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The Mass and the Four Most Important Lessons of Childhood


The four principal ends of the Mass are also the four most important things to teach our children and ourselves.


One of the questions of the old Baltimore Catechism is, "What are the purposes for which the Mass is offered?" The answer given was fourfold:

  • First, to adore God as our Creator and Lord.
  • Second, to thank God for His many favors.
  • Third, to ask God to bestow His blessings on all men. 
  • Fourth, to satisfy the justice of God for the sins committed against Him.1

Adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and satisfaction—mention of these four ends found their way into many an old missal and are still a familiar feature of any traditional catechesis on the Mass. What is often overlooked, however, is the relation of these ends to our own concrete lives as human beings. How exactly do these four things relate to our psychological, emotional, and spiritual welfare?

One way to approach this question is to consider the four most important things that we learn to say as children: "I love you," "Thank you," "Please," and "I’m sorry." These four simple sayings are not only capable of directing both young and old onto the path toward human happiness; they also provide a useful analogy for what happens at every Sacrifice of the Mass.

Lessons for Life

The tragedy of language east of Eden is that a vehicle originally designed for accurately labeling reality (as we see with Adam and the beasts) has more often than not become a means of manipulating or obscuring reality. Saying "I love you," "thank you," "please," and "I’m sorry" can all be acts of enormous disingenuousness and even exploitation, yet I take it as practically self-evident that when every decent parent imparts these words to his child, it is not to equip him with tools of manipulation.

IBehind these simple expressions, then, lies a sound moral anthropology, a broad outline of the good life.

Though we speak of the importance of teaching our children to "say" please and thank you, our ultimate goal is really to have them say these things and mean them. When a mother makes her son apologize to his sister for pulling her hair, she is usually not content with an icy "sorry" and a defiant, unrepentant glare. Clearly her objective is to make the boy understand that what he did was wrong so that he may feel genuine regret for his action and seek to correct the injustice, not simply to utter a particular sequence of verbal sounds. And this is true for the other three things she instructs her children to "say" as well.

Implicit, then, in the objective to raise children who say "I love you," "thank you," "please," and "I’m sorry" is something more than a trivial habit of politeness, a meaningless conformity or capitulation to social convention. Somehow, the aim is to form a young mind into the kind of person who is loving, grateful, deferential, and, when necessary, contritely determined to make amends. Perhaps this is because such qualities are not only choices worthy in themselves, but they also lead to the acquisition of other virtues.

Someone who knows the importance of repentance, for example, also knows the importance of offering forgiveness (which is no small thing); and someone who is truly grateful to one is more easily inclined to be generous to another. Certainly, one of the reasons why believer and nonbeliever alike find the unforgiving servant in the parable of that name so reprehensible is that he grossly violates both of these principles of common sense.2

Behind these simple expressions, then, lies a sound moral anthropology, a broad outline of the good life. Ideally speaking, a person who is capable of saying "I love you" and meaning it is capable of commitment, devotion, and self-sacrifice. A person who is capable of saying "thank you" and meaning it recognizes, as we will see, the unmerited gift of his existence and his debt to a broader world he did not create.

A person who is capable of saying "please" and meaning it confesses his dependence on a reality outside himself and rejects the principle that might makes right, transcending the debilitating egoism that would leave him, to paraphrase Sir Walter Scott, a vile wretch concentered all in self. And finally, a person who is capable of saying "I’m sorry" (or for more minor offenses, "excuse me") and meaning it makes the difficult but crucial breakthrough into unflattering and unglossed self-knowledge, mustering the courage to acknowledge his faults and the resolve to redress them.

By contrast, a person who has not been brought up on these four dictums and the dispositions behind them has been done a grave injustice, for he was either discouraged from overcoming his selfishness or, what ends up being the same thing, from understanding the reality of the human condition.

The Four Ends of the Mass

Interestingly, this fourfold path to authentic human flourishing, as it were, bears a remarkable similarity to the traditional theology of the Mass. Specifically, saying "I love you" at home is analogous to the act of adoration that takes place in the Mass, "thank you" to thanksgiving, "please" to petition, and "I’m sorry" to satisfaction.

When Our Lord offered Himself on the Cross as a living sacrifice, that sacrifice included an infinite act of adoration of his Father, of thanksgiving to Him, of petition or impetration on our behalf, and of satisfaction (also known as propitiation or expiation) for the sins of mankind. Those four components of this perfect act of worship, in turn, are re-presenced by Christ through the agency of His priest at every Mass. And we the faithful participate in the Mass in order to partake of and be enriched by these ends. Our own acts of devotion are, to be sure, not identical to Our Lord’s. Christ’s expiation, for example, did not include "I’m sorry" in the way that ours must, for He had nothing to be sorry about. But our meager attempt to make good on our failings in an act of expiation is made efficacious by the infinite liberality of our crucified and risen God, and hence the bond between the two is profound.

