would like to keep for himself were the things he offered to God. It was as close as he could come to offering himself; in short, these things were a sign of himself.

That was the first part of sacrifice. The second part had to be a sign of his sorrow for sin. Now, to sin against God is a terrible thing. Once a sin is done, it cannot be undone. And God could, in all justice, demand the life of a man as payment for his sins. It would be quite fair. But He is merciful as well as just and is willing to accept a truly sorrowful heart. So instead of demanding the life of the man who had sinned, he mercifully accepted the sign of this, the life of the animal that man offered in sacrifice. For this reason it was necessary that whatever was offered in sacrifice be consumed or destroyed in order that man could never take it back. A sacrifice acceptable to God had to be entirely surrendered.

This could be explained to children with a very elementary example. Suppose a little boy has offended his mother in the worst way. After his rebellion is done, he is filled with remorse and feels he must somehow show her he is sorry and that he loves her. A gift would show her that he loves her. So he decides to buy her a gift. But how will he show, also, that he is sorry? He thinks for a long time and then he decides that if he spends his whole allowance, money his mother knows he has been saving to spend on himself, then surely she will understand he is sorry. Spending all he has to buy her gift will be a sign of his love and his sorrow — as perfect a sacrifice as a little boy could make.

The first mention of sacrifice comes in Genesis, in the story of Cain and Abel. It is a terrible story and it tells not only of sacrifice, but of good and evil sacrifice. Cain and Abel were brothers, the sons of Adam. Just as God said, they had inherited their father's original sin and through it a weakness for sin. Cain was a husbandman, or farmer, and Abel a shepherd; so when they decided to offer sacrifice to God, Cain chose the fruits he had grown in his fields and Abel the firstling of his flocks. Now Abel loved God and was truly sorry for his sins. For this reason, after he placed his sacrifice on the altar, God sent a sign from heaven (perhaps fire) and the animals were consumed. It showed that God accepted them. But when Cain put his offerings on the altar, nothing happened. And he became very angry. Then God spoke to him in words like this (and all this has greater force if it is read aloud from Scripture):

Why are you so angry, and why do you have such a scowl on your face? If you do right with your sacrifice, will it not be received? But if you do wrong, won't your sinfulness continue? . . .
And God made it very clear to Cain that He saw no true love or sorrow for sin in Cain's heart: his sacrifice was not acceptable. This made Cain very angry indeed, and in a fit of jealousy he invited Abel to walk with him in the fields, and killed him. Which goes to show that God was quite right: a man who is not sorry for his sins will go on to commit even worse sins. Cain himself came to a dreadful end, but that is another story. What this story tells is that God considers every sacrifice very important, and it is an evil thing to offer it without the right intention.

Now when the family of Adam had multiplied to such a vast number of people that they were performing their acts of worship in large groups, priests were appointed to offer sacrifice for the people. This was their special service, to act as intermediary between the people and God, offering their sacrifices for them, praying that they would be acceptable to God. Generation after generation of priests and people continued to praise God and try to atone for their sins against Him with sacrifice.

But of course no lamb, or hundreds of lambs, or kids or beeves or fruits or any thing could really pay God back for even one mortal sin. God is perfect. How could men, who are imperfect, make it up to Him once they had offended Him? They couldn't.

It is like the case of a boy who stole a dollar from his master. When it is discovered, and he must pay it back, he has lost it. All he has of his own money is a penny, and all he can say is, "I will pay you back — but with a penny." But a penny does not equal a dollar and it never will, and the boy, no matter how sorry he is, will never be able to pay his master back. It can't be done — unless someone with a dollar comes along and offers to pay the boy's debt for him. And that is what happened between mankind and God.

Christ, The Perfect Victim

God accepted all the sacrifices as signs of man's sorrow for sin, and still the debt was not paid. But God loves man. He wants man with Him forever in Heaven. That is the only reason He made man. So hardly had the story of the Jews got under way than God began to hint that some day He would send someone who would be able to pay the debt of man's sin. He would offer a perfect sacrifice, this someone, wholly acceptable to God. He would offer it as the priests did, for the people. And he would pay in full not only for all the sins which had been committed but for all the sins which would ever be committed until the end of time. But who could do all this, except God Himself? And that is the answer. God will repay God; it is the only way it can be done. So God the Father promised to come Himself in the person of God the Son, to be born a Man and die as a victim for the sins of all men in a sacrifice on a Cross. We are getting closer and closer to the Mass.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He was born to die. All men die, of course, but God has work for them to do before they die. But the most important of all the work Our Lord had to do was to die on the Cross. We shall skip all the other years of His life and go to the part that begins His sacrifice. At the Last Supper there was the first sign of anything which would appear later in the Mass.

