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Dear Fr Rutler: Is it sacrilege to let children ‘play Mass’?

Dear Father Rutler,

My sister is a very pious, traditional Catholic. However, she refuses to break her fast on Sunday and major saints’ days during Lent. Are we obligated to feast?
Dana B from Hartford, CT

It is not easy to live with someone who is saintly. Especially one who knows it. I give your sister a pass, but I should think that others would not know about her mortifications had she not advertised them. There are seasons of penitence when the Bridegroom is taken away, but when the Bridegroom is with us, feasting is an obligation. “Fasting is set aside and prayers are said standing as a sign of the Resurrection,” to quote St Augustine. All Sundays are feasts, and this extends to the Octave of Easter and, logically, all 50 days from Easter to Pentecost. Fasts are worthless without feasts and vice versa: “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6).

One hundred thousand people witnessed Henry Cardinal Manning’s funeral, in testimony to his noble life, but there was a little vinegar in his blood that has not made attraction to him an instinct. He was wont at a repast to announce to his guests that he wanted them to enjoy the bounty of his table while he was fasting. It was not a formula for conviviality. Your fasting sister may be better than all of us, but one hopes that at the heavenly banquet, she may not have to be force-fed with a funnel.

When a new altar boy is serving at Mass and doesn’t move when he’s supposed to, is it better for the more experienced altar boy to push him, or should he tell him?
Ben F (age 9) from Hollis, NH

I once was nine years old myself, and enjoyed the experience, but was ready to move on. I did double duty as an altar boy and a chorister until my voice changed and I thought my life had ended. We used to fold the parish bulletins into airplanes and send them flying during the rector’s sermon. Even as an Anglican, we fasted from midnight, so it was common to faint during important moments of the service. Adults notice boys whispering, so it is better to give a slight push to correct your friend, or a gentle kick. Now that I am older, I have altar boys who are not shy about correcting me during solemn ceremonials, although they know that if they kick me, I shall kick them back.

There’s a boy in our parish who spends the entire Mass playing video games, screaming at his mother, and generally making himself a nuisance. How do we teach our own boys how to be attentive at Mass when there’s this little monster terrorising the faithful and his parents take no notice?
Gina Q from Newark, NJ

You do not mention a father. That could be part of the problem. Life must be difficult for a mother, who is encumbered by an unpleasant child the rest of the week. Pray for her and for the child even though he may sound like a megaphone of Beelzebub. We may infer that children around Jesus were difficult, because the Apostles tried to deter them. In our culture which is so hostile to the weakest children, the most raucous cry of a child is a vote against vicious governors and angry eugenicists.

My children like to play “Mass”, complete with consecration … often using potato chips. I don’t want to discourage their piety, but I also want to steer them away from sacrilege. What should I do?
Mary H from Boston, MA

I cannot answer this objectively, because I have most emotive memories of my sainted father building me an orange crate altar at my request, when I was six or seven, in front of which I stood and directed my sister in singing hymns. Your children are blessed to be holy mimics, perhaps like the Juggler of Notre Dame. Do not deter them. They would not play that way if they did not love what they had seen in God’s Holy House. Through the vicissitudes of life’s adventure, with right direction, they will come to know that Christ comes to us by Bread and Wine, as Very Flesh and True Blood. He can lead children to the mystery step by step, so long as they are taught to kneel before what is the really Real.

Fr George Rutler is the pastor of St Michael’s Church in New York City. To seek his advice, write to [email protected]