The Four Stirrings

One reason why this analogy is significant, then, is that it indicates that the Sacrifice of the Cross—and by extension that of the Altar—contributes powerfully to the supernatural perfection of our natural potential for the good as well as to the restoration of our nature after its fall from perfection.

As a further demonstration of this, we need only consider man’s basic emotional range in light of the soul’s four "stirrings" (perturbationes): joy, desire, fear, and sorrow. This useful taxonomy was employed by Cicero,3 who himself borrowed it from the Stoics, and was to be later picked up by Christian thinkers like St. Augustine.4 The four emotions Cicero cites bear an interesting relationship to the four sayings we have discussed and the four ends of Mass—not that they align neatly with each other in the same way but that truly good acts of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and contrite restitution bring to perfection our most basic instincts of delight, appetite, fear, and sorrow.


On the natural level, for example, raw personal desire is humanized and sublimated by the simple and sincere act of saying "please." Rather than grabbing what we want, we recognize a boundary of ownership and humbly request that that boundary be redrawn, and in so doing we relinquish the brutality of coercion for the gentility of courtesy. Supplication at its best, then, is a sublimation of desire, not in the bastardized Freudian sense of suppressing libido but in the original sense of making desire sublime or lofty.

It is this sense of sublimation that finds its highest expression in the Mass, where personal desire is perfected supernaturally in the ultimately altruistic petition we make therein not just for ourselves but, as the Baltimore Catechism reminds us, for all men. How far this is from the gussied-up materialism of "the prayer of Jabez" fad, in which Christians are encouraged to pray for the trinkets of this life as if they had no eternal longings at all. The Mass, by contrast, is designed both to expand and reorder our desires so that higher goods take priority over lower on the one hand, and then to transcend even them on the other.

This is particularly obvious in the collects of the Tridentine Missal for the Sundays after Pentecost, the season of the liturgical year corresponding to the era of the Church. The collects reflect a recurring focus on retooling and heightening the desire of the faithful. In addition to asking for a granting of our wishes, for example, they ask for a change in what it is we wish for: "make us love what You command" (Thirteenth Sunday), "graft in our hearts the love of Your name" (Sixth), "make us ask for things that please You" (Ninth), etc. And once our desires have been converted or turned to these much greater goods, the Church goes on to assert that God will surpass even these and give us, as it is said in the Eleventh Sunday collect, what "our prayer does not even dare to ask for." This entire theology of desire, petition, and transcendence is perhaps no more beautifully or succinctly expressed than in the collect for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:

O God, who hast prepared for them that love Thee such good things as pass understanding: pour into our hearts such love towards Thee, that we, loving Thee in all things and above all things, may obtain Thy promises which exceed all that we can desire.

It would require an additional essay to unfold the collect’s nuanced presuppositions regarding the human mind’s telos and its relation to the created order and its Creator; suffice it to say that the "please" of human longing is being transposed here to an entirely new level.

Fear and sorrow

Fear and sorrow, on the other hand, are both accounted for in the act of apologizing and making amends, though only if those acts are genuine. An imperfect apology stems solely from a motive of fear: I am apologizing to you not because I am truly sorry but because I am afraid of what you will do to me if I do not apologize. Perfect apology, by contrast, is concomitant with the emotion of sorrow: I see that I have hurt you in some way and I in turn am truly saddened by this fact.

But a perfect apology also involves fear, not the fear of reprisal as in the previous case but the fear of being alienated from a loved one. St. Thomas distinguishes two kinds of fear: servile fear, like that of a slave afraid of being punished by his master; and a noble or filial fear,5 like that of a husband afraid of doing something to his wife for fear that she will lose respect for him, not for fear that she will beat him for what he has done. While servile fear has its place in this life (it is even sufficient for making an act of contrition, albeit an imperfect one), it is clearly inferior to that filial fear which is motivated by a love higher than mere self-preservation.

