This past Sunday, after Mass, I volunteered to give our 4th Grade Parish School of Religion class an explanation of some things in the church. Their teachers wanted them to know why Catholics bless themselves with holy water on entering a church and genuflect before entering a pew. These basic Catholic customs, apparently, have not been stressed with the children in past years as important things to be done according to the teachers in our program. I don’t know why and have my theories but that’s not important. I’m just glad the teachers are taking an initiative at the prompting of our coordinator of religious education and teaching some of the “cultural” things every well-rounded Catholic child should know.
I discovered that the young girls (all of the class is female!) weren’t sure as to why they should genuflect. “Oh, my,” I thought! That’s probably partly because the tabernacle in St. Mary’s church is so small and not exactly in the most visible placement. It is in the main nave and has the appropriate sanctuary lamp and other “indicators” of it’s location, but I guess no one ever really instructed these children. Actually, I have learned over the years of priesthood that a lot of adult Catholics don’t know why we do what we do; things I take for granted, so I don’t assign blame. It’s just an observation.
Anyway, after going over the mechanics of genuflection (“No, touch your ‘other’ right knee to the floor, dear!” Where is Sister Mary Grade School Teacher like I had in grade school when you need her?) and discovering the girls weren’t sure about what or who they were paying respect to (“No, dear, not the picture of Jesus on the back of the sanctuary wall, but lovely thought…”) we moved over to the tabernacle. I let them all look inside the tabernacle reminding them to genuflect as we opened and closed it and we had an “informal” exposition so they could see the hosts in the ciborium.
It was during this visit to the tabernacle that one girl said, “You know, it (the tabernacle) reminds me of that box they were looking for in the movie about Indiana Jones.” I presume she meant Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well, hand me a teachable moment on a silver platter, so to speak.
“Yes,” I replied, “the priest who had this tabernacle made, a former pastor of our parish, Fr. Clem Dirler, wanted it to look like the ark of the covenant, that ‘box’ that the movie character was looking for.” Of course my teachable moment had to cover a quick explanation of what the Ark of the Covenant was in the Old Testament; the container of the stone tablets of the 10 commandments and how the Israelites believed it to be the locus of God’s dwelling among his people in the special tent erected for the ark that later becomes the temple in Jerusalem. What a wonderful shape for a tabernacle, the place where we keep the Blessed Sacrament which is for us the real presence of Jesus Christ, God in our midst! Our parish church’s tabernacle (a Hebrew word meaning “tent”) has hanging over it a cloth to represent the roof of a tent, too.
The explanation of the tabernacle’s design continued with me informing the young girls that a long time before they were born (Boy, I am getting old!) back in the 1960’s when I was their age the Mass was beginning to be celebrated in English and facing the people instead of the rear wall of the sanctuary. During those early years of the renewal of the Liturgy after Vatican Council II many liturgists trying to figure out how the “new” liturgy should be celebrated presumed the tabernacle would still be on the altar facing the people and in front of the priest during Mass as it had been on the previous place of celebration the “high altar.” Therefore, so that people could see the priest and the action of the Mass the tabernacle would have to have a low profile. Our parish’s tabernacle design had been conceived during this period and installed by Fr. Dirler in another church he had been pastor of before coming to Trenton (St. Polycarp, Carmi IL) on its main altar in such a manner. I guess Fr. Dirler liked the design, even though by his Trenton years liturgists had changed their thinking to locate the tabernacle to a side altar. So, our parish has the same design for its tabernacle.
The tour of sanctuary continued with exploring the altar and baptismal font, to make the connections with blessing yourself with holy water on entering the church and the tabernacle as the focal point of our adoration of the fruit of the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament; the original purpose of the class visit to the church building).
As we were ending the lesson for the day, another girl voiced one more great insight. “Why did they change the words of the Mass? I was just beginning to get them memorized! Now I don’t know what to say at Mass!” In my mind I thought, “Girl! I’d love for you to ask the Bishops that question!” Then I realized that I’d probably concentrated so much on the adults in my catechesis about the new translation of the Mass that I neglected the children. Opps! I know the catechists did some work with the children, but it’s obvious there’s more catechesis to be done. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the Bishop’s who gave us this translation really appreciated how unsettling this change would be to the faithful of all ages for the sake of a more theologically and linguistically precise translation. Maybe some other time I’ll write about how priests are receiving the translation as I discovered in my conversations with my brother priests on a recent retreat. It’s not very positive, Bishops!
All I could tell my little inquisitor in the one or two minutes I had at the end of class time was that sometimes we have to improve how we say something so it’s closer to what we believe, that I was having trouble remembering all my new prayers, too, and that in time we’ll all relearn our prayers. For now just try your best!
I guess the honest observations and questions of children continue to teach us adults that we’re never too old to learn and they remind us we must always welcome new ways to explain the ageless truths of the faith. That was the stated purpose of the Second Vatican Council, according to Pope John XXIII.
Blessed Virgin Mary, Ark of the New Covenant, pray for us.
Saint Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us. (Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Harrison Ford, teach us!