Due to the restrictions arising from the Covid 19 Pandemic, the sacraments of First Penance, First Holy Communion and Confirmation have been delayed. However many parishes are now beginning to celebrate these sacraments with the months of July, August and September being for the first time the months when children will receive the sacraments.
When we take a look at their religion books and the things some children say, we might have some concerns as to what these boys and girls are taught and what their understanding of a sacrament is. Take the Eucharist for example. Although thank God we are past the time when the sacred host was referred to as “holy bread” it is doubtful if many children are instructed in the mystery of transubstantiation and the actual presence of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine. Jesus’ offering of himself to the Father through the ministry of the priest is seldom emphasised.
One word is conspicuous by its absence and that is the word “sacrifice.” We will hear it said that the concept of sacrifice is too hard for young children to understand and so they are not told of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This is a sincere concern for faithful parents and teachers. What way can we explain it to young children?
Children know that baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem at Christmas time. Although he is the king of kings and lord of lords, he was put to sleep in a manger because there was nowhere else available. How can this same Jesus be the man on the cross with nails in his hands and feet? Of course we must recount the life of Jesus. He is the child of Nazareth who was lost for three days and who grew up with his parents Mary and Joseph into the man whose preaching inspired the multitudes, who worked great miracles of healing and conversion and who died an innocent victim. That part is not too hard to grasp but how does this relate to Mass and Holy Communion?
Although stating the obvious, it is worth reminding ourselves that the boys and girls of 2021 are not the first generation to be taught the great truths of the Faith. This however, is the “Snowflake” generation. Everything has to be softened for them or they can’t cope, at least so the experts tell us.
The Catechism can help us and here we are told that the Mass is the same sacrifice as that of the cross. Years ago children learned this at school at an early age and accepted it in faith. Things as we all know are very different now and since children are no longer taught in this way, we have to find a different method – a way of communicating the truth and at the same time avoiding the displeasure of parents who do not want their children to hear about anything disturbing. Are some parents “snowflakes” too?
The concept of sacrifice and in particular the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, is incomprehensible to many. With this in mind, where do we start? How do we attempt to explain this awesome mystery, a mystery so profound that it is beyond our own understanding?
We are in the element of faith. While the depth and height of God’s love for us is too much to grasp, yet there are parts of this that are accessible to us, and these are what we have to try to get across to children. Starting with the familiar, we can for instance, remind them of sacrifices we make when we go without something we like and send the money to hungry people in the Third World.
Daddy and Mammy love to have a bottle of wine with their dinner but during Lent they don’t buy the wine and they put the money in the Trocaire box instead. This is a little sacrifice, just like not buying treats for children sometimes and giving the money to poor people.
We can then widen the screen and talk about sacrifice in a much larger context. We can use stories of people who give up their whole lives to serve the poor and the sick.
Children will surely have heard of Saint Teresa of Calcutta and other famous people who sacrificed what might have been a very different lifestyle in order to serve others. Then there is the supreme sacrifice of giving one’s very life so that another might live. St. Maximilian Kolbe is a clear example of this sacrifice and it should be possible to recount the story of his martyrdom without going into detail.
When we come to the sacrifice of Jesus it is harder to explain. The reason is that there doesn’t appear to be an immediate gain. In the case of St. Maximilian, the sacrifice of his life meant that another man’s life was spared and the connection between sacrifice and gain is clear. It is hard to understand why the sacrifice of Jesus was necessary unless it is clear what has been lost. This brings us into the realm of sin.
At this point perhaps it is only necessary to say that the sins of the human race had broken their relationship with God and caused heaven to be closed. Heaven could only be opened by a human being who was also God and this human being is Jesus. But to do this, he had to sacrifice his own life. This is what he did by allowing himself to die on the cross.
The Church has survived over two thousand years and faith was handed on from generation to generation by people who believed it. We do not have to be theologians or indeed have studied in any formal way, in order to educate our young people in the faith.
We need not engage with heretical views because the Church is clear in what she teaches with regard to Mass. When challenged, we need simply say, either you follow Church doctrine or you don’t, and if you don’t follow this, who or what are you following?
Where does the authority for alternate beliefs come from? Those who claim the Mass is only a celebration and/or a community meal cannot have read what the Church herself teaches.
The significance of what salvation means becomes clearer when we tell the children that it is only through Jesus that we can become friends again with God. They will hear this at Mass when at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer the priest holds up the host and chalice and says: “Through him and with him and in him, O God Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honour and glory are yours forever and ever…” The response of the people of God is the great Amen, which is our way of saying “Yes!” to the mystery of faith.
Through his intercessory ministry in heaven and through the Mass, Jesus continues to offer himself to his Father as a living sacrifice, and he does so in what the Church specifically states is “an unbloody manner”—one that does not involve a new crucifixion. The concept of the eternal present is something we cannot hope to understand in this life, so straight away we are into the area of faith.
We have seen that the Church teaches us that Mass is the means by which the sacrifice of the cross is made present. Obviously the age and experience of the child will determine how much or how little we convey regarding the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the paschal mystery which is re-presented daily on the altar.
For catechesis and liturgical formation: