Teaching children about mortal sin

I have a question for religious education teachers of children.

In your parish, at what age are children taught that missing Sunday Mass on purpose is a mortal sin? What are second and third graders taught, concretely (not generally), about mortal sins vs. venial sins?

So many of their parents don’t consider missing Mass to be a mortal sin. Is “mortal sin” being discussed in any of your elementary or middle school religion education classes? Do your students past second grade go to Confession?

Use the old Baltimore Catechism. There are different editions for different age groups. It’s probably the best all around method for teaching the faith in an age-appropriate manner.

It’s still in print and you can buy it on the internet.


And scroll down for a package deal for all three editions, 1, 2, 3.

And there are related books further down on the page.

The Baltimore Catechism is still excellent. Nothing newer has come along that does the job as well.

we sock the parents between the eyes at the first parent meeting on their responsibilities as Catholic parents and the consequences of failing their duty, including this one. Whether they listen is another matter.

It worries me a lot. We have the liturgy for children at our main Mass on Sundays and when they come back the priest talks to them about what they have learned. Not much it seems. I don’t think that their instruction is given by qualified catechists, just volunteers. Most of these children do go to Catholic school but I get the feeling that they look on their religious education as fairy tales.

At their ages (from very young toddlers to about 9 or 10) and with a Catholic education, I knew what mortal sin was and how important the Mass is. We went to Mass twice a week and to Benediction on a Fridays at school. This was in the 60’s. I went on to Catholic high school and, although not attatched to a church building, we still had Mass said once a week and a priest would come to hear confessions monthly.

My parents also made sure that we knew about the practice of our faith at home.

Our priests preach about sin from the pulpit, we teach “Faith and Life” series in CCD - that does not mince words or teach fluffy bunny errors. DH teaches 1st Grade, they learn about HDO requirements from 1st grade on.

It depends on the class, but probably half of the kids making their first communion from religious education (as opposed to the parish school) don’t continue on with religious education classes after that. I have no idea how many are home-schooled by their parents, but there are at least some. The older they get, the lower attendance becomes, primarily because of conflicts with sports schedules. Some do it because, frankly, they want a program that is a lot more rigorous.

We do talk about mortal sin in RE, but it is more in the context of saying that simply avoiding mortal sin and confessing it right away but doing nothing more is like being a driver who avoids running into concrete walls and always calls the paramedics when he’s done so…that is, it should go without saying that avoiding mortal sin is vitally important, but it is also way, way below the minimum that is expected of us as Christians.

In spite of our pastor’s regular entreaties during his homilies that the ALL of the faithful go to confession regularly–although the precept is annually, he says that as a confessor he feels that going at least once during Advent and Lent to prepare for Christmas and Easter is a MINIMUM–we have had students in our parish preparing for Confirmation who contended that they never made their First Confession, presumably because they hadn’t been to confession since. Still, there are always kids with their parents in the confessional lines, and they need six or ten priests for the individual confessions at the parish reconciliation services, which is good!

It is sad that he needs to do this, but the pastor also tells kids during his homily at their First Communion, after telling them what a great privelege to be able to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, that they have his personal permission as their pastor to roll their parents out of bed, if they have to, in order to get to Mass every Sunday. Honestly, those kids know that if their parents won’t get them there, the parents are going to have Father to answer to. He does not tell the kids that it is a mortal sin to fail to come, though, because that is out of their control at that point. If a third grader doesn’t make it to Mass, that is the parents’ fault.

As far as preaching about the obligation to go to church on Sundays, he does preach that. He spends about half of the time telling people that they have a serious obligation to come without fail, and the other half telling them that under no circumstances does he want to see someone who is obviously sick showing up and making everyone else sick, nor does he want to see people with no business driving or walking on a sheet of ice showing up for Mass when we get freezing rain. He says it always seems to be one or the other!

I taught my 4th grade students that missing Mass on purpose is a mortal sin when I taught about the 3rd commandment (Keep holy the Lord’s day). I had to be very clear that it is only mortal when they themselves miss because of their (the student’s) own fault because I have a few students who don’t attend Mass regularly because their parents don’t take them or their parents allow them to miss for inappropriate reasons (i.e. sports).

7 (out of 10) of my students have only been to Confession once. The other 3 have only been a couple additional times. None go regularly.

I try to speak specifically about mortal vs. venial sin when it comes up. The problem I see is First Eucharist and First Confession is much too young. I don’t think the majority of 2nd graders can understand the importance of the Eucharist or Confession. I’d say at 4th grade they are just starting to understand by which time Eucharist is old hat (and probably meaningless to them) and Confession never happens. Some parents don’t even seem to see the importance since they never take their children to Confession (nor themselves go) and miss Mass without much thought.

