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The sacred liturgy...can then produce its fruits in the lives of the faithful: new life in the Spirit, involvement in the mission of the Church, and service to her unity.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072) 

Our family prefers to do things little by little. Maybe we're just slow learners! Anyway, taking some time to learn more about our incredible celebration of Mass can make your worship time much more meaningful and fulfilling. Here are some activities which can help you understand the Mass. They can be done all at once, or little by little over weeks or months. It's all up to you and your family.

Lesson 1: Church architecture (also known as What does your Church look like?)

Lesson 2 - 5: Parts of the Mass

Lesson 6: Eucharistic Fasting Guidelines

Lesson 7: Symbols in our Mass (under construction)

If you want to get more fulfillment out of Mass, this is a great place to start! We'll review the purpose of our Mass, the organization of the Mass, and even provide you with worksheets to give you a chance to observe lots of symbols, prayers and actions that you may not have paid attention to before. Or maybe you just forgot all these great practices were even there. Either way, we're here to jump start your liturgy motor and rev-up your Mass experience. The more fulfilled you are with Mass, the more you will learn about Catholicism, and the more comfortable you'll feel living a Catholic life.

Pay attention to church architecture. This is a nice discussion-starter for your family, and also fun as a scavenger hunt. If your children like to draw, encourage them to draw pictures of the inside and outside of your church. Our son likes to sculpt models from clay, pipe cleaners, or Legos. 

What shape is the church?

When you go to Mass, take a look around the church. Is it an old, medieval cathedral shaped like a cross, a modern open space with no discernable shape, or somewhere in between?

Culture, function, and types of building materials available have all had an effect on how our churches are built. What materials were used in building your church? Is there a date somewhere on the outside of the church which tells you when it was built? Do you know any other history of the building? Is there someone in the parish who can tell you the history? That may be a good conversation-starter when you attend a coffee hour.

Then there is the ultimate point we read in the comic strip "The Family Circus" - notice that the front of the church becomes the back of the church when you go through the door!

Where is the altar?

The altar is where the ultimate sacrifice takes place during each and every Mass. Catholics make it the central focus of the of the interior of the church. The pulpit, the place from which our Bible stories are told, is off to one side. The pulpit is in a prominent place, but definitely not the main focus of the room.

How far away are all the  people from the altar? Modern churches tend to have all people as close as possible to the altar, so everyone can be part of the celebration. Older churches often have many, many rows of pews. These back seats may be useful for parents with wiggling little children, but they often are too far away from the action at the altar.

Try sitting as close to the altar as possible. Children pay more attention during Mass when they can see what is going on. Of course, they may start asking you what is going on, so be ready to explain our liturgy!

Is it a cross or a crucifix?

Find at least one cross or crucifix inside the church. What is the difference? A cross is just that, a cross. A crucifix is a cross with the image of Jesus' body on it.

Who stained the windows?

Saying this in a stern voice may get your kids' attention for a few moments! Take some time to look around at the stained-glass windows before or after Mass. Beautiful windows are traditional in Catholic churches. Back when few people could read, these beautiful windows illustrated important stories of our faith. They show Bible scenes, Catholic symbols, stories of special saints, and much more. What scenes do the windows in your church show?

Where is the cross on the Stations of the Cross?

Every Catholic church should have 14 images showing important events of Christ's Passion, starting with Jesus being condemned to death, and ending with His body being laid in the tomb. Usually these paintings or sculptures are located on the walls next to the pews. Find these stations and see if you can identify which one is which:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus bears His cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets His mother
  5. Jesus is helped by Simon
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls a second time
  8. Jesus speaks to the women
  9. Jesus falls a third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Did you know that your walking from station to station is actually a pilgrimage? It is! Back in the Middle Ages people used to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to see the actual sites of Christ's Passion. Many people who could not make that long trip wanted the spiritual experience of walking with Christ and meditating on His gift to us. The Franciscans, the religious order started by St. Francis of Assisi, began putting wooden crosses in parish churches, encouraging people to make their own "Way of the Cross." Today our stations can be anything from simple wooden crosses to elaborate works of art; however, they should still have a cross evident on each one. Who can find the cross?  

