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Making Mass a
Real Celebration:
Tips on Planning

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

Have you ever planned a party? We have all gone to lots of parties, but if you have ever planned one you know that it doesn't just happen all by itself.

A good party requires planning and preparation. It takes work which most partygoers never see.

Mass doesn't happen all by itself, either. Every Eucharist is prepared and planned by someone. Actually, liturgy planning is usually a group effort by more than one person.

Throughout your adult lives, you will have many opportunities to help plan liturgies. The word liturgy is a general term that includes not only the Mass but all the Church's official, public praying. In this Youth Update, liturgy usually means Mass, but the same principles of planning apply when preparing other prayers as well.

Often when people are asked to help plan a liturgy (for a retreat, graduation or similar occasion) or to be part of the parish planning team, they hold back because they feel they wouldn't know what to do.

This Youth Update will give you the confidence to offer help when the occasion arises. I encourage you to get involved in planning liturgies because the experience will enrich all your liturgies afterward—even those you don't help plan.

Knowing what goes into planning a party helps us appreciate the behind-the-scenes work that someone has done for us each time we are invited to one. Knowing what goes into planning makes each experience of the Eucharist richer.

What's Happening?

The most important thing about liturgy planning is starting off in the right direction: What do you want to do? What do you want to happen?

The temptation is to start with details: What is my favorite song? Who gets to read? Who should bring up the bread and wine? You can get so involved in these details that you lose sight of the first principle of planning: What is it that you want to do?

When you plan a birthday, graduation or Halloween party, you want your guests to have a good time. Everything that you do (food, music, games) is directed toward that goal: that the guests have fun. You choose the details in light of the goal.

We ask these same questions when planning a Mass: What do we want to happen? What is the goal? Where do you go to find out what this goal is?

If you look carefully at the words prayed at Mass, you will find that at the heart of each Eucharist we pray that God will send the Holy Spirit to change our bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so that we "who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit" (Eucharistic Prayer II).

A similar prayer asks "that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ" (Eucharistic Prayer III). The ultimate goal of the Eucharist is that we become one in Christ and one with each other.

In this respect, Mass is very different from a party. At a party, you want your guests to have a good time. This is your goal. At the Eucharist, you want everyone present to be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that their sins are forgiven and they are drawn closer to Christ and one another.

That's a lot to provide! It's also a lot harder than simply helping them to have a good time. (And if you come to Mass wanting only to have a good time, you'll walk away disappointed.)

No Pew Potatoes

Parties aren't successful if the guests just stand around and look at each other. For a party to be successful, you want the guests to interact. You want them to take part in the festivities, enjoy themselves and get to know one another. For the guests to have fun, you have to find ways to get them involved. You must help them move from watchers to doers.

The same principle is important when preparing a Mass. You need to find ways to move people from watching to doing. This is not always easy.

Americans are more watchers than doers. We watch television, we watch ball games and we watch concerts. When we go to church, we are already in the habit of watching rather than doing. Part of preparing a Mass is finding ways to get people involved.

Some of the ways that you can help people become involved are: inviting them to participate in the various liturgical ministries (musicians, readers, Communion ministers). People become involved when they are invited to sing, to march in procession, to make the Sign of the Cross, to examine their conscience, to say prayers together out loud.

But most important is the internal "doing." At the appropriate times, each of us must form within ourselves attitudes of petition, gratitude and offering.

Honor the Tradition

Every birthday celebration seems to require a cake and the singing of "Happy Birthday," while the guest of honor blows out the candles. These are the traditional things that make a birthday party.

What are the traditional elements that make a Mass? Not everything is up for grabs. You need to know the tradition. The tradition is rooted in the biblical accounts of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. The shape of the Eucharist is that of a supper, a meal.

What happens when you sit down for a formal meal with your family—for example, at Thanksgiving? First, the family gathers. You greet one another and hear stories of what everyone has been doing. Then you move to the table, where you say grace, eat and drink. Finally, you say goodbye and return home. Mass has the same shape: Gathering, Story-Telling, Meal Sharing and Commissioning (the send-off).