My priest even asked me to pray for the children (2nd graders) who’s First Confessions he was about to hear because they don’t understand the importance of what’s going on nor do their parents. My priest and I agree that 7 is just too young.

I’ve heard that my diocese agrees that 7 is too young but is meeting fierce resistance to making the age older. The Confirmation age got moved to older though :thumbsup:.

My priest agrees with you, too, Mel–our kids make first communion in 3rd grade, and I can honestly say that probably 1/3 of them are still not ready. He did tell me last year, though, that the difference between 2nd grade & 3rd grade was quite a bit–the 3rd graders were much more ready, & with being taught about sin & the Act of Contrition in the second part of 2nd grade in preparation, it is a big help.

I begin teaching the kids about mortal sin in the 2nd grade, & it continues on through. I can give you an example of an incident that occurred just last week: a boy in the 3rd grade class, already made First Reconciliation a short time ago & preparing for 1st communion in May, was at Mass with his mom (who happens to teach 1st grade rel. ed.) Anyway, he is a handful & was refusing to go into Mass. He whined, cried that he didn’t feel well (which wasn’t true–he had just been seen running & playing a few min. earlier). His 3rd grade rel. ed. teacher saw this going on, walked over to him & to his mother, and gently reminded him that missing Mass on purpose was a mortal sin! Did he want that sin on his soul today? He tried to talk his way out of it, but eventually walked into Mass.

Our kids go to confession at least twice per school year: once during Advent & once during Lent. Father tried to lower that to once, but our DRE stood firm & convinced him that for many of these kids, these were the only times all year that they went to confession, & he relented. Thank God!!! :slight_smile:

just a reminder it is not the catechist, the DRE, or the pastor who has been entrusted by God with the responsibility for getting children to Sunday Mass, but the parents.

Yes and yes. A 2nd grader can’t help missing Mass if the parents choose not to attend, so it’s not a mortal sin for the child.

Our school offers confession once a month, so if the kids aren’t able to go another time, they can choose to go at school.

The majority of our middle schoolers choose to go. :thumbsup:

In my brief stint as a religious educator (2nd and 3rd grade kids, I believe), and by brief, I think a month…maybe?, I was told I couldn’t mention Hell. Needless to say, no Hell, no sin…but, I was teaching kids whose parent’s were also coming into the Church, so, they knew NOTHING. Still…they were going with fluffy bunny, not really teaching Catholicism texts.

I disagree, mostly because the older we get, the more we get “in the head” and not “in the heart.” A first or second grader is still humble enough to take something to heart which they know by faith, but cannot understand intellectually. As we get older, we resist this more and more. Let’s face it: if our faith in the Eucharist and understanding of God’s mercy is all in the head, we are just sunk.

I think it is a good idea for confession and Holy Communion to start just at that time when we have both a more mature intellect and yet still have a naturally childlike heart. That is a good time to start the chosen habit of letting the mind be subordinate to the heart, to choose to retain that vital childlike attitude. It wouldn’t be good to try to forge that relationship when the head has been allowed to have the upper hand for several years.

It does take some great care to introduce the idea of mortal sin without making it into something that makes the children fearful of approaching God. I think the key is to stress over and over that it is the sin that we ought to run from, that the sin itself is its own punishment, that Hell isn’t something God does to us, but the ultimate in chosen slavery to sin, and so it is not God whom we should fear when we sin, but rather the sin itself, which is what harms us and condemns us. Sin teaches us to value something else over God’s love, and that’s what kills us, because God’s love is life itself.

First grade is not to soon to know that we and our choices matter, and matter a lot. As I tell my students, God loved us enough to give us real choices that have real consequences. We aren’t insignificant, we aren’t machines that have to react a certain way to some outside prompting. We have free will, and what we choose truly matters. That is the only way we can be given the gift of loving freely, is to have been given the real choice of refusing. That gift, the gift of loving by choice, is so beyond any other gift God could have possibly given us, because it is what it means to be in the image and likeness of God, that it merits the chance that we would refuse it.

As the Catechism 1422, speaking of eternal and temporal punishment, puts it:** “These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain”** So venial sin needs to be presented as something that does real damage, too. Like physical damage, even though there is a stark difference between dead and alive, there is a whole continuum from less harmful to deadly.

Thank you everyone for your great responses! It is reinforcing and helpful to read your suggestions and to know what you do as catechists.

