27 January: St. Angela Merici

A long time ago, in a parish far far away, I got in terrible trouble on the feast of St. Angela Merici (+1540), foundress of the Ursulines in Brescia and a patroness of Catholic education. 

I was asked to bless the school rooms of the K-8 parish school.  This would clearly also involve talking with the children to make sure they knew what this was all about. 

One reasonably expects some confusion in the very youngest children about, say, the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental. After 6-8 years of Catholic education, however, the older children ought to know this. To my astonishment, in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes I could not find a single child… not a single child… who could tell me even the name of ONE of the sacraments, much less what a sacrament is much less a sacramental.   Seeing how things were going I spent some time in each room explaining what a sacrament is before I blessed the room and then asked some questions afterward.  I figured that if the kids were going to HOLY COMMUNION at school Masses, they might as well know that "that piece of bread thing"* was a sacrament.

In most schools when the priest comes to the classroom, the teachers are pleased to see him and make sure the kids know that it is a special occasion.  Not at this school!  What was the reaction of the teachers? They got angry with ME for explaining to the children what sacraments are and what the difference is between them and sacramentals (like blessing the room).  Leave aside the fact that it was THEIR responsibility in the school room to teach the basics of our Catholic faith. 

To make a long story short, I always remember with bittersweet fondness the feast day of St. Angela Merici.

Here is the "opening prayer" for today’s great saint, St. Angela Merici.

Pietati tuae, quaesumus, Domine,
nos beata virgo Angela commendare non desinat,
ut, eius caritatis et prudentiae documenta sectantes,
tuam valeamus doctrinam custodire
et moribus profiteri.

We beg You, O Lord, let the blessed virgin Angela
not cease to commend us to Your mercy,
so that, closely following her concrete examples of charity and prudence,
we may be able to guard Your fundamental teaching
and make progess in a good conduct of life.

Here I think is in doctrina an echo of the Italian "dottrina", "teaching" in the sense of "catechism" for children, the fundamentals.  When Italians call religious instruction for children "la dottrina". Since this prayer concerns a saint foundress of an order dedicated to teaching children, this seems a good choice.

I will thus put to you simple questions.

  • Do your children know what a sacrament is?
  • Do they know the names of the sacraments?
  • Do they know what the difference is between a sacrament and a sacramental?

Take time to review the fundamental teachings of our Catholic Faith. We read in 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." A good way to make this review would be with your own copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Get one and give one to those whom you love.

*This was an actual response from a child two days before making their First Holy Communion. I was asked to show the kids the church and help them understand what to do.  I showed them how to genuflect before the tabernacle. They were previously unaware of such a practice.  Children like to know WHY they do things, right?  I said we pay special attention to the tabernacle (pointing to it and explaining that I meant that beautiful box, etc. etc.) because that is where Jesus is present in the Host they were going to receive for their First Communion. Blank stares.  So, we had a little quiz about Communion, and its meaning. Blank stares. I asked about Jesus and His being present in Communion. Blank stares. I asked about if they had ever noticed that their parents receive the Host during Mass. At that point one young boy said, "You mean that piece of bread thing?"

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Dan Hunter says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,I have taught Catechism and have noticed the same in all Catholic schools,save traditional Catholic schools.
    Ones associated with Classical Rite indult parishes,or Society of St.Pius the tenth churches.
    God bless you.

  2. AC says:

    Father, thanks for taking a strong stand. i went to 12 years of Catholic school
    and, until I started assisting at a traditional Mass some years back, also could
    not tell you the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental. I thought baptism
    was a sacrament! But, with my first child on the way, i wouldn’t dare put it into
    Catholic school one day. I’d rather put it in public school where my wife and I
    teach it its faith then some newChurch nun or teacher that does nothing but confuse them.
    Also, we will home school them instead of CCD. Since we choose to go to the indult
    and not SSPX, we have nowhere that uses the Baltimore Catechism so we have to teach
    that ourselves from home.

  3. Father: I’m a cradle Catholic and I was in College, COLLEGE, before
    I even knew what a Sacrament was. I think I realized a Sacramental was not the same about 1 year ago.

