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Teaching children about the Eucharist
As Pope Benedict stated in his inaugural address in 2005, 'the Eucharist must remain central'. This is because the Eucharist is a priceless treasure, a treasure we can grow to appreciate more by coming to Mass frequently.
To teach children this appreciation, much time is spent in practice before a school Mass, with great emphasis given to the celebration. To ensure the greatest possible participation the whole school sings hymns while many of the children are engaged in liturgical movements, the prayers of the faithful and Offertory processions.
Unfortunately, for all this activity, the results of surveys recently conducted of those between the ages of 19 and 30 clearly indicate that adolescents and young people generally attend Mass only spasmodically, if at all.
The problem may be caused by the failure of parents to provide an example of regular attendance. For the parents of Generation Y and of primary and high school children are often no more than cultural Catholics: their children are baptised, go to Catholic schools and they themselves come to Mass when those children receive the sacraments but their attachment to the Church does not commit them to a full participation.
Yet these parents are the children of an older generation, the over 60s who practise more regularly, with many going to Mass daily.
To counteract this growing indifference towards our greatest source of grace, it may be a better approach for teachers to replace much of the time spent in practice before school Masses with simple explanations of the meaning of the Mass and by drawing attention to the symbolism of certain actions.
Every action of the priest in the liturgy is important. Each time the Host is raised is a moment of great significance and ought to be explained again and again throughout the years, in greater depth, as the child develops in maturity.
The separate consecration of the bread and wine recalls the moment of the death of Christ on Calvary, a moment of intense focus. For this reason, the Host and the chalice are elevated separately. This is Christ's sacrificial offering to the Father; this is the moment when we adore Christ truly present in each one of the sacred species.
The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe claims that even very young children can be made to realise the importance of this moment. It is not difficult for a parent to draw the child close when the bell rings and quietly say, 'Look, there's Jesus!' A teacher who speaks 'the language of the believer' should have no difficulty communicating some understanding of the drama taking place on the altar.
At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer both species are elevated together. Here the risen Christ, together with us, his Mystical Body, praise the Holy Trinity. At the Lamb of God, the Host is again presented to us, this time as an invitation to partake of the sacred meal. This invitation is again given to each one of us very intimately when we receive Holy Communion. We should encourage children receiving Holy Communion to anticipate with eagerness this final moment when Christ comes to them.
Students - even non-readers - would participate more fully if each were provided with a simple missal in which they could look at the pictures and make the corresponding responses with the rest of the congregation. This is done very successfully in some parishes.
We cannot lament the behaviour of younger generations without looking at our own attitude, at some habits we have gradually acquired. For example, the church is treated as a meeting place, before and after baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations when there are many very infrequent churchgoers present.
In many places, before and after Mass, particularly on Sundays, the level of noise coming from loud greetings and prolonged conversations occurs regularly until the moment the priest enters and during the service, only to recommence immediately he leaves the sanctuary.
Is it a mistaken idea of 'community' which allows us to forget the Lord present in the tabernacle in order to socialise with our fellow parishioners? Unless it is absolutely essential, why can't we remain in silence with the Lord and forego unnecessary talk until we go outside? Perhaps we feel uncharitable if we appear to ignore someone but - apart from the lack of reverence in the presence of our God - isn't it equally inconsiderate to ignore those who rightly wish to spend silent time in prayer after Mass?
To convey the need for reverence when praying, teachers often try to impress on the children that they are going 'to create a sacred space'. It may be valid to refer to an altar in a classroom or to some specific area as 'a sacred space'. Certainly our soul is a sacred space, a tabernacle as it were, after we receive Holy Communion.
It is, however, a matter of great concern that this catch-phrase 'creating a sacred space' has become so prevalent that it tends to be the focus, the highlight, impressed on the children, rather than the sacred action taking place on the altar.
The Eucharist - sacrifice, communion, presence - is a unique treasure. We must endeavour to transmit it in its full integrity.
Audrey English is a former school teacher who works at the Holy Family Education Centre and the Centre for Thomistic Studies in Sydney.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 20 No 4 (May 2007), p. 20
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