Long before, when Abraham, the father of all the Jews, had gone out to rescue his nephew Lot from four warring kings, he returned and was welcomed by the priest-king of Salem, Melchisedech, who took bread and wine and offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise to God. This is why Melchisedech is mentioned with Abel and Abraham in the Canon of the Mass, where bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ and offered as a sacrifice to God. Jesus, Who is the Divine priest as well as king, was following the example of the priest-king Melchisedech when He used bread and wine at the Last Supper.

After Jesus had taken the bread, giving thanks, He broke it and gave a piece to each of the Apostles, saying: "This is My body, which is being given for you: do this in remembrance of Me." Then He took wine, gave thanks, blessed it, and said: "All of you drink of this, for this is My blood of the new covenant, which is being shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins."

And for the first time in all the world, men received Holy Communion.

But something was missing. Jesus had not yet died. He had not yet become the sacrificed victim. He had to fulfill the form of the old sacrifice where the victim was slain to satisfy God for man's sin. So He left the supper room to start the terrible journey of His agony and passion, and it was when He did this that He offered Himself, as priest offering sacrifice for all the people. It was at the end of His agony, the moment before He died, that He cried out to God the Father: "It is consummated." Then the slaying of the perfect Victim was complete. God was paid, for all eternity, for the sins of men.

If he had not done this, we would never have had the Mass, for the Mass is the offering, by Jesus and the priest and the people — all one in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church — of the perfect victim (already slain) as a gift of praise and a reparation for sin. That is why it is called "the sacrifice of the Mass."

Prologue to the Sacrifice

Then the Mass begins. The Confiteor comes first, because one wants to have all this confessing done before getting on to the more sacred parts. It is said in the spirit of the daily examination of conscience and act of contrition, the only difference being that at Mass we confess sinfulness not only to God, but to the Blessed Mother and all the saints, and ask them please, will they pray for us too? The priest and the altar boys, in a beautiful bow at the foot of the altar, and all the others in the Church, are begging the same pardon. A child need not know the Confiteor to be part of it. You can say, "This is the part where we all ask God to forgive us our sins. You ask God and Blessed Mother and all the saints to pray for you so you will never be naughty again." And if he knows the Act of Contrition, you can suggest he say that. Four- and five-year-olds learn it easily.

The Introit comes next but it is such a quick trip to the Epistle side and back that it is almost sure to be missed. The only point in mentioning it (at home) is to explain to them that in the early Church the priest and his assistants came into the Church in procession from the outer door. Introit means "entering in."

Next comes the Kyrie eleison, also quick and easily missed Children who say the litanies now and then at family prayers will recognize its translation, "Lord have mercy on us, etc." (from Greek, not Latin). Because the tune of the chanted Kyrie at High Mass is easy to learn, it is nice to sing it at home. Perhaps it will be their first introduction to singing liturgical music. It is a beautiful prayer, crying out for mercy. We should use it more often.

The Gloria is next. Children love knowing about the Gloria. All Christmas carols say, in some form, Gloria in excelsis Deo. Although the entire prayer at Mass is a little too much for them, they will be very happy with their heads full of pictures of what the words are saying.

Then comes the Collect, and once its meaning has been explained, they will rarely forget because Collects were designed for the natural as well as the supernatural man. This prayer is literally a collection of all the intentions and favors we ask, from the Holy Father down to the smallest member of the Mystical Body. In it we ask God for blessings for the Church, for the Pope, for the people; we ask for grace and peace and prosperity, and we ask for all the things we so dearly need (or think we need) in the temporal order.

Here a little lad may apply himself passionately to the serious (and quite legitimate) business of asking for the bike, the puppy, the wallet (we are all asking for wallets at the moment, except Mommy and Daddy — they are asking for something to put in the wallet), quite encouraged to know that the prayers of the Universal Church beg too that his intentions be granted according to the will of God.

Teach children what the Collect means and then when you help them with Mass preparation the Saturday night before, watch their eyes shine when they think about what they will ask in the Collect.

