Monday, July 6, 2009

Children's Liturgy: a well-intentioned bad idea

Every Sunday morning at our church, something I don't much like happens: the children in the church are called forward and dismissed for "Children's Liturgy of the Word," or as I like to call it, "Adventures in Biblical Coloring."

I don't doubt that those involved in this effort are very sincere, helpful people who truly want to share their talents with the young and help bring the little ones to a closer understanding of God's Word and His plan for salvation. But I do question the wisdom of this whole enterprise, this "Children's Liturgy" phenomenon which has become quite popular in the past decade or two.

The whole thing started with the "Decree and Directory for Masses with Children," published in 1973. The relevant passages, which I found here, are as follows:

"16. In many places parish Masses are celebrated, especially on Sundays and holy days, at which a good many children take part along with the large number of adults. On such occasions the witness of adult believers can have a great effect upon the children. Adults can in turn benefit spiritually from experiencing the part that the children have within the Christian community. The Christian spirit of the family is greatly fostered when children take part in these Masses together with their parents and other family members. …

"17. Nevertheless, in Masses of this kind it is necessary to take great care that the children present do not feel neglected because of their inability to participate or to understand what happens and what is proclaimed in the celebration. Some account should be taken of their presence: for example, by speaking to them directly in the introductory comments (as at the beginning and the end of Mass) and at some point in the homily.

"Sometimes, moreover, if the place itself and the nature of the community permit, it will be appropriate to celebrate the liturgy of the word, including a homily, with the children in a separate, but not too distant, room. Then, before the Eucharistic liturgy begins, the children are led to the place where the adults have meanwhile celebrated their own liturgy of the word."

Just reading that, I'm struck by a couple of things:

First, the expression of the idea that children should not feel "neglected" seems a bit strange, at first glance. Before the Mass was in the vernacular children were going to feel a bit left out at Mass, yet generations of Catholic children grew up to be practicing Catholics without as much difficulty as seems to happen today. Perhaps there is a value in having children present, occasionally, at what they see and know to be "grown-up" business, and at having them feel, not neglected, but inspired to want to reach an age at which a fuller participation can be theirs.

Second, while it is suggested that children be mentioned in introductory or concluding comments or during the homily, the further idea that a separate Liturgy of the Word be conducted for them is preceded by some qualifiers, e.g. "Sometimes..." and "if the place itself and the nature of the community permit..." These are not phrases which suggest that the idea behind the document was to create a regular weekly Children's Liturgy and to parade groups of children ranging from quite small toddlers up to children old enough to have received their First Communions out of the church every Sunday, led by a lay volunteer holding aloft a book and making a procession out of it.

I have heard some people insist that Children's Church is necessary to keep children from misbehaving and being disruptive during the Mass. But any child who is really old enough to participate in a Children's Liturgy ought already be old enough for simple good behavior, four or five years old, I would think; and the result of allowing children to leave during the Liturgy of the Word can sometimes be misbehavior during the Liturgy of the Eucharist--the child thinks, not unreasonably, that his "church" is over; why should he have to wait around for Mom and Dad's Mass to be over, too?

And while processing children out in neat rows (or straggly bunches, as more often happens) just before the Liturgy of the Word may be orderly and not particularly disruptive, the children are not caused to process back in, but scramble in randomly sometime between the end of the homily and the end of the Offertory Hymn; sometimes they wander about looking for their parents, and sometimes they crawl over people trying to squeeze in to a bench because while they were gone latecomers to Mass sat beside their parents and occupied their places. I can't imagine how it is that I've never witnessed a child being misplaced during this disorderly dash, but perhaps others have.

Like many things which arose in the early days after Vatican II, Children's Liturgy seems to me to be a nice idea with unintended consequences. Certainly the advent of Children's Liturgy has not seemed to coincide with an equal rise in numbers of adult Catholics who point to its influence in their lives as being among those things which helped them remain Catholic beyond their teenage years (and their Confirmations, which is increasingly the Sacrament of Bribing Kids to remain Practicing Catholics until they are Teens--but that's a subject for another blog post). One thing it has seemed to do, sadly, is reinforce the idea in children's heads that church is "boring," and that since it is boring some nice grown-ups have taken the time to read them Bible stories about Jesus and His "friends" (not disciples, a word that is presumably too hard for children who already know what HDTV stands for). Oh, and maybe let them do some cut and paste, or some coloring.

How they are supposed to transition from that environement--and that belief, that church is something boring and grown-up--to quiet and focused participation at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass just a few years later is beyond me. Which is why I hope that the rumors that our Holy Father is quietly planning to revisit the "Decree and Directory for Masses with Children" prove to be true.


Anonymous said...

And I thought I was the only one that had a problem with this!
The FatMan

Magister Christianus said...

