Recently, our parish announced that they were going to be re-instituting the Children’s Liturgy of the Word. If you have never heard of it, this program is offered by some parishes during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word, a volunteer will come to the sanctuary and the priest will invite all the children of a certain age to go with the volunteer catechist for the duration of the Liturgy of the Word. They leave Mass, go to a nearby location, and do different activities and read the scripture readings for the day. The children are then returned during the Offertory, streaming in to the church and clutching the craft or activity they completed.
Most Protestant churches offer a children’s program alongside the adult service. Why shouldn’t Catholics do the same? Isn’t it beneficial to remove the littlest children during the Liturgy of the Word, so their parents and other adults can better focus on the readings? Isn’t it better for the children to have the readings presented in a way they can understand?
A Different Way to Think About the Mass
I truly believe that those who start up Children’s Liturgy of the Word programs are trying to offer a service that can be valuable – helping parents navigate bringing children to Mass. But I think the children’s presence at Mass can be valuable, too.
I have three living children, and I am no stranger to the back aisle and vestibule (and even the occasional cry room), pacing with a wiggly toddler or grumpy preschooler or sleepy baby. So know that I am completely sympathetic to the difficulty of bringing young children to Mass. I think that, especially in the case of a parent who needs to bring small children to Mass without the help of a spouse, the Church can and should offer him or her support and assistance. I am not an advocate for parents toughing it out without help and support.
But the reality is that Mass is less about what we get out of it, and more about having the opportunity to unite the sacrifice of our own lives to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (being made present again at every Mass). In exchange, we get the gift of Christ Himself, truly present in the Eucharist. Whether through reception of the Eucharist or spiritual communion, each Mass enables us to grow deeper in union with Christ and our brothers and sisters in the Church. This deep spiritual reality does not always correspond to our emotional state. But, even if we are stressed, grumpy, and distracted at Mass, we can and do still receive the graces that Christ wants to give us. His generosity is, thankfully, not dependent on our mood.
These spiritual realities, though, are not limited by age. They are true of all of the baptized – from the oldest to the youngest. The gift of each of our lives, of each of our selves, enhances the life of the Church. Newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers have something real and pleasing to offer God. The gift of their presence, of their selves, is delightful in the eyes of God (even when their behavior is sometimes less than delightful to the rest of us!).
Parents, in sacrificing so generously to bring their children to Mass, to endure distractions and disruptions, are performing a vital service in the life of the Church. They are witnessing to the incredible value of each of the baptized, in our collective active participation in the Mass. Active participation implies a disposition of heart, not actual filling of lay ministerial roles! A parent contending with a tantrumming toddler, who may not hear every word of the homily, is bringing an important gift to God. Parenthood is a holy vocation – not because only holy people are parents, but because Catholic parenthood can make saints of us. Parenthood shows us the ways that we are not fully conformed to Christ – the ways we are still not as loving, generous, or reliant on God as we should be.
Are There Alternative Options?
Parents are incredibly stressed at Mass. And most parents do want their children to learn more about the Scriptures and the Mass. Children’s Liturgy of the Word seems to offer an ideal solution. I’d like to suggest some alternative options, for parishes wanting to try to support parents and kids in the pews.
To begin with, many teens are preparing for Confirmation and may need service hours (or may just need to feel useful in the life of the parish!). Pairing up teens in the parish with families with young children, to be a “Mass buddy” to a particularly overwhelmed family might be mutually beneficial – meeting the needs of parents, their young children, and the youth of the parish (who often want to feel useful and like they have a place, but are not sure what that place is, yet!).
Another alternative is preparing materials that can be distributed to families as they enter Mass. Boxes of bulk crayons, coloring sheets for the weekly readings, and a printout with suggestions for parents enable children to stay in the pew and equips parents (who are the primary catechists for their children, anyway) to be able to teach their children about the faith (and keep their little ones happy and busy during Mass).
Finally, if a parish really does want to do the Children’s Liturgy of the Word, it can be done in such a way that children are not excluded from this half of the Mass. In parishes with a cry room, vestibule with speakers, or a big enough church building, the catechist can gather the little ones and have them sit together to listen to the readings (as they are projected from Mass through the speakers). Then, during the homily, the catechist can quietly summarize them and offer the children a coloring sheet or other activity to help them reflect on what they have heard. After the homily, they can return to their own pew. But they will not have left the building, and they will still hear the readings along with the rest of the assembly.
Perhaps most importantly, they will have still remained in the presence of the Eucharistic Jesus. More than any catechist or parent ever could, being in his presence works quietly and beautifully on little hearts, and there is no replacement for that time. His exhortation still applies today, “Let the little children come to me…”