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Online Edition - Vol. IX, No. 10: February 2004

What Have We Done to Our Children?

How Catholic children became guinea-pigs for liturgical experiments

Part III of three-part series

by Susan Benofy

The ink was barely dry on the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy when reformers began experimenting with their most radical innovations -- from freely altering texts to ritual dance -- not on consenting adults, but on the unsuspecting school children who would become "Generation X".

Susan Benofy, research editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, reviews the development of these ideas as they are reflected in the principal documents of the period, the 1973 Directory for Masses with Children (DMC), the special Eucharistic Prayers for children, and the more recent "Children's Lectionary", in this three-part series.

Part I of this three-part series discussed the history and contents of the Directory for Masses with Children (DMC). Issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1973, the DMC specified the adaptations permissible when the congregation at a Mass is mainly young children. Most of the adaptations allowed by the DMC for pre-adolescent children were innovative practices that some liturgists had proposed, without success, for all Masses.

The DMC authorized two further sets of texts: special Eucharistic Prayers for children's Masses, and a separate Lectionary for Masses with Children. Part II (AB Dec 03-Jan 04) showed how these were developed.

The conclusion of this three-part series follows - Editor.

Links to Part I | Part II

Part III

Children's Liturgies -Separate Tables 

"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". (Directory for Masses with Children §17)

These two sentences -- only a portion of a single paragraph in a document of 55 paragraphs -- provide the possibility of having a separate Liturgy of the Word for children when they are a part of a mostly adult congregation.

Despite the brevity and lack of detail or explanation, this is probably the most commonly used provision of the Directory for Masses with Children (DMC). Although the DMC allows for separate Masses only "sometimes", many parishes hold them weekly -- even at more than one Sunday Mass.

In a survey of users of the Lectionary for Masses with Children conducted by the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) in 2000, 62% of responding parishes indicated that they hold a separate Liturgy of the Word for children. The survey did not ask how often such separate Liturgies of the Word are held.

But, according to Sister Catherine (Kate) Dooley, OP, associate professor of religious studies at Catholic University of America:

Within the last ten years Liturgies of the Word for children in a space apart from the main assembly have become almost the norm in the United States. This practice is a controversial one, with strong arguments for and against. (To Listen and Tell. Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1993. p. 75)

The DMC gives few details on how the separate Liturgies of the Word for children are to be conducted. Thus, the only reasonable procedure would be to follow the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) for Sunday Masses, with such adaptations as are permitted by the DMC. Yet many practices common in these Liturgies are not mentioned either in the GIRM or the DMC.

Consider a Liturgy described in an article in the August 2003 issue of US Catholic magazine:

Led by two boys bearing poles with dangling purple streamers, about 60 children head across a covered walkway to a nearby building where they light a candle, sit on the floor in a classroom, and listen to a gospel reading from the 9th chapter of Mark - the same passage the adults are hearing back in church next door, although in somewhat simpler words....

The children then act out the story (a girl in a blue headband is Jesus, and God's voice, booming out from a deep-voiced father on the other side of the room, comes as a surprise). Jesus had been dropping hints about rising from the dead, says the leader ... but what does that mean? They talk about the word transfiguration, then about metamorphosis.... (Leslie Scanlon, "How to Draw Kids into Mass")

In many ways the service described in US Catholic is typical: The children leave their parents and older siblings at the regular Sunday Mass and go to a separate place to hear simplified readings and some sort of explanation. This incident illustrates several questionable practices.

Who "Presides" at the Liturgy?

No priest or deacon is present, apparently. But the GIRM requires that a priest or deacon read the Gospel at Mass, and the DMC does not change this requirement. From the BCL survey it appears that over 90% of separate Liturgies of the Word for children have a "presider" who is not a priest or deacon. The leader is usually a catechist or a volunteer, sometimes a student. Commonly, as in the service described above, the leader is a woman.

Who Preaches the Homily?