I am well aware of attempts to present issues of the Christian faith in ways that are relevant to children. The problem is that the attempt is usually made by adults who quite frankly have forgotten what young people are capable of grasping. I teach high school Latin, and I know for a fact that teenagers are quite capable of wrestling with the nuances of subjunctive mood, the practice of euthanasia in the midst of a discussion of Euripides' play Alcestis, and military strategy as displayed by Julius Caesar in his Gallic campaigns. Am I to believe, then, that these same young people who have grappled, albeit in youthful and developing ways, such heady stuff during the week suddenly are rendered incapable of grasping the mysteries of the Trinity on the weekend?

I once led a middle-school retreat, in which we decorated the water cups that we used throughout the week. I doodled in Greek letters the expression "homoousios tw Patri," the famous phrase from the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father. One of the girls asked me what the letters meant, so I did my best to explain. I suggested that while she was of a similar substance as her parents, she was of yet different substance, since she and her parents were different people. I continued to say that Jesus was of the same substance as His Father, yet was somehow distinct from Him. The girl said, "Oh, that makes sense."

While my explication lacked theological sophistication, it was my best effort at living out Montaigne's description in his "On Education"..."It is the mark of a strong and lofty soul to know how to come down to a childish gait and guide it."

My point is simply that we sell our young people short when we think that those who prepare for A.P. exams during the week must be content with a goofy faith on the weekend.

eulogos said...

I think everything in point 17 is mistaken.
To put this as strongly as possible, everyone at mass, adults and children, ought to "be neglected." That's because it isn't about US. It is a solemn act of worship of God. It is a duty and a privilege to be there and take part in this act of worship. Children may not understand this, but sooner or later they will absorb this from the attitude of the adults, and from the general solemnity of the celebration.

I don't see children misbehaving at the hour long sung Byzantine liturgy. The 10:30 celebration is after Sunday school since 9, yet the children who are there above preschool age, all seem to act like members of the worshipping assembly, no more and no less, and I would say most above toddler age do so for most of the time. Certainly the priest would never think to address any comments specifically to them at a regular Divine Liturgy. There are times like the first Solemn Communion (most had been receiving since infancy, but when they have first confession they have a Solemn Communion like a 1st communion celebration. ) which are for the children,when he addresses some comments to them, for instance praising them, for how well they had learned the Nicene Creed-yes, at 7 they had all memorized it. There are events involving children especially-on the "Sunday of Orthodoxy," the celebration of the 7th Ecumenical Council which approved the veneration of images, there is a procession around the church with icons, and all the children process each with a small icon. On Good Friday there is a procession with the shroud, and the children, all dressed in a special way with a short black cape, follow the priest carrying symbols of the passion, including crown of thorns, nail, ladder(to take the body off the cross) and so on.
This is part of the ritual of the church, not some cute thing devised for the children, and every child from about 4 to teen takes part. Not one giggles, fools around, or gets out of step.

At hour and a half long Orthodox liturgies in one church I visit, there are many children who participate for the entire time with apparent seriousness from the age of 6 or 7, and who are there with parents from infancy, sometimes needing to be taken out, of course, but not all that often. The pewless setup helps, because toddlers can wander a bit and this does not bother people. I have even been at an over two hour long Orthodox liturgy in a very traditional parish, in which children took part, standing, for the entire time, but I admit that the ones I mean come from a very religious family.

Never in these settings is there any "talking down" to children. Perhaps they have a "bible story" version of some of them for the younger ones in class ahead of time. But the Divine Liturgy would never be interrupted for a procession out with children. It would be an interruption of the real liturgy with a fake and contrived liturgy.

I also agree with Magister, above, although his comment is slightly tangential to the subject. I would add that children who are preparing for AP exams are absolutely contemptuous of goofy faith on the weekend. How I wish I had known about the Byzantine church when my children were growing up. Of course it can still be fallen away from, but it presents something with some meat to it, something to respect, something which gets into the heart and the imagination and pulls one back.
In the late 70's and the 80's, when my children were growing up, it seemed as if parishes of the western rite were trying to outdo each other in shallowness and goofiness. It is true that Christ was always there, but It took real faith to continue to believe that; the manner of worship seldom conveyed it, nor did the teaching.

Susan Peterson

Deirdre Mundy said...

I hate Children's liturgy of the word and when we visit a church that has it, I never let my kids go. After all, we go to Mass as a family.

You know, even my 5 and 3 year old pick things up from the readings and the Homily sometimes. And why give them the idea that church is 'crafts time?' That seems like a bad road to head down.

I think Children's Liturgy is a pernicious practice we picked up from the protestants--- at many protestant churches the kids are never in church with their parents-- But these are denominations where only adults can 'join' the church in the first place.

