Hmmm. Good questions. Thoughtful comments. Lemme give it a try?
I was fortunate. Born (well, almost born) Catholic. Baptized at age 17 days. Went to public school. Had to go to weekly CCD classes during grade school. In junior high there were maybe 6 sessions - 2 hours each – of classes to prepare to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. After Confirmation – no more classes.
CCD classes were always free at my parish. If a family could make a donation, fine. If they couldn’t – just as fine. No one was ever stopped at the door unless they did not bring with them a copy of their baptismal certificate that was made for you at the parish where you were baptized. This was necessary because the parish would need it if for no other reason than to keep track of you since people move around a lot.
When I was growing up, Mass was in Latin. EXCEPT for the Scripture readings. And the priest’s homily.
We each had our own “missals.” On the left handed page – all the words were in Latin. On the opposing (right-hand) page were those exact same sentences – translated into English. So, as soon as I was able to read – I was hearing the Latin from the priest – and seeing the Latin on the left-handed page. As I was hearing the sounds – I found where on that page that sound appeared - and quick looked over to the right-handed page in English to figure out what the sound I had heard in Latin – was the word in English.
I learned to read just before I entered Kindergarten when I was five years old. That meant that before I had reached the “age of reason” – which is usually figured to be 7 years old – when you are supposed to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong – I was equipped to at least follow along somewhat with what I was hearing and seeing at Mass.
Okay. Your question about “how did people learn the faith if they couldn’t read, couldn’t go to school, and couldn’t understand the Mass?”
Everybody has a RIGHT to learn these things – to be taught these things. The RESPONSIBILITY to teach these things is the parents’. The Church has always taught that parents are the primary educators of the faith to their children.
If they didn’t know it – as is the case with you – then it is their responsibility to find a way to teach it to you. Even though they don’t know it so well, themselves.
As you get older - into your teen years, for example – you are called to find resources for learning the faith, yourself. Like you would for homework at public school.
The Mass does have two official moments of teaching in it. One of those is when the Scripture is being read to us. We, likewise, are called to read that piece of scripture BEFORE that day’s Mass so that we can hear it as we read it. During Mass, that scripture is “proclaimed” if it’s the Gospel reading. Which we would have already been familiar if we had read it beforehand.
The other “teaching” moment is when the priest says his 10 to 12 minute homily. There and then is when he is taking one or another piece or message in any of the scripture readings spoken at that Mass and applies it – tells us – instructs us – how and when to apply that particular concept or message from that particular piece of scripture into each of our lives.
The Mass is also called the “liturgy” – which means the “work of the people.” At Mass, we do something much more than getting together to sing, to pray, to listen to scripture being read or a homily (“sermon”). We do the “work” – (action) – of literally offering to God the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus who died, was buried, and rose from the dead for our salvation.
The Mass crosses time and space and distance from the very moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection to RIGHT NOW. This is one reason that the Mass is often called “the Mystery of the Mass.” We don’t understand it. Never will. As Catholics, we say that we believe it, anyway. This is because it’s what Jesus told us – commanded – that we “do this in remembrance of Me.” That “remembrance” is a term that is much more than remembering in our human memory an event of the past. At the Mass - the past is made “present.”
As for Mass being in Latin – that was the ordinary language of the time. Ever since, the Church kept things in Latin because the language of Latin, itself, is a “dead” language. The meanings of its words – and the words, themselves – never, ever change. THAT is why the Church kept Latin as her official language. Keeps the meaning from generation to generation the same - no matter the changes in all the other languages that naturally happen over time.