The Mass is separated into four parts, each of which is powerfully symbolic of our faith, our community, and ourselves:

Lesson 2: Gathering Rite - we come together as a community

Lesson 3: Liturgy of the Word - we share our stories

Lesson 4: Liturgy of the Eucharist - we share a meal

Lesson 5: Concluding Rite - we are sent out to the world to be disciples

Lesson 2: Gathering Rite

Entrance antiphon: We gather as a community, hopefully on time. At this gathering we strive to be in a good relationship with God, our neighbors, and ourselves, and not divided in any way. Personal differences, political differences, social differences, etc. must not exist. The priest enters, usually from the back of the church, and we sing a song that is intended to unify us even more. The priest makes that long walk as a sign of our family's previous journeys of faith, including:

  • Abraham's journey to Canaan
  • The journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land
  • Christ's journey to Calvary

The priest kisses the altar as a sign of reverence to the "table of sacrifice." He then leads everyone in the Sign of the Cross, showing we must start everything in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then the priest welcomes us, and we return the greeting (Variations of "The Lord be with you" and "Also with you")

Penitential Rite: This is a community ritual in which we:
  • Reflect on our sinfulness, when our focus has been on this world rather than on God
  • Share a moment of silence for repentance of our sins
  • Proclaim a prayer asking for our Lord's forgiveness
  • Receive absolution as the priest asks God to forgive us and "bring us to everlasting life"

The penitential rite may be replaced by a sprinkling rite, especially during the Easter Season. The sprinkling rite is a reminder of our Baptism, a commitment to convert our lives to God.

The Penitential Rite is vitally important to us. We are cleansed of venial (minor) sins, and get a little closer to being worthy of receiving the Lord within us. The Penitential Rite also reflects a rebellion against a society that looks to this world for direction and security. We humble ourselves and look to Christ for direction and security.

Praise to Christ: The Kyrie, or "Lord have mercy" praises God and asks for mercy. The Gloria is an early Christian prayer which was based on Old Testament psalms. The Gloria is also known as the Greater Doxology (hymn of praise) as it celebrates the ultimate love and mercy of God.

Opening Prayer: The priest says "Let us pray" and, usually, an altar server walks over and holds the Sacramentary (a book of prayers) for the priest to read. This prayer announces the theme of the celebration. We agree to the prayer by saying "Amen."

By the time we sit down to listen to our family stories, we have publicly admitted our faults, asked for forgiveness, and praised God for His love and mercy.

Many people think Catholics don't know anything about the Bible. It is true that we rarely memorize quotations just for the sake of quotations. However, when we go to Mass regularly, we hear most of the Bible in a three year period. You probably know much more about Scripture than you ever realized, even if you can't recite the exact book and chapter. Make the effort to really listen to the stories - they'll be familiar, and they will also guide you to God.

These stories are our past, our present, and our future. We listen to both the Old and New Testaments so we can understand that all things have been revealed in Christ. Every inspired writer had a point to make about God and our relationship with God. We listen and reflect on these stories to use the message in our own lives.

First Reading: This is usually from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. The first reading has been purposefully paired with the Gospel reading to make a point which demonstrates the continuity between God's Old Testament promises and Christ's fulfillment of those promises. During the Easter season, the first reading is from the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles.  

Responsorial Psalm: These are from the Old Testament; we borrowed the practice of singing or chanting the psalms from the Jewish liturgy. They are the same psalms that Jesus sang in the synagogue.

Second Reading: This reading is from the New Testament letters (also called epistles), but is not one of the four Gospels. These letters tell us about the early Christian Church, including its trials and triumphs. The messages of the letters, although not specifically intended to be the same as the first reading and the Gospel, can be amazingly pertinent to us today.

Sunday Masses always have two readings before the Gospel. Weekday Masses usually have just one reading before the Gospel; however, special weekday Masses that celebrate a special occasion may have two readings before the Gospel.

Gospel Acclamation: This is intended to be a proclamation of joy welcoming the Good News of the Lord. The deacon or priest who reads the Gospel processes with the Sacramentary, the book of readings, to the pulpit. The Sacramentary symbolizes the presence of Jesus, who is the Word of God. Therefore, the priest or deacon may kiss the book, hold it high in the air, or show honor to the Word in some way. The people stand to show reverence for this important  part of the Mass.