Sad to say, a few of my students do not attend Mass regularly because of their parents. Most of my students haven’t been to Confession since second grade, because of their parents’ complacency. Many of their parents lack understanding or acceptance of what the Church teaches about sin.

Here is what I have told my students:

  • that attending Mass is a serious matter and is required for Catholics, and that missing Mass on purpose is purposefully breaking away from God and is a mortal sin.
  • that if they depend on their parents or someone else to bring them, and their parents decide to skip Mass, they, the children, aren’t committing a mortal sin, because it’s beyond their power to make their parents bring them.
  • that if their parents don’t bring them to Mass, they, the children, should still make the day holy in some way, such as reading from their Bibles or other religious books, and praying. They might be committing a venial sin if they simply don’t care.
  • that it’s a good thing if they try to persuade their parents to bring them to Mass.
  • that if they come to Mass, they cannot receive Holy Communion if they have unconfessed mortal sins, and that they should pester their parents to bring them to Reconciliation as soon as possible. If they have only venial sins, they shouldn’t receive Holy Communion if they don’t first ask God for forgiveness, which we can do during the Penitential Rite and other prayers during Mass, or if all they’re thinking about during Mass is the baseball game or shopping they have plans for after Mass.

It’s amazing how this seems so “new” and shocking to some of the students – and to others in the parish. One person told me I went overboard. So again I thank you for your reinforcement.

This is a problem within my own family. My daughter was raised in what we call in the Church (at least in my own parish) the “lost generation”. In her CCD classes they did not even make their first confession before they made their first communion! I asked the director of CCD what the deal was…she told me they were too young to understand it, and they thought it better to wait until they could understand what reconciliation was all about…they didn’t feel they were “culpable” yet.:confused: They never really did have them formally make their first confession in that parish. My daughter finally made her first confession when she was a grown adult. (through my promptings and the grace of God…prayer is POWERFUL) I have to really walk a fine line with her because it seems if she feels I am pressuring her in any way, then I am a “fanatic” to quote her. St. Monica has helped me a ton!! My daughter still doesn’t really know what the “real Catholic Church” is all about. Long story short, she is now married and has 3 children of her own. They go to Catholic School, and she says she is learning more from her kids. She** still** does not believe it to be sinful to miss Mass on Sunday. Well, when you have a Deacon in the Church (as we do) running around telling people it is not sinful to miss Mass on Sunday, what do you expect? :mad: (I have confronted him on this, and now he seems to avoid me;)) They do go now, but not every Sunday.(the excuse is that they go every week in school:rolleyes:) And I keep fasting and praying my heart out. It is a real heartbreak for me and my husband, but I have faith and trust that the Lord will turn this around as only He knows how to do.

Bottom line is…when the Church has gone through the age of “relativism” as we have, with no Catechizing of our children, and then you have parents that are trying to teach them in the ways of the true doctrine of the Church, they are dismissed as “fanatics”. It was an absolute EVIL what has gone on in the Church in a lot of parishes in the 70’s and 80’s in this country. We are now paying the price for the past liberalism in the Church. How to get these people back? I don’t know…I am personally leaving that up to the Lord, and asking His Mother to help…I do this 24/7.


I am constantly amazed at how we shelter our children from the truth in our time, while we fail to protect their innocence. What a recipe for disaster.

I think this falls into the same category as not taking children to funerals because they are not “emotionally ready”. (Let’s not even get started with thinking there is no problem with simultaneously giving them video games where the object is to “kill” as many enemies as possible.) We are infantilizing our children, to the point that we have adults who are not “emotionally ready” to go to funerals, either! Death is hard. Facing the truth that our actions have real and serious consequences is hard. Facing the truth that we have the power to wreck our relationship with an all-loving God because we have the power to choose or refuse love is hard. These truths don’t get easier if we ignore them throughout our childhoods.

Just because their culpability cannot rise to the level where they can appreciate the gravity of a mortal sin–which is to say, just because they never have anything except venial sins to confess, no matter what they do–does not mean that that a seven year old is a) too young to know right from wrong and b) too young to know that sins are an offensive against God and turn us away from God. Sometimes, I think seven-year olds get that truth more profoundly than adults do, because they are not so skilled at rationalizing away their bad behavior.

I have told my RE students that we only gradually become mature enough to really appreciate how serious a mortal sin is, but we are never to young to understand that we ought to avoid doing things that are wrong, to learn which are more wrong than others, and to avoid the very wrong things the most.

Of course, I do not teach them to fear Hell. That is like telling your team on the first day that your goal for them is to not be last in their league: “Have fun, but don’t lose.” They need to be told to “run so as to win”!

