A Pastoral Approach to Talking About Missing Mass


I recently received an e-mail from a diocesan catechetical minister who was contacted by a concerned DRE, struggling to address the following problem:

A sixth-grade catechist, in teaching about mortal sin, told her students that if Mass is missed, then it is a mortal sin and the sinners will go to hell. Yes, she used those words. The student went home crying because her parents miss Mass frequently.

We know these situations are coming up more and more, which make it very difficult to teach authentic Church teaching but still be pastoral and evangelical. I have been in these situations when a student hears the teaching and puts two and two together and then asks the big questions. All the resources I have at my fingertips explain the theology, but nothing has satisfactorily given me tips to lovingly address these situations.

The pastor has also expressed a desire for assistance in this matter.

What are some of your suggestions for dealing with this issue and other issues like this in the religious education classroom?

Thank you.

Here is how I responded.

This is indeed a delicate situation where we want to teach authentic Church teaching and yet be pastoral. In this case, in particular, it is unfortunate that the catechist included the warning about going to hell. We want to emphasize that missing Mass frequently out of negligence is a serious sin and seriously damages our relationship with God and that we are called to confess mortal sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To definitively state that someone will go to hell in such circumstances is reckless, however, since we never know all of the details and circumstances of each individual which can affect his or her level of culpability. The emphasis should always be on welcoming people back, inviting them to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a healing and pastoral path back to the Eucharistic table for those who have wandered away from it for various reasons.

What advice would you give?

About Joe Paprocki 2739 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

27 Comments on A Pastoral Approach to Talking About Missing Mass

  1. Wow! I am moved to write because it hurts me that a child would hear such things in church and from a catechist. It shows that we have lots of work to do. We should know better and there are soooo many examples beginning with Pope Francis who continues to remind us to put people before process and rules. People, especially childen will NOT come to mass if they are reminded how sinful they are and where they will end up if they don’t go. Our faith is so much more than a reward and punishment experience. Its about an encounter, a journey, a life-long process where we are called to know, love, and serve God. Its about becoming the people we are called to be so that we can spend a life with God. And we do all of the above by praying, living in the familiy we were born in, going to school, helping one another, making mistakes over and over and over again, including missing mass for whatever reason.
    Catechists must know who they are serving today and get to know them before making statements that could affect children and parents in a negative way. Take Pope Francis’ example when asked about gay people: “who am I to judge?” This is not an excuse. Instead, its an opportunity to love and serve above anything else. Isn’t that what we are called to do like in John 13:34?

  2. One thing of critical importance in speaking about this material is to carefully distinguish between the objective moral character of an action and the subjective culpability of the actor.

    A catechist can, and in my opinion should, be quite clear is stating that for baptized Catholics, participation in the Sunday Eucharist is a serious obligation. Deliberately choosing not to attend is a grave moral evil.

    The question of its sinfulness is another matter. A catechist of any level should certainly be aware that for something to be a mortal sin not only does grave matter need to be involved, but likewise full knowledge and deliberate intent. In my pastoral experience, many of those who fail to participate weekly in the Sunday Eucharist are truthfully ignorant of the fact that failing to do so is in fact a grave matter. Therefore, it would be incorrect to state that their failure to attend is a mortal sin. On the other hand, they may or may not bear some culpability for that ignorance itself.

    When dealing with sixth graders, I would think that this distinction should be something they are capable of grasping. This would not be the first instance of a sixth grader catechizing his or her parents. I have known several families over the years where the pleadings of a child have been the thing that prompted the adults to begin to take more seriously their own responsibilities.

  3. This was a very timely subject to be covering as family members do not attend Mass on a regular basis but send their children to religion class and feel they are doing their part. This article will help me in encouraging the family members to return to Mass attendance especially when a child is making Confirmation. Thank you.

  4. Each day we gifted with opportunities to make a number of choices. I, personally, tend to respond more positively to an invitation rather than an ultimatum. I usually start my 7th grade RE class with a discussion of the upcoming Sunday Gospel using the Loyola Press Sunday Connection as a guide. If the children can grasp what the Gospel means and how it applies to them, it might spark a discussion at home that could result in the family attending church to hear more of the Message.

    • The first thing to remember is that children depend on their parents to take them to church. They cannot get there by themselves. I tell my students that we are supposed to go to church every week. Hopefully, they will relay this to the parents. I also have put a note in parent newsletters that Class+ Mass is the best. But we are not in a position to tell anyone- especially a child -they are going to Hell.