Gospel Reading: This is the culmination of the Scripture readings. It is the story of God lowering Himself to become a human being and teaching us that living is all about loving. The Gospels are from the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, and are specific stories about Jesus. Through the inspired writers, Jesus speaks directly to us.

Usually our priest reads the Gospel, but he is actually the least preferred reader. Ideally the Gospel should be proclaimed by a deacon, or at least a priest who is not the primary celebrant. Only when the others are not available should the celebrant read the Gospel. These days, when there is a shortage of priests in many places, the primary celebrant also must proclaim the Gospel. We can all listen and cherish the Word of the Lord, no matter who does the reading.

Homily: The priest or deacon applies the Word of God to current situations. It may be a critique of the community, but should always serve to build up the community, encouraging us to imitate what we have heard.

We should not just listen to the homily, but consume the homily. We need to take in the Word of God, just as we take in His Precious Body and Blood, and live it every moment.

Profession of Faith: After we hear the Word of God, we stand up to proclaim our acceptance of that Word, as well as our acceptance of the great mysteries of our faith. Usually we profess the Nicene Creed, an early Christian summary of our beliefs. Our united proclamation of our faith is a fantastic segue to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We respond to the Word which we just heard, and prepare for the mysteries which we are about to celebrate.

General Intercessions: The intercessions are a lovely reminder that liturgy is not a selfish act. We come together as a family and pray for the needs of our family. We ask for spiritual help for the Church, world leaders, those suffering with difficulties, and for our local community.

At the Last Supper Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover, which commemorated the passing of the Angel of Death over the homes of the enslaved Israelites, thus preventing the death of their first born. However, Jesus completely changed this celebration and gave it an entirely new meaning. He took the bread and wine and said "This is my body" and "This is my blood." Then He instructed us to "Do this in memory of me." That is what we celebrate during every Mass.

Why bread and wine? Why not juggle some pebbles or toss some keys in the air to remember Jesus? Jesus was well aware that food exists for nourishing others. Bread is made by bringing separate ingredients together into dough, then letting the dough rise and beating it down again and again. During Mass the bread of the host miraculously becomes Jesus, who also rose after being beaten down again and again; that bread nourishes our hungry souls. The wine becomes His blood, shared among our community as a sign of joy and belonging. Not only are the bread and wine changed; we, too, are changed as we give our lives to God.

Preparation of Gifts: The table (altar) is prepared for the celebration. The candles at the lectern are snuffed and those around the altar are lit. We have been preparing for this celebration listening to the Word. Now we prepare to consume the Word.

Our free-will offering of bread, water, wine and charitable donations is taken to the altar. As a few of the faithful take up the We also offer ourselves, willingly and completely, to God.

At the altar the wine is mixed with water, symbolizing the human and divine natures of Christ. This also reminds us that when Jesus' side was pierced by a sword after His death, blood and water poured out of the wound.   

Eucharistic Prayer: This prayer is beautiful, spiritual and miraculous, as it is the time when our simple offerings of bread and wine are changed into the Real Presence of Christ. Unfortunately, too many people either don't pay attention to its beauty or don't understand its beauty. Listen carefully - you'll hear our past, our present, and our future in this prayer. We anticipate the coming of God's Kingdom, and recognize ourselves as the witnesses of that coming Kingdom. It is much more powerful when we understand the parts of the Eucharistic prayer.

  • Preface -  The priest invites us to give thanks to God.  You'll recognize this section when the priest says, "All powerful and ever-living God..." There are many different preface prayers, but they all remind us of why we should be thankful. The community responds by praying the Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy...") which includes the same acclamation that Jesus received when he made His entrance into Jerusalem.
  • Epiclesis - These are the prayers before the Consecration (the changing of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood). Listen closely and you will hear a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to accept the gifts we offered and to make them holy.
  • Words of the Last Supper - This describes when Jesus gave us the sacrament of the Eucharist. The priest is Christ speaking to us. We are the Apostles, who are instructed to "Do this in memory of me." The miracle of changing the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood takes place.
  • Memorial Acclamation - We acknowledge that Christ died, but He now is alive and active in our celebration. At this time we commonly sing: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." There are several other memorial acclamations - which ones have you heard?
  • Anamnesis - We recall Christ's life, death and resurrection, and we thank God for this holy gift. Anamnesis is a Hebrew word for remember.
  • Intercessions - We ask for help for our pope, our bishop, for the living and the dead. Listen for specific, recognizable names during this prayer.
  •  Eucharistic Doxology - This is a hymn of praise: "Through Him, with Him, and in Him..." We reply with "Amen." This great Amen is our agreement to make Jesus an active part of our everyday lives. It is a serious commitment, so don't just absent-mindedly make your reply.

