Head of the Department of Religious Studies
Director of the Liturgical Band
Presentation High School, San Jose, CA
There is a wonderful scene in the movie Hook where an adult Peter Pan sits down for dinner after a long day of trying to relearn how to fly, crow, and swordfight. The table is set and the steam rises from all of the dishes as the Lost Boys gather around for the big feast (envision a new age Babette’s Feast with Robin Williams). When the covers on the food are removed, despite the steam and aroma – there is nothing there. The disappointment on Peter’s face is palpable.
As I walk through the halls of the high school where I work, I notice every morning the plethora of photos that are attached to the lockers of students. It is apparent that these young women record every significant moment in their life and then look back on it immediately to reminisce about the good times. This experience is helped by the availability of digital cameras and smart phones that allow us immediate access to our memories. I recently played off of this idea in class when I asked my students to recall their favorite experiences and remember those experiences by trying to bring to mind any sights, smells, sounds, tastes, or touches that accompanied the experience.
The point of this exercise was to engage students in a moment of anamnesis, the deepest way to remember an event even to the point of making it real again. I described an experience I once had of getting sick from eating too many Fruity Pebbles as a child. My parents had left me in the charge of my twelve year old brother who had no interest in feeding me breakfast. I took it upon my five year old self to consume an entire box of this multi-colored sugar-coated puffed rice. The results were tragic. But even to this day, every time I smell or taste a box of this cereal I get a feeling of nausea. I have encountered this re-living in many other food-borne ways: the smell of a roasting Turkey at Nana’s house for Thanksgiving or the taste of chocolate chip cookies on a hot summer day after swimming in a pool for hours. When we remember these experiences we do not only recall something true about ourselves but in a way relive the moment.
And so there Peter sat in front of a table full of empty bowls while everyone around him was eating. The kids looked at him wondering why he did not enjoy the feast. Exasperated but willing to try what the kids were saying, Peter Pan had to remember who he truly was before he could join in the feast. Once recalled, the food came alive and he could now participate fully in the meal.
This is the same type of memory that Jesus demands: to do this in memory of me. It is a memory to relive your baptism, your own participation in the Paschal Mystery. It brings to the front our true baptized selves. The ‘this’ and the ‘in memory’ are pretty straight forward. I take comfort in the letters of St. Paul and the Didache when episodes of Eucharistic memorial were occurring in its earliest stages. The framework for Eucharistic celebration in the Gospels and these other writings is the cornerstone of our Tradition. Without the Eucharist, the question of Catholic self identity is bizarre and unanswerable.
It would be unfortunate to gloss over the word ‘do’ in Jesus’ command. It is our responsibility as catechists, liturgists, and clergy ‘to do’ an engaging celebration of liturgy. Jesus did not recline at the Last Supper and say “do not worry about doing anything while you remember, I will take care of it.” It is not God’s action and our reception, it is our collective action. The framework for collective liturgical action is provided in the rite, but as a teacher, I would never go into the class with a framework that someone else had provided me and not try to make the material applicable or to not try and engage the people who are sitting before me. Over the past two years I have heard and read multiple sermons and articles stressing the point that the Mass is not entertainment. I agree. However, I sit in the pew wondering if this point is a clouded attempt at an excuse for falling attendance, poorly rehearsed music, or unintelligible sermons. The point is accepted and fairly obvious that those looking for entertainment should not choose Mass as their primary outlet, but that should not push us to strive for a celebration or memorial that is boring. Who remembers that which bores them?
The point of all of this Peter Pan babble and memory stories is engagement. People who continue to attend Church need to be engaged, most importantly our students in high school during school liturgy because for a good portion of the school, these are the only experiences of liturgy they will ever have. The four years in Catholic school are perhaps the one chance the Church has to engage teenagers in the foundational identifying mark of a Catholic. This means putting effort into crafting meaningful and engaging moments that these young people can delve deeper into, we need to craft an intimate anamnesis moment so the memories our students are taking away from the Church are not ones of boredom and meaningless motions or a cacophony of noise and extravagance that can overrun teen-centered liturgies. The best way to teach liturgy to high school students mirrors the best practices of teaching anyone about liturgy. The one thing we all have in common is a desire to be understood, to be welcomed, and to craft meaningful memories for their lives. This is the responsibility of the priest to craft a sermon that actually speaks to a fifteen year old girl. It is the task of the musician to seek out and practice music that can be sung and expressed by people who have no understanding of music. It is our task to not turn off or zone out during Mass.
These things do not need to happen to make liturgy work. But it is our work to make liturgy happen, and if each liturgy is not our best effort to engage the true spirit of this memorial, than the memories we are leaving in the hearts of our young people will soon be forgotten.