The Epistle will mean little, or much, depending on how familiar a child is with Epistles read at home. If there is no time for anything but baths, shampoos, and polishing shoes on Saturday night, someone should tag along with the Sunday Epistle and Gospel and read them aloud. The only people who think reading the Epistles and Gospels to small children is going too far are those who have not tried it. Granted, some of them are over their heads, but not so many as you would think; and if you translate the words into their language as you go along, they will love it.

A good example is St. Paul's text, "Brethren, put ye on, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, the cloak of mercy, benignity, humility. . . ." (Epistle to the Colossians, 3:12-17, in the Mass for the Feast of the Holy Family.)

"See? St. Paul says that you must put on kindness, like a coat, and wear it all day, and let people see that you are kind just as they can see the real coat you wear. When you are kind, people know it. They will love you for it, and they will say to themselves: 'She would do nothing to hurt me, because she is kind.'"

The same technique applies to the Gospel. Preparing the Sunday Gospel with children is the best way to develop their interest in the whole Gospel. Some of our most successful sessions with the New Testament have grown from such Mass preparations. Indeed, the children thought they ended far too soon. Adding the daily Gospel to night prayers during the penitential seasons, Advent and Lent, is an ideal way to follow the meditation of the Church. The order of their arrangement is not accidental: they were chosen especially to lead our minds towards a more intelligent and joyous celebration of the great feasts that climax these seasons. We had one such Mass preparation (ordinarily they must be fairly brief: there are a lot of children to put to bed in our family) which lasted two hours, with first the Missal and then the New Testament open on the end of the ironing board while I ironed and the children sat on the floor in their pajamas. They were the ones who asked for more.

At Mass, however, there is a short pause between the Epistle and the Gospel (incidentally, be sure they know which side of the altar is which), for the Prayer before the Gospel. This would hardly be noticed if it did not include something to do, but making the three Crosses on the forehead, the lips, and the heart is not only very appealing; it also teaches them a lesson they learn easily. "Please help me to love Your word with my mind, keep it on my lips, and hug it to my heart."

Then they are ready for the Gospel. If it has been read the night before, Father will be heard through with attention to see if he really does read the same text, and the sermon is listened to with far better attention if they have been promised a discussion of it after Mass.

After the sermon, the Credo (which means I believe). Children who know the Apostles' Creed can do as well with it at the Credo as the priest and the people with the Nicene Creed in the Missal.

A Word about the Collection

With the Offertory comes the confusion of the Sunday collection, and as a consequence its meaning is often missed. Since of all the parts of the Mass so far this is the one I most want my children to watch, it must be carefully reviewed at home. A reminder before Mass helps: "Now remember, have your envelope ready so you won't have to fish around, and see if you can't follow the Offertory."

In the early Church, all the catechumens (those preparing to be baptized but still not members of the Church) left after the Credo, and only the faithful remained for the part of the Mass called "the Mass of the faithful." At the Offertory the people brought their own gifts of bread and wine and presented them to the priest, who in turn presented them — unconsecrated — to God. Now the collection substitutes for the offering of gifts by the faithful, and the Offertory collection is meant to buy the things needed for the Mass.

For this reason, it is expected that children who receive allowances will provide at least part of what goes into the weekly collection. If someone ever makes a survey of reasons for adult non-support of the Church, I should not be surprised to find that the explanation lies in this handing out of collection money to children, year after year after year. Every baptized child is a member of the Church and has an obligation to support it, but at the age of seventeen he is rarely inspired with the nobility of his role as supporter of pastor and parish if he has never been made to face it before.

Generosity can be made compelling for small children if it is explained that the money put into the collection is used to buy the hosts and the wine that will be consecrated and become the Body and Blood of Christ, to buy the candles, the sweet incense, and all the other beautiful things that delight the eye and the ear and the nose at Mass.

"The Mass of the Faithful"

At the Offertory, the priest offers the unconsecrated bread and wine to God, asking Him to accept it for our sins. Here is the sign of ourselves, which we explained in our talks about sacrifice. We might have lived ages ago and had at best only a lamb to offer as a sign of ourselves, knowing that it would never be enough to pay for our sins, but here is a sign that soon will be changed to a Victim Who can pay for our sins.

"Watch, dear, and when you see the priest lift the paten with the bread and lift the chalice with the wine, pretend you are lifting them with him. Pretend you are there, being lifted up with them. That is what it means — that you offer yourself. Soon he will change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, and He will be the perfect Victim offered to God for us." Children love to do this.