I tell them that it is not good enough to just avoid mortal sin, that if they want to go to Heaven, they’re going to have to let God make them into saints. As none of the saints has ever reported that they wish they had wallowed around in sin awhile longer than they did, it is best to let God get started right now. That’s what the wise do. It is not more fun to leave the whole job for Purgatory. Besides, God has saintly things He wants us to be doing right now. So yes, avoid mortal sin, but that is page one. That is just “keep the car on the road.” What a fright, to ride with a driver who is content to simply not hit trees or go over cliffs! God wants better for us than just that.

Your daughter could be me! (except I only have one child). I have major gaps in my Catholic education. I went to a Catholic school from 1-4th grade in the late 70s/ early 80s and then moved and went to public schools (and CCD). I know so little about my own Church and am only now learning. The main reason I read this thread was because I was never taught what the difference between a mortal sin and venial sin was. I had to find out on my own, many years later, using Google.

Like your daughter, I too had First Holy Communion well before First Confession (it was only when I was about to be Confirmed that they did Confession). When I was Confirmed, no one explained to me the importance of it/significance. My mother tried to explain, but she wasn’t very good at it despite her attempts (honestly, talking to her today as an adult to adult… I think she’s just as lacking in Catholic education as I am). I wanted to take the name of St. Francis since he was (and still is) one of my favorite Saints… but was told the day before my Confirmation I couldn’t take a male Saint’s name and then had to scramble to come up with another Saint before being assigned a name based on a group of martyrs that I knew nothing about at the time (Sometimes I wish I could do it all over again).

Lack of knowing, lack of explaining the laws of the Church, and the feeling that sacraments were being thrown at me are part of the reason I left the Church as soon as I went to college. I only came back years later to be married. And then left again. It was after I became pregnant and realizing that I wanted to bring up my child in the Church that I started attending Church again on a regular basis and learning.

****This is a problem within my own family. My daughter was raised in what we call in the Church (at least in my own parish) the “lost generation”. In her CCD classes they did not even make their first confession before they made their first communion! I asked the director of CCD what the deal was…she told me they were too young to understand it, and they thought it better to wait until they could understand what reconciliation was all about…they didn’t feel they were “culpable” yet. They never really did have them formally make their first confession in that parish. My daughter finally made her first confession when she was a grown adultQUOTE]

I’m sorry that your daughter isn’t the kind of Catholic you think she should be.

But I do believe that it is our responsibility as their parents to make sure that they are being brought up in the Church.

It is not the Catholic Schools responsibility or the Religious Education Program’s responsibility — they are only there to help.

At their baptism the parents agree:

You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him/her in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him/her up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

No where in there does the responsibilty fall on a Catholic School or a Religious Education Progam – you don’t like what the school or RE is doing – it is your responsibility to make a change.

May I raise the point that wonderful results can come from encouraging parents to use the time at which their children make their first confession and First Holy Communion as an excellent time for a renewal of their own devotion to these sacraments, and to the Mass? I tell them, “It is like when your child was born, and you realized all over again what a precious and miraculous gift life is. This is a special time to renew your devotion to these sacraments. Don’t miss it!”

Now, it may be that I get good feedback from parents because I can honestly say that I started to go to confession far more regularly when I had kids to take, and can report what a great difference it made. They aren’t afraid to tell me that they just started to go to confession regularly, because I’m not someone who has done so in an unbroken chain since my childhood. Still, some people will take you up on that, if you invite them!

I tell my 4th grade class that missing Mass is a mortal sin. I also tell them that because they can’t get themselves to Mass (can’t drive etc), that this precept is not binding on them. However, they should remind their parents, ask for a ride, etc.

I also tell them that if someone is sick, has to work to support their family (ie, not someone who is a workaholic manager, but someone whose shift is scheduled for them), or because of weather or road conditions (we had 2 huge snow storms here this week), that those people are also not sinning if they miss Mass.

It helps that our parish offers 6 Sunday Masses between Saturday evening and Sunday evening and we have 3 other parishes within a 20 minute driving range!

Off to teach my 6th grade boys CCD class tonight. I have told them that missing Mass is a mortal sin, then described the three necessary conditions for a sin to be mortal. When we went over the ten commandments each week we did the same, this is a mortal sin when 1, 2, 3. I have told them it can’t be a mortal sin for them if their parent/parents do not bring them, and that it is their parents responsiblity to bring them. This is especially true when one parent is atheist. I’d rather have the Catholic/Buddist child rather than the Catholic/atheist child. The hostility they have. The 1950-early 60’s, are long gone, the homogenous society of that day is in the rear view mirror and ain’t coming back.

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