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Let the Little Children Come: A Look at Children´s Liturgy

Holy Mass is "where it´s at," where Christ is physically present, yet we banish our youngsters to the basement, as if doing crafts and singing bible songs were the Main Event.
by Mariette Ulrich | Source:

Children´s liturgy has been around for a couple of decades now. I´m not sure how the idea originated: was it an attempt to duplicate the apparent success of some Protestant congregations by adapting the Sunday school model?

Did catechetical experts really believe Catholic kids would grow up more committed to the Church if sent to another room and given pictures to color during Mass? However well-intentioned, I believe it was a miscalculation. You don´t need a sociology degree to tell you what all that gray hair in church means.

I hadn´t given Children´s Liturgy much thought until my oldest child began attending it (and I took my turn teaching). We soon opted out, partly because I thought the program was weak. My main objection was the dumbed-down scripture readings. (One annoying example: replacing "disciple" with "friend" - discipleship means far more than being pals with Jesus.)

However, it wasn´t the program, but the timing that prompted our decision to forego the Children´s Liturgy. (If it took place immediately before or after Mass, I´d happily send my children, and help coordinate the program.) I know the argument: experts believe the Liturgy of the Word is incomprehensible to children. They say we must speak to kids "at their level," to facilitate understanding and prevent boredom. I disagree with this for several reasons, the first of which is that children are far more perceptive than we like to think. We mustn´t underestimate the Holy Spirit´s ability to touch children´s hearts, even if they can´t fully fathom the readings.

If we accept the "over their heads" argument, shouldn´t we exclude children from the Liturgy of the Eucharist as well? If transubtantiation isn´t beyond them, what is? Do we then bar children (not to mention the mentally handicapped, and the culpably ignorant pew-warmer) from the entire Mass because they don´t quite grasp what´s happening? Perhaps only those with theology degrees should attend Mass.

It´s true that small children are sometimes bored and restless in church. They also get bored in the doctor´s waiting room, in the grocery lineup, at school and at home. Children are children. Just as they need to learn patience, they must grow in faith and in their understanding of the Mass.

This is primarily the parents´ responsibility. If going to Mass is a burden for them, it will be so for their children. The onus for a child´s religious education is on the parents. For children who are exposed to daily prayer, scripture reading, discussion about God, and parental modelling of various gospel values, even the best Children´s Liturgy program can´t compete with the graces obtained from attending Sunday Mass. For children who receive no religious instruction at home, a weekly dose of Children´s Liturgy is unlikely to affect them in any significant way. Far from needing yet another peer situation, today´s children need to see their parents worship, and to worship alongside them.

Children cannot grow to love the Mass if they miss half of it every Sunday. It´s extremely ironic that many parishes sing their little ones out the door with some version of Matthew 9:14 ("Let the children come to Me, and do not send them away"). Holy Mass is "where it´s at," where Christ is physically present, yet we banish our youngsters to the basement, as if doing crafts and singing bible songs were the Main Event. By excusing our children from part of the Mass, we´re essentially telling them it isn´t worth their time. Is it any wonder that many young people continue to believe this as they get older? The post-Confirmation dropout rate in many parishes is as predictable as it is tragic.

If Catholics fully comprehended the wonder of the Eucharist, entire congregations would faint away in ecstasy during Mass. The only thing likely to induce swooning in the average parish today is to suggest that we might spend more than 55 minutes in church on Sunday. Despite our mortal frailty and spiritual ignorance, all Catholics can increase in love for the Holy Sacrifice. We achieve this through frequent exposure, a reverent and grateful attitude, and being open to the work of the Holy Spirit. We humbly approach the Word and the Eucharist praying, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief," and we ought to encourage our children, regardless of age, to do the same.

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Insight. All rights reserved. Mariette Ulrich is from Scott, SK and Catholic Insight´s Western columnist. She is a mother of six daughters.

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