Today, as part of the 40 Hours Devotion and Parish Mission at St. Peter's Church in West Brandywine, PA, I met with each of the grades of the school. Each of the grades, except for one, had three classes each, so there were quite a few young people with whom I met. At 9:30 it was 3rd graders and at 10:00 it was 4th graders. The 1st graders came at 10:30, the 8th graders at 11:00, and the 7th graders at 11:30. I had to make quite an adjustment going from speaking to 1st graders to speaking to the 8th graders. At 1:00 it was the 5th grade, at 1:30 the 6th grade, and lastly, at 2:00, I had the 2nd graders who are preparing for First Holy Communion. Later this afternoon I'll have the PREP kids--Parish Religious Education Program.
Each class came quietly and reverently into the church where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar. I was impressed with their knowledge. The 2nd graders knew what the tabernacle was and they were able to name the monstrance. The 5th and 6th graders were able to say that the word "monstrance" comes from a Latin word, but they weren't able to say what it meant, though one came close, saying "display." It comes from the word for "to show" and I told the students that Jesus, who was normally hidden in the tabernacle, was showing himself to us on the altar. Therefore this was a special opportunity for us to pray.
I led the singing of "O Sacrament Most Holy" and an opening prayer and then asked them if they knew what the "Last Supper" was. Each class, from 1st to 8th grade, was able to answer that one. Then I read Luke's account of the Last Supper and asked them to listen for words that we hear many times even when we're not reading the Gospel. They were able to immediately recognize those words--"This is my Body"--and to place them in the Mass.
I told them that when the priest says those words at Mass he isn't talking about himself; rather, Jesus is speaking those words through the priest and changing the bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Then with each class I went through something that St. Thomas Aquinas says: that when we come to the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, we can trust only one of our five senses. Even the 1st graders knew the five senses. I asked: which of those five senses is the only one that St. Thomas says we can trust when we approach the Eucharist? It took most of the classes a little thought and a few wrong answers, but eventually I was able to help them see that the one sense that can be trusted is our hearing. When we see, taste, touch, or smell the Eucharist it will appear to be bread and wine. Many Catholics and most other Christians rely on those senses and conclude that the Eucharist is a symbol for the Body and Blood of Christ. But relying on the sense of hearing, we believe differently. We hear the words "This is my Body ... This is my Blood" and we believe what we hear because Jesus said it. I think this teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas spoke across the intervening seven centuries to the hearts of the young Catholics with whom I met today.
Making an act of faith in Jesus' presence in the monstrance, we knelt down and prayed silently, telling Jesus what was in our hearts--what we were grateful for or sorry for; how we or people we know need his help. After leading a prayer that included a "spiritual communion," I asked them to stand and we prayed together for various needs of the Church and the world. After they sat down I asked if any of them would be willing to share what they prayed for when we prayed silently to our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. Every child I called upon shared that he or she had prayed for someone else; they didn't mention themselves.
I encouraged them to pray for their pastor, Fr. Mike Fitzpatrick, and their bishop, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and then asked if they knew the name of the other bishop for whom we pray at every Mass. With a little coaching they were able to name Pope Benedict. I asked them: if the Pope, who is the leader of all Catholics around the world, asked them to pray for something, would they? As they nodded "yes" I told them that every month the Pope asks us to pray for two very specific and special intentions and I told them about the February intentions. I gave the teachers leaflets with the whole year's papal intentions and told the students about the Apostleship of Prayer's web site with a Kid's Page that explains the intentions and provides an activity to help children remember them.
It has been a full day and it isn't over yet. It's also been a very blessed day. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to share Eucharistic devotions with out little brothers and sisters.