You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor. First Precept of the Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church
The issue of mass attendance and our attempts to encourage it by using stickers imprinted with images from each week’s gospel has been percolating a bit lately, especially as we begin a new school year with a new principal, so let me share with you some thoughts as pastor.
The importance of weekly worship as a community and the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist cannot be overstated. This is especially true in a parish community with a school. Parents, parishioners and parish staff make incredible sacrifices to ensure that our students are well formed in the practice of the faith – not simply the knowledge of the faith, but its practice. A parish’s religious education program is also an indication of how dearly the parish esteems the Eucharist and the liturgy. Our CCD program has evolved over the last few years to include an important emphasis on the gospel of the week and the importance of attending mass. The classroom teaching component is not the only, nor in my view, the most important part of faith formation. It is crucial that our young people understand that Catholics go to mass.
Surveys indicate this is not the typical practice among American Catholics, even though mass attendance is higher in the United State than in many European countries. Our children are in a formative period of their faith and it is incumbent upon us to see that they are given the best opportunity to integrate the practice of their faith into their daily lives from the youngest age.
It is quite sad to see so many funerals at Holy Cross for the most ardent, faith-filled Catholics whose children have been assimilated not to Christianity, but into a kind of religiously indifferent American multi-culturalism. What can we expect if they are not taught the vital practice of attending mass, receiving the Eucharist and nurturing their ties with the local Catholic parish? It is irresponsible to accept the premise that most children attending Catholic school do not attend mass.
It was quite possible to read, study and achieve good grades in religion without ever having heard the gospel for Sundays. Families accepted completing homework, service projects and passing tests as an expected component of religious formation. Trouble is, sometimes it became emphasized as the only component of faith formation for our children, and many schools and Religious education programs lost sight of the ideal of weekly mass attendance.
Here at Holy Cross, our school students were invited to daily mass, began to experience prayer at Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, prayed the Liturgy of the Hours and helped create Stations of the Cross during Lent. Weekly reflections on the gospel were introduced into the classrooms. The parish prints stickers with clipart from each Sunday’s gospel to serve as the nucleus of discussion, even for children who cannot read. Students keep a reflection journal into which the sticker may be placed along with a one or two sentence summary of that week’s gospel in their own words, or their own drawings.
After the parish community and the teachers in both our school and volunteer Religious education teachers became empowered to discuss our obligation to attend weekly mass, mass attendance was eventually taken in Religion class and CCD. The old copper cross which stood atop Holy Rosary Church for so many years has been refurbished and is awarded weekly to the class with the highest mass attendance and the class with the most improved mass attendance.
Mass attendance at Holy Cross among our school children and religious education families has more than doubled…for some months it has tripled. Occasionally one class can proudly and rightfully boast of 100% attendance. The expectation that we should attend mass is no longer a well-kept secret and is spoken about openly and frequently. The obligation as parents, parishioners and catechists to insist that our children participate fully in their faith formation by attending mass is gradually becoming better understood.
The stickers still truly annoy some parents, obviously those whose children rarely if ever attend mass, but interestingly, some of those who do. While I’m not sure surrendering our responsibility to assess how our school and parish is doing with one of its primary missions should exactly be called “the honor system,” I get the point. Are we to abolish attendance taking in the classroom for religion class and Religious education classes, homework, quizzes and projects for religious formation as part of the honor system as well? What about tracking student tardiness for class, grades and exams in all subjects, extracurricular activities and requirements for participation in sports teams? Strident conscientious-objection to mass stickers or gospel journaling by mass-going families seems to miss the point, or at least underestimate the need to ensure our children attend mass. After all, we never see the children who aren't here, except perhaps on Christmas. The stickers aren’t the point, are they?