Few things are more frequently given as evidence for the Catholic Church being on the ropes of history than Mass attendance for young people. Mishel Stefanac shows us why we may have been misdiagnosing the problem which means hope for the future…..
Bored, disengaged, uninterested; three words that any teacher would prefer not to use to describe students in a class… let alone during Mass.
In order to understand my students more I reflect on my own experiences as a student in school. As I reminisce the dread of mathematics classes is the first memory that comes to mind. When I think of mathematics all I remember is nerves and anxiety whenever the teacher would ask me a question about fractions or ratios. I would warily respond with an answer that I guessed because I hardly ever listened to what the teacher was saying. I hated mathematics, I was never engaged and evidently I found it boring. However, I wasn’t bored because of the topics we learnt; rather I was bored because I didn’t know why we needed to know these things. The reason for learning ratios and linear equations was never discussed; we just had to know it. I never saw reason, and it all seemed unimportant.
I tell this story because our students experience this same disengagement during Mass. Of course, I cannot say all children find it boring. However I can say, from experience, that most children and teenagers do. We, as teachers in Catholic schools, know the battle we are up against before we even step foot into a church for a class or school Mass. We cringe when we see students irreverently walking into a church, we are disappointed when they chat during the Eucharistic prayer and we feel annoyed when they are unresponsive. The big question is ‘how can we fix this?’
Bishop Fulton Sheen preached on this very issue saying, ‘children don’t enjoy mass because they don’t bring anything to it.’ His analogy was the opera. Many people find the opera boring because they bring no knowledge of music with them. Regarding the Mass, Bishop Sheen said ‘certainly you won’t get anything out of it, because you’ve made no effort to understand it.’ It is only when we strive to make an effort to understand the Mass that we will begin to get something out of it. So in overcoming the difficult task of engaging our students in Mass, we must first begin with explaining why we go.
Students are resistant because they are bored and they are bored because they don’t understand why they are there. Students simply see Mass as a duty or an obligation to fulfil. While it is our obligation as Catholics to attend mass regularly, it is imperative for them to understand why. The first step in engaging our students is to explain the whys, such as why do we attend Mass, why do we sing and why does the priest do the things he does. This in itself is a challenge because many teachers don’t know the answer to these questions. One suggestion is to go straight to the Catechism. Start with only one statement, such as ‘we go to Mass because Our Blessed Lord commanded this on Holy Thursday “Do this in remembrance of me.”’
Of course questions will arise from the children, such as ‘what do we remember?’ And the simple answer is ‘we celebrate and remember the Lord’s sacrifice, his passion, death and resurrection. Of course, there are also many graces that derive from the Mass. However the aforementioned statement, which is taken straight from the Catechism, can be a simple starting point. Once children understand that the Mass is a memorial of Christ’s passion, they will recognise it as a solemn and sacred occasion. Begin by explaining the solemnity of the Mass, and the memorial of Christ’s passion
I have heard this question asked by a priest, and I use it with my students ‘When the Virgin Mary and Saint John were standing at the foot of the cross between 12.00 and 3.00 on Good Friday would they have thought that the death of Jesus was exciting or solemn?’ When I recently asked my students this question, their responses were incredible. Nine year olds suddenly realised that at Mass we recall the death of Christ. Most of these children always thought of Mass as a time to gather together and celebrate. While they are not wrong, they have missed out on a very important aspect; the memorial of Christ’s passion and resurrection. We cannot entirely blame children for being irreverent at Mass if they merely saw it as an obligation and a time to celebrate. Once children understand that the Mass is a remembrance, or memorial, of Christ’s passion their behaviour begins to change.
If we make an effort to help our students understand the reason why we attend Mass, they will be able to bring some knowledge with them and perhaps become slightly more engaged. Even if it is only one point to begin with, namely that Mass is a memorial, then at the very least they are beginning to understand the sacred nature of the event.
Once children have begun to understand the solemnity of the occasion, the next step is to help them realise the true and real presence of Christ at Mass. This is a much more complex subject, which will be further developed. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental aspect of the Mass and if children recognise the true presence of Christ, their manner will change. A question I asked my children was ‘how would you behave if the Queen came to our classroom?’ They all giggled at this question but responded that they would be on their best behaviour and ensure they were dressed well. Then I asked how they would react if the Pope came to our class. Well, the students thought they would behave even better for the Pope. Finally, I asked how they would respond if Our Blessed Lord entered our classroom. The giggles were no longer present. They were serious. They recognised the fact that Christ’s presence would be incredible. I reminded them that we do experience this presence, and He is there during Mass. Educating them on the true presence of Christ is absolutely essential. A few days after having taught this class, we went to Mass. I was intrigued when I saw one little boy licking the palm of his hand and scrubbing the ink off his arm. When I asked why he was doing such a thing his response was ‘I can’t have these pictures on my arm if I am going to receive Jesus.’
Many teachers, I included, often assume that children know why they attend Mass. We always think it was taught by a teacher in earlier years. Don’t be fooled. If our children seem bored or disengaged in Mass, it’s not because they aren’t altar serving, reading or bringing up the offertory gifts. Most certainly, they are bored because they are unaware of why they are there. Allocating jobs and making our students feel like they are ‘doing something’ has not, and will not, engage them. Although it is important to include students in the liturgy, it is even more fundamental for them to understand the purpose of the Mass. When we see that our students are irreverent, it’s not because they are disrespectful but because they don’t recognise the true presence of Christ.
Many educators have tried to make Mass an exciting experience. They try to include new and popular songs and have students acting and dancing. These novelties are great for a quick fix, but as we know novelties wear off and we’re back at square one. A simple suggestion for overcoming the issue of disengagement is to educate students on the solemnity, sacredness and true presence of Christ in the Mass. When children realise that Mass is sacred, and is a time to recall the Lord’s passion, they become aware of the importance of their attendance. As they come to understand the true presence of Christ, they will be intrigued by mystery.
Don’t be afraid to use words such as sacrifice, solemn, memorial and thanksgiving as it will arouse their interest. Kids are curious. But don’t we all love a sense of mystery? It keeps things interesting.
In order to love something, you must know it first. Educating our students on the purpose of the Mass is the first and most intrinsic element. If they don’t know why they are going to Mass, they will remain disengaged from the very beginning just as I was in my mathematics classes.
Mishel Stefanac is a teacher in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. She has studied towards a Postgraduate degree in Theology at the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne. She is also currently undertaking further studies in Religious Education at the John Paul II Institute. Her particular study interests are in the Liturgy as well as Sacramental Theology.
What have you experienced with young people and the Mass? Any more helpful insights to share?