      • Kathy, you’re so right that our responsibility is to emphasize the serious obligation we have to make Sunday Mass a priority in our lives without using the fear of hell as “motivation.”

  5. In this day and age with a marvelous, graced leader such as Pope Francis is, I would explain to children the ideal but if the adults in their lives are not practicing, that is never the child’s fault. Children do not drive, walk long distances and so on; therefore, scaring a child about hell is way off the track in my opinion. Catechists must be updated regarding the law as opposed to the person. Thank you.

  6. Our God is a forgiving God. To knowingly and recklessly reject the opportunity to spend one hour with Him, in His house can lead to serious negligence. A “talk” with God, in an open and honest way will help to remind us of the wondrous miracle of Mass and the sad loss that comes from missing in. Then the ultimate cleansing feeling of Confession,

  7. I teach my children like this; Going to church is like we are going to our Heavenly Father’s house to see and talk to our Father, and get blessings. We talk to our Father what are the sins we did without knowing or purposely, and ask to our Father for forgiveness. Our Father forgives us for every sins because we are his children and He loves us more than our Mom loves us. When we receive the communion, we are receiving Jesus Christ, and we became pure heart again, and its also a protection from every evil and try to sin no more. I go to church every Sunday and it makes me feel that I am free from sin, got protection from every evil for that whole week, and became a pure heart, and try to love and help everyone as we see Jesus in them and so we are doing it for God and so ourselves. Because Jesus is living in us. Remember, In the past, Jesus Christ and Mother Mary had to walk 3 days to reach in the Church and they were going with a group, a long journey, and so Mother Mary missed Jesus Christ thought of He is with the group, and went back to Church very anxiously and She saw Jesus Christ was talking with doctors, and well educated people by clearing their doubts and when Mom asked Jesus replied “Did you not know that I had to be in My father’s house?” And we see that Jesus Christ loved to go to Church and so must we.

    To the mentioned Catechist; Please remember that our God forgiveness even when at the Crucifixion time by telling to the thief after the thief understand his sins, and recognize the love and Holiness of our God, he asked for forgiveness; and what did God grant him, not only forgiveness but also a place in the paradise!!!

    I am one of the least Catechist and sorry if I wrote something unclear because I am very busy, going to teach the prisoners now so didn’t proof read. I wrote because I also felt hurt.

  8. I’m curious: what was the outcome of that event? Did the kid burst into tears in class or sat bravely until in the car with the parent? Was the child worried about his/her own sin and/or that of the parents? I presume that the parent called the DRE to report the matter. Did the parent dig in about not attending? Did the DRE or the pastor apologize to, and soothe, the parent in some way? What was the final takeaway for the parent and the child?

    • Alicia, I honestly don’t know how things turned out other than the email that says the child “went home crying.” I’ll see if I can get any more info on further outcomes.

  9. I have been a catechist for over 10 years. I have endeavored to deliver the lessons to middle-schoolers so that key points are impressed in long-lasting memory. For example, when talking about the fifth commandment as a call to good health habits and avoidance of bad choices, I gave out tiny brooms: we are God’s janitors of his loan of our bodies! (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

    Over the years, I have realized–duh— that however creative or passionate I am about the lesson plan, the best instruction to me, a volunteer, is the teacher’s guide. Does the kids’ textbook or guide outline for children’s ears the obligation to attend mass under the threat of hell? If not, it may be best to start from the work assembled by a team of informed experts.

    My advice to this group, without knowing more details of the event, is as follows:
    1) Take a proactive long-view, big picture approach. What I’m saying here is that in a parish framework of loving welcome and charging of families, frequent check-ins with catechists to ensure mission buy-in, and lots of prayer, the Holy Spirit will sculpt more effective words from catechists’ mouths about tough subjects in age-appropriate ways.

    With catechists:
    —-Encourage catechists often to spend time before class to prep, including study of the guide.
    —-Have many catechist updates and meetings where the parish mission regarding faith formation is outlined. A catechist who is unsure or unsupportive of parish priorities may endeavor to help God in her own way.

    With families, as a gentle framework to encourage more participation, including mass attendance:
    —-Advise parents often that faith formation is a partnership. Pope Francis has charged the family to be schools of the Gospel and small domestic churches. The role of catechist is supportive; the role of the Church is a happy mother to whom obligations and visits are well due.
    —-Give quick and frequent family home assignments and updates on classwork.
    —-Offer frequent family events.
    —-At sacrament prep meetings for parents, have the pastor/priest gently confront parent participation in the Church experience. Our pastor got my own reluctant husband to go back to confession after 30 years because of his group presentation.