Hear the Story

The ultimate purpose of the Eucharist is to make us one with Christ and with one another, so we must plan for this to begin right away.

How can you help these individuals to gather and become one? Being welcoming and hospitable, providing greetings and introductions and providing a pleasant setting are ways to gather the people together. Singing unites minds and voices and helps us focus on what we are about to do together.

At a party, you often tell stories that everyone can either remember or relate to. Exchanging shared experiences can be a way to engage everyone.

When we gather at Mass, we tell those inspired stories that brought us here together. We read from the Bible about Jesus, his life and his death. We read about the faith of those who followed him and became his Church.

At each Eucharist we hear the words, "Do this in memory of me," which remind us that we are to do what Jesus did, we are to live as he lived. The Scriptures tell us how he lived and how we are to follow him.

How can you help everyone present to really hear the Scripture passages? During the planning session, slowly and prayerfully read the passages that will be read at the Mass. Sometimes it is helpful to read the passage from several different translations. If the one who is going to read during the Mass is present at the planning session, it might be good for that person to read the passage to the group.

Next, discuss what the passage means. It may be useful to read an explanation of the reading or a commentary on the passage. Once you know what the text means in itself, then try to discover what the text means to you. When the Scriptures are read in Church, Christ himself speaks. What is Christ saying to you?

How can you help this message be heard by all who gather for Mass? An important means for understanding what Christ is saying through the Scriptures is the homily. It is helpful if the one giving the homily can be present for the planning session. If the homilist is not able to be present, it is very helpful if he knows what was discussed when the planning group reflected on the readings.

Another way to help the message of the Scripture passage be heard is to select songs that have this same message. Good liturgy planners always keep the Scriptures in mind when choosing the music for the celebration.

Let Us Pray

The Scriptures are as important to a Mass as music is to a party. The Scriptures play a key role in inspiring the petitions for the General Intercessions.

How do you prepare these petitions? What do you ask for? Pray for the things needed to bring us into harmony with what we have just heard proclaimed in the readings. Good petitions flow from the Scripture readings.

The Church recommends that our petitions fall into four categories. First, pray for the needs of the Church. For example, you might pray that we become what the Scripture readings call us to become.

Second, pray for civil governments and our political leaders. For example, you might pray that peace and justice come to all nations.

Third, pray for people who currently have special need of our prayer. For example, you might pray for those who may be currently suffering from a flood, a war or an epidemic.

Fourth, pray for the needs of those gathered for this particular Mass.

The General Intercessions are liturgical prayer, that is, they are the prayer of the Body of Christ. You pray for things that Christ wants. And what does Christ want? The answer to that question is found in the Scripture readings.

The General Intercessions have a threefold shape. First, the priest invites us to pray. Second, a reader announces the petition. We pray for the petition first in our heart and then by means of a response, such as "Lord, hear our prayer." This response may be sung or recited. Third, after the final petition, the priest gathers the petitions together into a prayer to which we all respond, "Amen."

When writing the petitions, remember that they are addressed to the congregation and not to God. The reader is inviting the congregation to pray. The priest addresses God in prayer. The reader speaks to the congregation.

Meal Sharing

Now we move to the table. At a meal we set the table, say grace and then eat and drink. At a party, we set the table with a festive tablecloth, lively decorations, food and beverages.

At Mass, these movements are called the Preparation of the Gifts (which begins after the General Intercessions), the Eucharistic Prayer (which begins with the "Holy, holy, holy") and the Communion Rite (which begins with the Our Father).

Who will help prepare the altar: cloth, candles and chalice? Who will bring the bread and wine to the priest?

Baking the bread for the Eucharist is a good way to get involved in the Mass. The prayer over the bread—"Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made"—has special meaning when the prayer refers to your hands.

The Eucharistic Prayer is the heart of the Mass. Besides the prayers we usually hear on Sundays and on weekdays, there are several other approved prayers. Ask the priest who will preside at the Mass if you can help decide which of these prayers would be most appropriate for this Mass. (To do this, your committee will need to read these prayers in a book called the Sacramentary, which you can borrow from your pastor.)