The priest washing his hands at the Lavabo is something they always see. Over and over the Church uses water as a sign of purity and purification: in the Asperges (before High Mass), in Baptism, in the holy water font as we enter the Church. Telling our children about the Lavabo in the Mass, that it is a sign of the inner purity of those who offer this sacrifice, we can remind them also of other things: "Why don't you try to remember, every time you wash your hands, how pure you must keep your soul in order to please God." It is only one of the many ways mothers can use homely, domestic things to teach their children a spiritual vision, but it will be the occasion of repeated small meditations, and the multiplication of small meditations can be the beginning of contemplation.

The Preface is a Thank-you in which we ask God to let us join the angels to sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus — Holy, Holy, Holy. Every time I have ever explained the Sanctus as the song the angels sing forever before God in Heaven, some small child has asked: "But is that what we're going to do in Heaven? Nothing but sing Sanctus all the time!" And there is a wonderful answer to this in the story of St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas. In a vision describing the saints' arrival in Heaven, they too heard the angels singing Sanctus without end. But after they had greeted God the Father and kissed Him, and He had passed His hand over their faces, the elders standing beside the throne of God said to the saints: "Go and play." O blessed relief. The angels sing, but the children play!

If you suggest to them to imagine how the sanctuary is filled with millions of angels, waiting to bow low before the Body of Christ, it helps make the Sanctus very exciting for them. Now and then, when I have to go to a late Mass alone, a little boy creeps into the pew beside me to follow the Mass in my Missal, and I have explained parts of the Mass to him. One morning when the bell rang for the Sanctus, he whispered: "Is this where the angels come in?" So you see, it does make an impression and they do remember.

The mementos in the Canon of the Mass will keep the children very busy and they like to be reminded at the First Prayer: "This is where we pray for the Holy Father, Pius XII, Bishop Weldon (always give the Bishop his name), and all the Catholics in the world."

The Second Prayer is where "we ask God to remember us. Daddy and Mother, you children, all our relatives and friends and everyone here." Soon the warning bell has rung before the Consecration.

The Consecration comes before the Elevation, though many people confuse them, and of the two the Consecration is far more important. Children should be helped to get this straight in their heads. If it has been explained at home that the Consecration is the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, then at Mass it can be identified as the part where the priest bends low over the altar and whispers in a loud whisper. This happens twice, once over the Host and once over the Chalice. After the consecration of each species, he elevates it so that the faithful may make an act of adoration.

The traditional prayer at the Elevation is "My Lord and My God," the words of St. Thomas when he saw Christ's wounds after the Resurrection. If the children know the story of St. Thomas and his doubts, they like to use his words. Be sure to tell them there is an indulgence of seven years attached to saying it devoutly, and encourage them to use it as a gift to the souls in Purgatory. If they are too little to understand this prayer, they can say simply, "I love You," at each Elevation, whispered, of course (but an accidentally louder than whispered "I love You" is a deeply moving thing).

All this may seem fairly complicated, but five-year-olds can learn it. I heard our children having an argument one day about what the Consecration looks like, and John (who was five) got up and demonstrated. "When Father Burke does this (he bent low over the table) and whispers, it is the Consecration!"

Here, at last, is the perfect Victim. And immediately following the Consecration, the priest and the people say a prayer in which they offer the perfect Victim. This is too complicated for very young children but we cannot give them any sense of the Mass at all unless we understand it ourselves. Here we ask God to accept our offering as He accepted the offerings of Abel, Abraham, and Melchisedech, and now we see why an understanding of sacrifice, identifying it with the sacrifice of Abel, is absolutely essential if a child is to understand anything about the Mass. I agree it is complicated, that it takes a long time for them to learn. But it is not impossible to learn.

Next comes the Memento for the Dead, where the children can be reminded to pray for the dear departed relatives and friends and all the souls in Purgatory. Next — and even if they catch nothing else, they should be helped to catch this — the Our Father. Even the very little ones can say the Our Father.

If they can hear it, they love the Agnus Dei, because it is a prayer to Christ as the Lamb of God; entirely logical when they understand about the old sacrifice of the lambs.

It is at Communion that the priest, and after him the people, consume the Victim, the last part of a sacrifice necessary to make it complete. But Communion is also a banquet, a feast of love. I do not know why we never talked about this as a banquet, unless it was because we did not want to confuse the children with too many concepts at one time. But Monica stumbled on it all by herself at nine.

