Invitation– the beginning of celebration
Five things you can do to make the Eucharist more central to your school’s life
Sometimes it works
I have been privileged to celebrate masses in primary and secondary schools for over thirty years. Most of them have been beautifully prepared, and many have been characterised by a prayerful and respectful atmosphere. For sure, some have been endurance exercises, especially when those Holydays of Obligation come around and mass is topped and tailed by a lecture from the Senior Staff and, only occasionally I would have to say in my own experience, punctuated by the ejection of students not being, shall we say, as attentive as they might be.
There can be a real primary/secondary split in how these celebrations are perceived. For most pupils, staff, and clergy, the primary school mass is still a joy. Whether in church or school, a whole school end of term or a weekly visit by a class to the parish church, by and large, it is still one of the hallmarks of the school-parish link. The high school may be a different experience. Many Catholic schools in the secondary sector still have a weekly lunchtime or early morning mass. Often, these are attended only by a few staff, and, now and again, a student or two. Mass is celebrated because it is seen as vital to the identity of the school, but despite the best efforts of staff (and sometimes students) attendance is low. Clergy are sometimes reluctant to commit to school liturgies and it can all be a bit of a toil.
Catholic Education Week
This year, the Bishops of Scotland have asked us to focus on the theme of ‘Celebrating and Worshipping’ during Catholic Education Week, with the centrality of the Eucharist as a focus. When we talk about Catholic ethos this has to be an identifying feature of that whole school atmosphere: prayer. If nothing else, any Catholic community has to have prayer at the centre of its life, and the mass is the most important prayer of all and the model for all our prayer. How can we make the Eucharist central to our school lives? I’m suggesting five things that I have found actually help. Some are obvious, one or two maybe not. The last one is the ‘deal breaker’ for me.
1. Plan participation
As with any school event, planning pays off. Particularly the time and effort (and it is both) spent on encouraging students to get involved and giving them a bit of training, results in a liturgy which is of quality, and quality matters. Yes, the mass is the action of Christ in the Spirit leading us to the Father, but it immediately presents as a human action, and human action requires thought and application. The more students that are involved (and we shall at times all have to fall back on the faithful few) the more likely students are to pay attention. There are also plenty of good resources available from SCES and numerous sites that can help you plan. A standing liturgy committee, made up of staff, students, and clergy, is always a good idea.
2. Mass intention
When I was a student, our college rector always advised having a mass intention when we came to celebrate mass, something to focus our prayer. Of course, all masses are celebrated for the salvation of the world and the good of the pilgrim People of God, but it does no harm to have a particular intention in mind. This is especially true of school masses. As well as the obvious occasion for gathering, a Holyday or end of term mass, a theme or particular call to action before, during, and after the mass is a good idea. Something to think about and, crucially, to do following the mass, whether it’s for the environment or for action for the poor, can engage hearts and minds.
3. Staff support
Encourage other staff members to become involved. This is a thorny one, isn’t it? There are fewer and fewer Catholic staff in our schools, and, especially in our secondary schools, they might be more than reluctant. However, they have all signed up to the Catholic Charter for Schools and have pledged to support the ethos. This has to be more than lip service. We can support staff to take part in a number of ways: invite them to say a prayer or just be there. Ask if you can pray for them during mass if they are ill or if it’s their birthday! Make a special point of briefing them on upcoming festivals and take the time to explain things in depth to make them more comfortable with mass and prayer. This is often the reason why folk don’t involve themselves: not through ill will, but just through not knowing, or feeling that’s not part of their school duty but is something the RE Dept. does.
4. The kindness of strangers and strange settings
Involve others outside the school in the mass, either as guests or real participants. The witness of teams from Net Ministries in schools, for example, has made a significant difference to the attendance of those lunchtime masses. Inviting members of the local SVDP or parishioners, where and when appropriate, who embody a devotion and authentic prayer life does make an impact even on the most cynical of teenager.
The experience of mass on a pilgrimage, retreat, or just an afternoon away from school in a small group or different setting (even the classroom) can lead to a new appreciation of the mass and a more intense and lasting experience especially for younger people.
5. Structure the day and the week according to the rhythm of the Eucharist
The mass has a structure and a rhythm. That’s part of its beauty and, frankly, its success. However, and this is not just a problem for schools, people often do not see the connection between life and liturgy. Yet, the Eucharist couldn’t be more life-like. It begins with our telling our story, no matter how briefly, and recognising ourselves for who we are, people who are loved by God but flawed and in need of healing. It invites the congregation to see themselves in the story of God with his people, to respond in prayer, and to give thanks with symbols that are steeped in meaning. It offers communion with God and a call to live a better life as a result of this communion.
I said earlier that the Eucharist was the model for our prayer. We can structure our week of prayer, or even the day, according to the Eucharistic rhythm. Mondays could be days of gathering. This is already a feature of many timetables, an opportunity to talk about where we’ve been and a prayer for forgiveness and healing. We could read something from the gospel of the Sunday before or the upcoming Sunday, or one of the readings and encourage a moment of quiet reflection or even sharing on the scripture. Responding in prayer and thanksgiving, using Eucharistic images or symbols, or special intentions midweek, could help reset the school community. Towards the weekend, a suggestion of prayer or action could send the community into the world to witness to God’s love.
As staff and students get into the rhythm, and see the connection with their week, their prayer, their lives, and the Eucharist, chances are they will at least be able to make sense of it.
You are invited
Not everyone, every time, everywhere will respond to the above suggestions, and there may be resistance and cynicism: strike that, there will be. Evangelisation starts with our own hearts and our communities. The early Church knew that, and the way to spread the Gospel hasn’t changed: invitation, invitation, invitation.