    2) Do-over. I think a very human and passionate catechist ought to take the opportunity to make amends. I have sent post-class emails to parents saying: This came up in class today and I researched further including checking with the DRE, and I must clarify/correct! What amazing thoughtful kids you have to help me strengthen my own faith!
    The point here is that event here didn’t just effect the child; the other children had to process what was said as well. You could also, with guidance, go to the next class and gently and independently apologize to the child, and clarify with the whole class the age-appropriate message.

  10. Precept #1 = Catholics are bound by obligation to attend Mass weekly
    Missing Mass = Grave Sin
    Grave Sin = the possibility of eternal separation from God (i.e. Hell)

    The catechist should likely have given clearer and fuller explanation of what constitutes grave sin and how that sin can be forgiven, but the Truth which was presented is, well, True. And it will offend as Jesus Christ himself offended.

    We often forget, but just as a reminder of what Jesus Christ’s Church teaches us – in love for all – about Mass, missing Mass, and mortal/grave sin…

    The Precepts of the Church:
    CCC 2041 The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor:

    CCC 2042 The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.82

    The Sunday Obligation:
    CCC 2180 The precept of the Church specifies the law of the Lord more precisely: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.”117 “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.”118

    CCC 2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

    CCC 2192 “Sunday . . . is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church” (CIC, can. 1246 § 1). “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (CIC, can. 1247).

    The Punishments of Sin:
    CCC 1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.84

    The Gravity of Sin:
    CCC 1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”131

    CCC 1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.”132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

    CCC 1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

    Therefore, what should have been said by the catechist is, “If Mass is missed, then it is a mortal sin (because our knowledge of lack of knowledge doesn’t change that it is in fact a grave sin) and the sinners (if they know it is grave sin, willingly continue in their sin, and are unrepentant) will go to hell.”

    • Karl, I agree the Catechism, available online at the Vatican’s website is an amazing and uplifting resource for prepping for class and enriching one’s faith.
      This catechist was addressing a class of 10 and 11 year olds and apparently did make the statement you’ve suggested. The original poster wanted suggestions for an alternate approach.

  11. As the coordinator for faith formation for our Religious Education and Catholic School students preparing for Confirmation, I often obsess about this issue. In fact, we just completed a session for our 7th & 8th Graders about the meaning of the wonderful signs and symbols present in the Mass. We did this, and said so openly, in the hope that through greater understanding of why we do what we do at Mass we might plant seeds that can bring these young people & their families back to Mass. Parents were also invited to this session. (We had about 30 come out of nearly 250 students.) The one thing in the response that jumps out for me is the expression that not attending Mass damages our relationship with God. this statement assumes that our young people even have a relationship with God, or even understand what that means. So many don’t have that relationship, or think that it is important to their lives to have one. This is, I think, a hard nut to crack in a social and cultural atmosphere where intimacy is defined as sharing on social media what I just ate for dinner. An intimate, personal encounter with Jesus Christ that can grow into a loving, supportive and enlivening relationship is where we must start. We won’t be able to get these young people, or their parents, into the building if they do not understand why they would even want to be there in the first place — to meet Jesus.

  12. Less than fifteen percent (15%) of registered parishioners attend Mass every Sunday. Because of the Pandemic, Sunday Mass attendance amounted to eight percent (8%). Since not attending Sunday Mass is a serious sin many souls could be lost because many believe it is not a serious sin and God’s mercy will save them.

    When it comes to who will be saved and who will not be saved, no one knows. Any assumption, by anyone, concerning who goes to Heaven or who goes to Hell is contrary to God’s strategy that this knowledge is not given to anyone.

    So, what does this tell us who were baptized Catholic? It tells us that any deviation from or self-interpretations from what we are taught by Jesus and His Church will jeopardize our chances of going to Heaven and gaining our inheritance of eternal life with our Creator.

    My dear brothers and sisters, be wise and be saved, put Jesus Christ into your life throughout your years in this life and follow His commandments. When committing mortal sins, go to your priest and ask for forgiveness. Never use your judgement to decide if a sin is mortal or venial. The priest is there to forgive all sins no matter how serious, or the number of times committed. He is there representing Jesus Christ to help and guide you. Do not risk losing your soul because you believe you are a good person or believe God will forgive you because He is merciful.

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