And so it is with propitiation in divine worship, which presupposes a sorrow for the injustices we have committed and a fear that we offended the God whom we love and who has done so much for us. True, the fear involved may sometimes be merely that of going to Hell, that presentiment that if I sleep in on Sunday instead of going to Mass I am committing a mortal sin; and that fear, base though it may be, may succeed in getting me to Mass and even opening me up to the graces that can be obtained there. But as St. Augustine once wryly observed, "people who are afraid of sinning because of Hell are afraid, not of sinning, but of burning." Just as the emotionally mature man is motivated by noble rather than servile fear, so too is the spiritually mature man more afraid of the intrinsic destructiveness of sin and the effect that it has on his close friendship with his Maker than of the extrinsic judgment awaiting him at the end of his life.


Finally, the stirring of joy accompanies the genuine acts of saying "I love you" and "thank you." True, love is not always accompanied by the elation of gladness, as often love’s commitments bring with it sorrow and hardship. Nevertheless, in an odd sort of way even love’s pain is better than love’s absence (assuming that we are speaking of well-ordered and not concupiscible love), and it is only through love that genuine joy is ever experienced.

The same is true for gratitude, though this is not as easy for us to recognize as it used to be. For thinkers like Immanuel Kant, having to say thank you is more an occasion of sorrow than of joy, for by his reckoning, gratitude betokens indebtedness, and indebtedness is a threat to personal autonomy, the bedrock of Kantian philosophy and modern liberal democracy to boot.

IGratitude, therefore, is not only an important component of one’s moral character, it is a symptom of one’s hold on reality, that is, of one’s ability to remember accurately the real benefits one has received from real beneficiaries and to react to these realities accordingly.

Yet as Fr. Paul McNellis, S.J., has pointed out, such a legalistic mindset ignores the liberating effect that extensive human ties have on the individual.6 For the ancients, the proper response to the wickerwork of human interdependence was pietas, that noble devotion to one’s family, one’s country and, ultimately, one’s God. This was a "debt" one was happy to have, for it rested on a superfluity of goods one had undeservedly received. The act of remembering these benefits, in turn, was a source of gladsome gratitude. In the words of Seneca:

The most ungrateful man of all is the man who has forgotten a benefit . . . there is no possibility of a man’s ever becoming grateful if he has lost all memory.7

Gratitude, therefore, is not only an important component of one’s moral character, it is a symptom of one’s hold on reality, that is, of one’s ability to remember accurately the real benefits one has received from real beneficiaries and to react to these realities accordingly.

And needless to say, all of this bears poignantly on giving thanks to God in the Mass, that supreme, divinely-initiated act of anamnesis, of remembering and thus re-presenting the greatest good ever given in human history. No wonder that Aquinas sees gratitude as a virtue rooted in love, one that is not unreasonably without limit.8 And how appropriate and how beautiful it is that the last words of the Mass, in both the old rite and the new, are simply, "Thanks be to God."


Our comparison between the four ends of the Mass and the four great things we learn as children also gives one final insight into the importance of the Eucharistic sacrifice. To think of Mass "attendance" as a legalistic burden imposed on us by the Church is as impoverishing as thinking of manners as mere extensions of parental power and caprice. Though by no means sufficient, manners are nevertheless instrumental in orienting us to the created order, and when they are appropriated properly, they help actuate our full potential as human beings. Similarly, the adoration, thanksgiving, petitions, and satisfaction we make at Mass orient us to the Creator of our nature, actuating not simply our native potential, but our capacity to participate in the very Godhead itself.

To be able to say "I’m sorry," "I love you," "please," and "thank you" to our Heavenly Father through the mediation of His Son and under the guidance of His Spirit is not only a unique privilege for a lowly creature; it is a steadily transformative act. And to that we can only say, Deo gratias.


  1. The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism no. 2, explained by Rev. Bennet Kelly, C.P. (NY: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1969) no. 361, p. 173.
  2. Mt. 18:23–34.
  3. De finibus 3.10.35; Disputationes Tusculanae 4.6.11.
  4. Confessions 10.13.22.
  5. Cf. Summa Theologiae II-II.19.4f, also 2; II-II.7.1.
  6. "Rights, Duties, and the Problem of Humility," in Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach: Essays on Religion and Political Philosophy in Honor of Ernest L. Fortin, A.A., eds. Michael P. Foley and Douglas Kries (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), pp. 125–143. The following paragraphs on gratitude are deeply indebted to Fr. McNellis’ article.
  7. De beneficiis 3.1, trans. John W. Basore, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), pp. 128–9.
  8. Summa Theologiae 2.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Michael P. Foley. “The Mass and the Four Most Important Lessons of Childhood.” Lay Witness (April, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.

The Author


Michael P. Foley holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College and has been teaching in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University since 2004. He is author of Drinking With the Saints: A Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour.

Copyright © 2007 LayWitness

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