From their baptisms, our children are full members of the Catholic church. So who are we to deny them Mass, just because we think they're inconvenient? If Mass wasn't for children, we wouldn't baptize babies!

LarryD said...

I've never had my sons go to the Children's Liturgy when they were younger. I'm with Deidre - we go to Mass as family.

Isn't there something about a lay person reading the Gospel anyway?

freddy said...

I must live in Backwardsland, because I don't know a single parish in the midwest city where we live that even has a Children's Liturgy of the Word. Of course, there seem to be quite a few in which the priest addresses everybody as if they were children of four or so, but that's another story!

We go to the EF Mass here and have for years. This Sunday illness kept me home, and I kept the 2 & 5 year olds with me. The 2 year old started crying as Dad and brothers left: "I go church too! I go church too!" He knows how his Sundays are supposed to go, and he doesn't seem to need extra entertainment.

Really, what speaks to a child's heart more; Mom & Dad listening to Father, attentive and prayerful, or glueing cotton ball beards on Moses?

Natalie said...

It gets taken to extremes because people can't handle tinkering with the Mass (nor should they). Everything that's been changed has led to what? Abuse. There was that discussion about communion on the tongue vs. hand on Crunchy Con last week, for example. Everything post-Vatican II is really wonderful...if only people would follow the rules, right? Yet how many of these things were problems before? I hope our Holy Father is quietly planning to revisit a whole lot of other things, too.

Ragamuffin said...

I guess I can see the value in both positions on this matter. I come from a background in Evangelical Protestantism where typically the children have a completely separate "children's church" and never come into the adult service at all. The Anglican church I've visited does a "children's liturgy of the Word" type of thing that I rather enjoyed. It seemed like the best of both worlds...they got to receive instruction and learning that's appropriate to their level of understanding and then they were back in the adult service to see Mommy and Daddy kneel and pray, sing and receive the Eucharist.

I worry that being in a church where there's nothing like that for the kids at all, that the children will become bored and restless and associate church with being something that doesn't apply to them. I want more for them than merely making it through the service without being disruptive for an hour or so. We're already at church, why not have something that begins at an early age introducing them to the basics of the faith?

I do understand the desire to worship as a family and to worship in front of them as an example, but it seems like this is an acceptable middle ground where two good ends can both be furthered with little overall downside all things considered.

Ragamuffin said...

Also, these "children's liturgy" times don't have to be about "gluing cotton balls" or "craft time." The Anglican church I described used puppets and music and a short Bible story to convey a lesson that was in keeping with the lectionary (from which the sermon in the adult service was usually drawn) for the younger kids. The older ones received a more age-appropriate lesson and had the opportunity to ask questions and discuss afterward, along with some singing.

Just because it's done on an age-level for understanding doesn't mean it has to be insipid.

prekteacher said...

I have directed a Children's Liturgy Program in a Roman Catholic parish for six years. We follow a set liturgy that includes lighting candles, welcome, gathering songs, reading the gospel from the children's Lectionary, a sharing of the gospel message (use of role play, visual aids to retell the story), reciting the Creed in children's form called "We Believe", and stating intentions for the Prayers of the Faithful. Hopefully, we complete all parts before the ushers signal us to return for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The children are given a published hand-out and dismissed. No Crafts!

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Our Children's Liturgy of the Word does call for dismissal of kids 4 years-4th grade and process out for the Liturgy that is interactive, well-thought out and easy to comprehend. "Teaching them on their level" (hey that sounds familiar). And we do not color or make crafts. We conduct a mini Mass, with prayers, song, etc. Then the kids join the church for communion. My own preteen and teenager seem to absorb it and not zone out.

Anonymous said...

I am sick of kids being segregated from community instead of integrated into it... the boom in children's ministry has coincided with the TOTAL DECLINE of the church.... the key to church health and growth is kids in their family.. KIDS IN FAMILY... the world over children are destroyed because of "kids ministry".... and kids church isn't the best of both worlds... children are REJECTED from adult community. By rejecting them we communicate that we do not want them or even like them; that they have no place; that they have no belonging; that they have no identity WITH us.. but they are apart from us... exit the church enough year after year and you will exit full stop when your fun filled ministry is over (ie puppets get boring about 10 years of age; colouring at 7; toys at 5; and sermons at about 20)... fragmenting communities; socially and relationally isolating children; spiritually hindering their walk with God through barring them from the gathering of God's called out community is nothing short of a sin... "DO NOT STOP THEM" we are told by Jesus when the disciples were zealous to maintain proper order and give the children a more appropriate environment and time for coming to Jesus.... the gathering of the church is that time we are to come to Jesus.... do not stop the kids.. do not send them out the back and destroy their God-given spiritual faith... THEY are better placed than you to walk right into the KINGDOM... LET THEM COME