    I discovered all of this by reading on my own. The nuns and laypeople who taught me had other things on their agenda besides the Catholic Faith.

    Your story does not surprise me. I could tell stories that would make your blood boil.

    Our “Catholic” school are in appalling shape. To that I would add that our CCD and Sunday School programs are too.

  4. Lynne says:

    Oh Father, please say it wasn’t St. Raphael’s. My kids are in grades 7 and 8 there and they know the difference. (I just asked them)

  5. Brian says:

    No shock here, Father. I’m a cradle Catholic who went through eight years of CCD and only upon reading the Catechism as an adult on my own effort did I find out:
    -that the ‘bread thing’ the Eucharistic Minister tosses in my hand is Christ truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity
    -the Mass is a sacrifice and not just a Communion service ala the Last Supper
    -the entire concept of the sacraments and the sacramental view
    -that Catholics actually pray to saints
    -the Rosary and its prayers
    -that masturbation is a mortal sin
    -why someone would go to a priest for Confession instead of just telling God
    -that the Immaculate Conception does not refer to Jesus’s conception
    -that Catholics believe the Bible is without error
    -that Catholics aren’t allowed to use contraception

    To say that I wasn’t catechized would be, well, understating matters…

  6. Dcn John says:

    Hi AC, I don’t know if you typed wrong but BAPTISM is one of the seven Sacraments, usually listed first.

    Dcn John

  7. I agree that there is often an abysmal lack of catechesis in Catholic schools.

    However, when children reach Grades 6, 7, and 8 without proper formation, the blame needs to be placed solely at the feet of the parents.

    In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II wrote “parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it”.

    Teachers can only do so much.

    Great blog, Father!

  8. Patty G. says:

    Having been a CCD student in the 60’s and 70’s I reached adulthood totally ignorant in the Catholic Faith. I knew nothing about the Real Presence until I was nearly 30 years old! Thanks to exceptional priests, many good books, and the grace of God, I am no longer ignorant. My children know far more about their Catholic faith at their young ages than I ever did as a young adult.

  9. genevieve says:

    This is the real reason I homeschool!!! My children will not receive the catholic education I received!!!

    Thank God some segment of the population is waking up to the Presence of Jesus in the world!!

  10. Dom Christopher says:

    This morning, I had more or less the opposite experience to Father’s. So to cheer him, and all of us, up, here it is.

    One of the guestmasters here (a Benedictine monastery of the Solesmes Congregation in France) asked me to talk to a group of altar boys from the Pais suburbs (not the sort of suburb where they burn cars as a digestif!) after our conventual Mass this morning. The oldest was 13.

    I wanted them to see the link between the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament. So I asked them what the book the deacon took from the altar before reading the Gospel was. That was the only answer they got wrong ; the closest they got was Lectionary. Now they know the French word for Gospel Book, Evangéliaire. Then I asked “What is in the Gospel Book?” “The Word of God.” “Who is the Word of God?” “Jesus.” “What does the priest take from the altar and give you?” “The consecrated host.” “Who is the consecrated host?” “Jesus.” “So Jesus comes to feed you in the Blessed Sacrament, and he comes to you in the Gospel, because he has something to say to YOU, and to YOU, and to YOU : with the Father and the Holy Spirt, he wants to come and make his home in your heart, so that you can make your home in his Heart.” Then one of them said “So that’s why we have incense and candles for the Gospel, and incense and candles for the Blessed Sacrament!”

    So there’s hope!

  11. Dom Christopher says:

    By the way, Brian,

    The Last Supper WAS a sacrifice. It was the first Mass!

  12. Brian says:

    Dom Christopher,

    You are of course correct. I meant to refer to the liturgical abuse in which the Mass is only a “communal meal”, there is no sacrificial character, and the Eucharist has importance and meaning only insofar as it is a fraternal common meal.

    ‘Redemptionis Sacramentum’ para#77 addresses these “dinner table” Masses, prevalent in some (dying) U.S. religious orders.

    Thank you for helping me clarify my original meaning.

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