The Communion Rite begins with the Our Father. In the Eucharistic Prayer, we prayed that the Holy Spirit make us one. Now we ask for forgiveness from God and from one another; we share a sign of peace; we eat and drink together, which are all signs of the unity that the Eucharist promises.

Planning a party and planning a Eucharist share another similar goal: making sure everyone is included. When planning a party, it's important that those present be in the same frame of mind. The partygoers should be happy and in good spirits.

The same goes for planning a Eucharist. Those present should also be sharing in the same mindset. Try to find ways to help all present experience the meaning of these actions. Processions, songs and silence can help.

Big Send-off

Recall the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). After they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they left the supper room and dashed back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples of their experience of the risen Lord.

The final prayers of the Mass help us make a similar transition. Help the congregation to "leave the supper room" and take the Mass out into the world and their daily lives. Prayer, announcements of coming events, blessing, dismissal and a challenging song of commitment can help this "sending forth." When the guests leave the party, you hope everyone had such a good time that they spread the word to others. The celebration itself should help tighten the bond among those present. When they leave, those strengthened friendships will greet the world empowered. Parishioners should depart with that same ideal. Their faith is strengthened by the celebration.

Preparing a Mass is not easy. It is not simply helping everyone have a good time. Liturgy planning is preparing a celebration so that everyone can realize more deeply the meaning of Christ's life and death.

You don't merely offer an invitation to a party. You offer an invitation to lifelong conversion! That is what makes liturgy planning so difficult. That is what makes liturgy planning so rewarding!


Planning to Make Mass Last

Keeping the spirit of Sunday Mass is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. But you can help.

  • Pick one sentence or phrase from the Sunday Scripture readings that has special meaning for you. Write it on a card. Keep the card in your pocket or use it as a bookmark in a frequently used textbook. Refer to it throughout the week. Memorize the verse.
  • At Sunday Mass, you thanked God for specific things God has done for you. Write down one of the things for which you are particularly grateful this week. You might add it to the card with your Scripture verse. During the week, continue to thank God for this gift.
  • Pick one of the things for which you asked God at Sunday Mass and add that to your card. During the week, continue to pray for this intention.
  • After next Sunday's Mass, make a new card for the coming week. Instead of throwing away last week's card, keep it with the cards from past weeks. After a few months, you will have a very interesting and helpful record of your faith journey.

When you are helping to plan, you might even prepare bookmarks so those at Mass can record their thoughts.


Thomas Richstatter is a Franciscan friar who has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris.

Niki Bonomini (16), Matt Graser (16), Jessica Robinson (17) and Rebecca Robinson (15), all members of St. Peter Parish in New Richmond, Ohio, met after Sunday Mass to consider how to plan liturgies. Joining them was their youth minister, Becky Link.


Eucharist is an unusual word. Where does it come from?


Eucharist comes from a Greek verb meaning "to give thanks and praise." Greek was the common language used by many different countries during the early days of Christianity (the Gospels, for example, were first written in Greek). At the beginning of the central prayer of the Mass, you hear the words: "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God....It is right to give him thanks and praise. Father....we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks." In Greek, each of these phrases would be a form of the verb from which we get the word Eucharist. The word sums up what you do at Mass: You give God thanks and praise.


You say that the "internal doing" is important. I still don't quite know what to do to have a good inner attitude. How can I move in that direction?


We have little control over our feelings, but try this: At Mass, when the priest prays about "remembering the wonderful things God has done for us," try to remember not only things God has done for us in the past (such as the Last Supper and the Resurrection), but also specific things for which you are personally grateful here and now (a good grade on a paper, a new friend that you met by chance). At each Mass, the priest asks God to send the Holy Spirit to make us one. But what are your needs? What do you need to become a more active member of the Body of Christ? If your remembering and your requests are specific and important to you, the internal feelings of gratitude and petition will follow.


As teens, how can we get involved in Mass—besides being a server—and not feel that we're getting in the way of the older members of the Church?


When we see teens getting involved in the Mass, we don't feel that you are "getting in our way." Quite the opposite! Most of us are grateful and overjoyed because it is a sign to us that the Church and the faith that mean so much to us are being passed on to the next generation and won't die and pass away when we do.


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