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Graduation Celebrations in Catholic Schools
At this time of the year, Catholic Schools will be planning celebrations to mark the graduation of their final year students.
In most schools, it is traditional to hold a Mass on graduation night. This is understandable, because the Eucharist is the Church’s central sacrament, the ‘summit and source’ of its life. Some parents expect there to be a Mass, even though they themselves rarely, if ever, attend Sunday Mass.
Whilst there are good reasons for holding a graduation Mass, there are also several good reasons for not including a Mass in graduation celebrations.
Eucharist is an expression of our unity in Christ. If a significant number of those present are not Catholic, or for some other reason are unable to receive communion, the Mass will be a sign of division rather than of unity.
If a Mass is held, the students may feel pressured to receive communion even if their circumstances do not make this appropriate. If the group is very large or the venue makes it difficult for people to participate actively in the liturgy, Eucharist may not be the most appropriate form of celebration.
Mass attendance figures indicate that only a small percentage of the Catholics present will be regular Mass goers and therefore familiar with the responses and gestures of the liturgy. I have sat through graduation Masses where only a handful of people joined in the responses and singing and knew when to sit, stand or kneel. This does not make for a truly joyful celebration.
Whenever we use liturgy for a purpose other than giving thanks and praise to God, we empty it of meaning and diminish its value. This happens if the graduation Mass is used as a vehicle for showcasing the talents of the students, with each one given a job to do during the celebration.
Sometimes the Mass seems to be rather rushed because the graduation dinner and other formalities need to get underway. This gives the impression that the liturgy is just an unimportant preliminary to the main event.
We need to ask whether people really do experience the Mass as an important aspect of the occasion, or whether they feel obliged to attend because it is part of the graduation ‘package’ at a Catholic school. A suitable alternative might be to have an optional Mass before the graduation dinner and formalities. The disadvantage of this is that prayer plays no part in the graduation ceremonies for those who choose not to attend the Mass.
Liturgy should be a central aspect of graduation rituals in Catholic schools, but a form other than Mass might be a better, more inclusive, choice. Possibilities include Evening Prayer or a Liturgy of the Word. Both can incorporate appropriate prayers and scripture readings, good music, and symbols and gestures such as candles, incense and processions.
Whatever form of liturgy is chosen, it is never a good idea to print every prayer and reading in the graduation booklet. It does not make a good souvenir of the occasion, despite what some may claim, and people sitting passively reading the script are not fully and actively engaged in the liturgy.