"Mother, why don't we receive Our Lord in both bread and wine?" So I explained about His Body and Blood being present in each species, that it was not essential to receive both, and receiving Him as we do is simplest when there are so many people going to Communion, so many Masses each Sunday.

"You know — if we did, it would be like a party, wouldn't it? Like God giving a party." Wonderful are the ways of the Holy Spirit in the mind of a child. It is God's party, the Eucharistic banquet, and the food that is served is the bread of heavenly life. Who comes to us is Love, and when we consume this Victim at the unbloody sacrifice, we join Him in a feast of love.

One or two things to add for the older children: first, the meaning of Domine, non sum dignus, which Father says when he elevates a small Host, facing the people. The story of the centurion who spoke these words to Christ, "Lord, I am not worthy . . ." will help them learn and remember always (Matt. 8:5-14). I remember, as a child, memorizing the Latin before I knew what it meant, because it had such a beautiful sound.

We ought also encourage them to memorize the words the priest speaks over them when he gives them Communion: "May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul unto life everlasting. Amen."

You can suggest to a child what he might say for thanksgiving after Communion (realizing that when the time comes it is something he must do alone), something like: "Dear Blessed Jesus, thank You for coming to me in Holy Communion. I love You, please teach me to love You more." Repeated each time they receive the Eucharist, this moment of prayer perhaps more than any other will open the door to real spiritual growth. Christ wants to teach us to love, but we must want to be taught. And there is no better time for fathers and mothers to pray, "Please, teach my children to love You. Please, make my children want You."

They must also be taught to remember the intentions of all those they love — indeed, of all the world — and to ask for help with some particular weakness.

The Last Gospel comes swiftly after the Postcommunion (which is also a thanksgiving) but not until the priest turns and blesses the people. This Sign of the Cross at the end of Mass is like a seal. After offering our Victim to God, knowing that His sacrifice does pay for our sins, we trace on our own bodies the Cross that is His sign. Though I try to make our children bless themselves reverently always, I want this one at the end of Mass to be especially proud. "Make it big, dear — make it beautiful. It is His sign, and you belong to Him."

Too often the Last Gospel becomes a signal to grope for hats, gloves, and purses. Yet to ignore it is to ignore the great summing up: Who Christ is, and why He came. And it says of us: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave power to become sons of God." We can make it mean something to our children when we inform them that it was written by St. John the Evangelist, that it tells about St. John the Baptist, who announced the coming of Christ, and proves to us that Christ was the Son of God: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Little boys named John should feel especially proud at the Last Gospel. I know one who nudges his mother and whispers: "Mother! My Gospel."

The prayers at the foot of the altar are for the conversion of Russia; the children must know this. The prayer to St. Michael asking protection against the devil is always extremely interesting, especially to all boys named Michael. And if your name happens to be John Michael — !

Then comes, we hope, the demonstration of proper manners: we wait until Father is off the altar and out of the sanctuary before stepping out of the pew. Then a good, deep genuflection because God is in this place. No bobbing, please.

Last of all, we should go up to the altar rail and say "Thank You" again. There are other times to talk to friends, to survey the hats and the hair-do's. At the end of a party we say Thank-you many times, not just once. We should be at least as gracious with Christ.

"Tell Him, 'Thank You, Blessed Jesus, for letting me come to Mass. Thank You for coming to me in Holy Communion. I love You. Please help me to love You more.' And think for a minute of the thousands of people in the world who can no longer go to Mass, whose priests have been murdered or put in prison. They long for Mass and Communion. Ask Our Lord to restore them, and to free His priests and nuns who are imprisoned."

Teaching a child the Mass takes a long time. One or two steps at a time is fast enough. But little by little, he will learn. When he is old enough he may use a missal, and in the end, whether he has his missal or forgets it, he will be able to follow the Mass and offer it intelligently because he understands what it is all about.

If children attend parochial school, it would be wise to follow the method Sister uses (call on her some day after school; she would be delighted to explain it). If they do not, then it is up to mothers and fathers at home. If it is possible for boys to be on the altar, by all means encourage it, and let them help with teaching the Mass to the younger children.

We can give a child all other knowledge, an appetite for all other devotions, a familiarity with every other aspect of the Faith; still, if he does not have reverence and awe and finally impassioned love for the Mass, he is spiritually only half alive. It is probably one of the most intricate of all the lessons to teach, but it is the one he will thank us for the most, all the days of his life.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961