When kids don't go to Mass every week, there's no religious education in the world that can make up for it
It was the first day of my first year teaching second grade religion, and we were going to learn about parts of the Mass. “OK,” I began. “Think about the last time you went to Mass. What was the first thing that happened?”
A hand shot up. “We opened our presents!”
I shook my head. “No, I’m thinking of something that happens every time you go to Mass…”
A small voice piped, “We found our Easter Baskets?” I shook my head again.
“Aunt Mary died? My mom got married? My baby brother got baptized?” Each child helpfully volunteered their memories of the times they remembered going to Mass.
Finally, another student sighed and raised his hand. I knew him. We sat behind his family every week. “First we all stand and sing a song while Father comes in. Then he starts with a prayer.”
When I’m with my religion classes, I can tell which kids have been going to Mass since birth and which kids only go at Christmas and Easter. For the kids who go weekly, I’m basically reminding them of things they already know. The kids who haven’t gone to Mass are a different story. They’ve missed out on years of prayers, readings, hymns and liturgies. They haven’t experienced the liturgical year. Everything they’re learning is totally new for them, which means that it’s too much to learn in an hour a week. They don’t need the worst catechist in the parish. They need more time with Jesus. Here are three reasons why Mass is the best way to ground your children in the faith.
1. Repetition is the mother of learning
The ancient Romans knew that the best way to learn was to hear, read, or do something over and over again. Parents understand that repetition and practice are necessary to learn a sport, an instrument, a language, or a mathematical skill. Repetition is also necessary to learn the faith. A 3-year-old might not understand most of the liturgy, but he doesn’t understand what’s happening at his peewee soccer game either.
When you take children to Mass year after year, they’re immersed in the great repetitions of the liturgical calendar. As the years cycle by, they hear the same readings over and over again. They see the seasons change. They repeat the same prayers and gestures every week. They sing the same hymns countless times. Just as those first, chaotic soccer games set the stage for where they’ll be as athletes, your children’s first, chaotic Masses set the stage for where they’ll be as Catholics.
2. Little pitchers have big ears
Your kids know and understand more than you’d expect them to. If you’ve ever listened to a song with inappropriate lyrics, watched a bit of the news, or had an important conversation in the room with kids, you’ve seen how easily they pick things up. Even when they don’t appear to be paying attention, they’re absorbing the sights and sounds around them. They’ll work through what they’ve heard and bring it up three weeks later, when you assume they’ve forgotten.
Kids do the same thing at Mass. Your toddler may look like he’s only focused on crawling under the pews, but he’s listening and learning. That kid doodling on an offering envelope during the homily still hears what Father has to say. Kids learn in bits and pieces, as if they’re assembling a puzzle. The more chances you give them to gather information about the Faith, the more they’ll grasp the bigger picture.
3. The Eucharist is like the sun.
We used to go to Children’s Adoration every month. It was a lively crowd, with kids ranging from 12 to newborn. Some of us had toddlers, and we spent the whole ‘adoration time’ wandering up and down the sides of the church while our children babbled to us about the Stations of the Cross. Father didn’t mind.
“The Eucharist is like the sun,” he’d say. “When you go outside, it doesn’t matter if you run around, fall asleep, or read a book. You still get a suntan. You don’t have to be paying attention to be changed. Jesus is like that. When you spend time in his presence, he changes you, even if you’re not thinking about him.”
When you take your children to Mass, you’re giving Jesus the chance to change them, to work on their hearts, and to prepare them for the sacraments. Mass is the single most essential part of sacramental preparation. Without it, nothing we do in the classroom matters. If you don’t already have this habit (or if you try to avoid taking the kids whenever possible), maybe this Advent is a good time to give it a try. And then try again, a few more times. If nothing else, do it as a favor for their future catechists. Take all of them, even the small ones, to Mass.