Prayer before the Lesson

Last week, I briefly discussed the usual arrangement of our class altar. Now, I’d like to briefly describe the structure of our opening prayer. One of the guiding principles here is to stick with the traditions of the Church as much as possible, which means that prayer texts are almost always from the Bible, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other traditional devotions. These prayers may often be abbreviated for time.

Before the prayer begins we have one student light a candle and another prepare a small quantity of holy water. A third student is chosen as the reader, or this task is given to the assistant if the reading is long or presents too many pronunciation difficulties. After the candle is lit, and all gathered have blessed themselves with the holy water, we begin with the Sign of the Cross and then a traditional call and response. Most commonly one of the following:

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Who made heaven and earth.


Open my Lips, O Lord.

And my mouth shall declare your praise.

or during Lent

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.

For by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

The designated reader immediately proceeds with a Biblical text. This will either be from one of the Lectionary readings for that particular Sunday, or something directly connected to the lesson plan. Afterwards the teacher names the intentions for the week and students have the opportunity to add their own (verbally or silently) as they desire. Then the reader or teacher reads the concluding prayer.

We break with this format when the occasion calls for something different. In November, for example, we use the Little Litany of the Holy Souls and the Litany to St. Charles Borromeo. In a more musically inclined class, we might try our hand at chanting a Psalm text.

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The Class Altar

This past Sunday was, of course, Catechetical Sunday, and as always in our parish, the first day of class for our K-8 Religious Education students. Our first day of the year format allows only about 20 minutes of classroom time, so I prefer to forgo the traditional icebreakers (ours is a fairly stable community and most of the kids already know each other by the time they reach grade four) and instead use the time to introduce the group to the class altar.

It may sound pretentious to refer to what I’m about to describe as an “altar”, but I use the term quite deliberately. What may be an ordinary student’s desk has been dedicated to a sacramental purpose for the next 60 minutes or so, and for that time ceases to be just a desk. If you’ve ever heard the story of Dorothy Day and the coffee cup, you know what I mean by this.

Our class altar is made from any available table in the room, or a student’s desk in a pinch. It contains, at a minimum, the following:

  • A covering in the liturgical color of the day. (The plastic table covers sold at “dollar” stores work well enough.)
  • A crucifix.
  • A vial of holy water and a small stoup.
  • A candle.

On the first day I also added:

  • A bible.
  • A sacramentary. We have an old one that was donated to us after the release of the 2011 Missal. Although no longer suitable for liturgical use, it’s nice to have around because the students are often curious about the “Big Red Book” that the priest uses.
  • A Rosary.
  • A can of beans, recalling the Corporal Works of Mercy.
  • A copy of the Apostles’ Creed.
  • An icon of Saint Luke.

The students were asked to name each of these items. As they did, I had the opportunity to tell them what we would be studying this year.

Next week, I’ll describe how we use the class altar for opening prayer.

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To It and At It

There has been a too-long hiatus in posting. Nothing unusual in that: many blogs go unattended after a month when their creators get bored with them. But in my case a lot has happened in the interim with two children graduating high school, job changes, stray kittens showing up on the stoop and whatnot. In a few days we start Religious Education and my aide and I will be working with a fresh crop of fourth- and fifth-graders. I’ve decided it’s time to get at it and to it. I hope to keep you posted on how it goes.

In the meantime, an explanation the banner image. From left to right: St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican; Mount Vernon and the Washington Monument in Baltimore; Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore; and dessert.


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Sundæ Sermon Notes: 25th Sunday (OT)

Today most of the sermon was on Amos. Father picked up on something that previously escaped me: the dishonest merchants were in a hurry for a religious feast time (“when will the new moon be over?”) and the Sabbath to end so they could get back to work. He pointed out that we might be honest in our business dealings but if even so we cannot put our business before God. He reminded us not to count anything, business, sports, whatever, as more important than our Sunday obligation and our service to those in need.

He also reminded us not be fooled or discouraged by media reports of what the Holy Father says, and urged us to read the America interview for ourselves, and let the Pope speak for himself.

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The always excellent Monsignor Charles Pope is calling for a back to basics catechesis. This is a topic naturally dear to my heart and as usual, he nails it. “It became clear to me in that moment that we could no longer do business as usual when it came to catechesis,” he writes.

[W]e have to go back to basics and tell the “old, old stories” again of mankind lost in sin, living in the dark shadows of death and ensnared in the mystery [of] iniquity. Yes, It was time to re-read the Genesis account of Original Sin and all the old stories.

He goes on to describe the program in his parish, in which all grades are taught from the same Bible text each week, with parents in their own group going over the same material. He describes his own approach, based on the three pillars: Sin, Redemption and Grace, but what strikes me is the weight he assigns to Bible stories:

Bible Stories are both memorable, and teach fundamental truths in ways that reach deeper than merely the intellect. They touch the heart and draw the children into the world and mind of God.

When I first started working in the classroom, my job was to take the Gospel for that particular Sunday. After reading it to the class I opened the floor for discussion, guiding the students to relate Christ’s teaching to their lives.

This year in my parish we are starting a lectionary-based curriculum. Each week takes the Gospel (or occasionally an Epistle or Old Testament reading), which we will explore in detail, tying it into specific Church teachings. Children in the same family will be on the same page, so to speak, so families can pick up the theme together if they wish.

Such an approach carries a risk. This is not a systematic ticking off of the CCC point by point, and some critics have described it as hit-or-miss. I have criticized “content-free” catechesis myself, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Before the upheavals of the 1970s, a teacher could count on the children growing up in an environment where the Gospel was part of the fabric of daily life, and going through the questions in the catechism book simply added some intellectual rigor to what the child lived in his family and in the parish. Today, we cannot count on any of this, and catechists have to be evangelists as well. The times may well call for some good old fashioned kerygma.

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Sundæ Sermon Notes: 22nd Sunday (OT)

The humble man uses his strengths to serve God while understanding and accepting his limitations. The humble man depends on God and trusts him rather than his own powers.

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Sundæ Sermon Notes: 20th Sunday (OT)

The transitional deacon spoke today at his last Mass before leaving for Rome to finish his priestly formation. He linked all three readings to the theme of martyrdom. He said the virtue of charity is a sharing in the love of God. Love means to empty oneself for the good of another and Jesus did this perfectly. Human love is limited, but divine love is not limited. God transforms our finite charity to conform to his infinite charity. He also mentioned the example of St Lawrence, the deacon martyr.

He asked whether we loved early things so much that we are willing to forgo heavenly things, and he asked this of himself.

Personal note: Some people don’t like to hear a priest or deacon admit his own struggles. These are the folks who were scandalized when Pope Francis, in his first appearance as Pope, asked for the people’s prayers. I don’t think it diminishes the special nature of the ordained priesthood for a priest to view himself as a brother to parishioners. A priest is not a plaster saint to be put on a pedestal, after all.

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