Communion Rite: This is the shared meal for which we have all been preparing. Remembering Christ's death is not just a vague memory for us. It is an active part of our lives. Jesus' sacrifice did not occur in a Temple; it took place in the streets and on the hillside. We have to take our sacrifice to those same places.

  • The Lord's Prayer - This is the "Our Father," the prayer that Jesus taught us. It simply and powerfully offers 7 basic petitions, from daily bread to true bread and forgiveness of sins. As a community we pray to our Father. As a community we are one in Christ.

    It is rather interesting that there is quite a controversy about body posture during this prayer. What is normal in your parish? In some dioceses people stand normally and pray. In other dioceses people hold out their hands, palms up, forming a cross, while praying. The most controversial posture seems to be that which involves parishioners holding hands while saying the Lord's Prayer. Liturgical instructions are not specific about body posture during the Lord's Prayer, so the decision is up to the local bishop. Our advice is to "go with the flow." Watch what other parishioners do and join in with the choice of that community. After all, the entire Communion Rite is intended to be a time of unification. Isn't it much more important to focus on being one with the community than stubbornly assuming a rebellious body posture?
  • Final Doxology - Although not part of Sacred Scripture, the final doxology was a well-known hymn of praise in early Christian communities. It was also mentioned in the Didache, a document of early Christianity. We pray, "For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are Yours, now and forever."
  • Sign of Peace - This is when we shake each others' hands, or give a quick hug or kiss and say "Peace be with you." This is meant as an expression of love to one another and an acting out of the Lord's prayer. Any separation between members of the community must be gone. We must be at peace with one another, with ourselves, and with God. You may be surprised at the power of this simple act. I know a woman who was in a very low point in her life, and just happened to come to a Catholic Mass (she was not Catholic). The stranger sitting next to her turned and said "Peace be with you," which is exactly what this woman needed to hear. The power of that wish and simple hand shake was the root of her conversion experience. She is now a member of our Catholic family.
  • Breaking of Bread - We, though many, partake of the one bread, broken like the body of Christ. No longer are we strangers, members of different families, male or female, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, prejudiced or separated. We are the Body of Christ. Just as each piece of bread belongs to the one loaf, we also belong to the one community of Christ. The priest breaks the large host into small pieces as we sing the "Lamb of God." We are standing for this liberation feast to symbolize putting the Eucharist into action in our lives.
  • Shared Communion - We process toward the altar as one united body. We give ourselves completely over to Jesus and do as He commanded - we consume His Precious Body and Blood. We have the choice to take the Precious Body on the tongue (medieval tradition) or in our hands (early Christian tradition). Receiving with open hands is currently promoted strongly, as it symbolizes opening our hearts to receive God. When the last person has received communion, we should all sit, a sign of the assembly arriving in the Promised Land.

    Pay attention to the purification of the communion vessels. Christ was present in those vessels, so purification is sacred. The altar is cleared of our Eucharistic feast. It is time to go forward and spread the Good News.

Lesson 5: Concluding Rite

 We've shared our sacramental meal, now it's time to go into the world to live our Catholic faith, strengthened by our community celebration.

  • We may hear announcements, reminding us of the activities in our parish.
  • Blessing and Dismissal: The priest gives us a blessing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are then dismissed to go in peace. We agree to live our faith by responding, "Thanks be to God." It is only by living this commitment each and every day that the Eucharist become a reality.
  • Recessional: We follow the priest out into the world; it is our exodus, we are the apostles. Sometimes we bless ourselves with the Holy Water. It isn't necessary on our way out, but we do it because we like it!

Fasting before receiving the Eucharist is an ancient custom. Over the years the guidelines have changed. Currently the rules are as follows:

  • For laity the fast is one hour prior to receiving the Eucharist. Priests have to fast one hour prior to the beginning of Mass.
  • Water and medication are permitted within the fast, but all other food and drink are prohibited.
  • The homebound sick and elderly, and their caretakers, have a reduced fast of 15 minutes.




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