The Liturgy of the Word described in the US Catholic story above does not include a homily, but rather a discussion with the children led by the woman who "presides". Yet the DMC lays great emphasis on the homily for children:

The homily explaining the Word of God should be given great prominence in all Masses with children. Sometimes the homily intended for children should become a dialogue with them, unless it is preferred that they should listen in silence. (DMC §48)

Note also that DMC §17, quoted above, specifies that the separate Liturgy of the Word must be one "including a homily". The DMC definitely requires a homily, using the Latin word homilia in this paragraph. The GIRM requires that the homily be given by a priest or deacon, and DMC nowhere eliminates this requirement. However, it says this:

With the consent of the pastor or rector of the church, nothing forbids one of the adults who is participating in a Mass with children from speaking to the children after the Gospel reading, especially if the priest finds it difficult to adapt himself to the mentality of children. (DMC §24)

It should be noted that in this section the word for "homily" is not used. The Latin text of the DMC says that it is permitted that a lay person post Evangelium verba ad pueros dirigat. Literally, the lay person may "direct words to the children after the Gospel", but these "words" do not constitute a homily as required by the GIRM for Sunday Mass.

Canon law is quite definite about who may give the homily:

Can. 767 §1 The most important form of preaching is the homily, which is part of the Liturgy, and is reserved to a priest or deacon....

§2 At all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation, celebrated with a congregation, there is to be a homily and, except for a grave reason, this may not be omitted.

A children's Mass or separate Liturgy of the Word, according to DMC, must always include a homily. By canon law this must be given by a priest or deacon. Thus, if no priest or deacon is available for a separate Liturgy of the Word for children, it seems clear that according to the requirements in DMC 17 the circumstances of "the place itself and the nature of the community" are not fulfilled.

What, then, does the DMC mean when it says that one of the adults may "speak to the children"?

We can find clarification on this point in Article 3 (on the homily) of the 1997 Vatican Ecclesiae de mysterio - "Interdicasterial Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest".

First, the Instruction stresses that the homily is reserved to the ordained:

§1. ...The homily, therefore, during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, must be reserved to the sacred minister, priest or deacon to the exclusion of the non-ordained faithful, even if these should have responsibilities as "pastoral assistants" or catechists in whatever type of community or group. This exclusion is not based on the preaching ability of sacred ministers nor their theological preparation, but on that function which is reserved to them in virtue of having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders....

All previous norms which may have admitted the non-ordained faithful to preaching the homily during the Holy Eucharist are to be considered abrogated by canon 767, § 1.

It then explains what a lay person may do:

§2. A form of instruction designed to promote a greater understanding of the Liturgy, including personal testimonies ... is lawful, if in harmony with liturgical norms ... as a means of explicating the regular homily preached by the celebrant priest. Nonetheless, these testimonies or explanations may not be such so as to assume a character which could be confused with the homily.

§3. As an expositional aide and providing it does not delegate the duty of preaching to others, the celebrant minister may make prudent use of "dialogue" in the homily, in accord with the liturgical norms.

That is, it is permitted by both the DMC and canon law that a catechist "speak to the children" and even conduct a dialogue with them, but only as an aid to their understanding of the "regular homily preached by the celebrant priest".

Note that the DMC assumes a priest will be present, authorizing a catechist to speak only "if the priest finds it difficult to adapt himself to the mentality of children" (DMC §24).

Furthermore, if the catechist "speaks to the children", this explanation must not be confused with a homily.

Clearly, there is considerable confusion in this matter. For instance, Sister Catherine Dooley, OP, in her introduction to the DMC in the third edition of Liturgy Training Publication's The Liturgy Documents states:

"With the consent of the pastor, the homily may be given by the catechist or an adult other than the presider" (p. 231).

The late Benedictine liturgist Father Aelred Tegels commented in 1974 that the DMC "sanctions" non-ordained homilists:

The Directory also sanctions the practice of having someone other than the celebrant (or another priest or deacon) give the homily on occasion, such as a catechist, presumably more skilled in communicating with children. (Worship, vol. 48, #6 "Chronicle" p. 370)

Father Edward Matthews, the only English-speaking member of the Consilium committee that compiled the DMC, in discussing a separate Liturgy of the Word for children, stated that the children are to go to a separate place for the Liturgy of the Word, where a "priest or catechist" presides:

There they are in the charge of another priest, or catechist, who presides at the simplified readings, delivers the homily and directs the Prayers of the Faithful. (Celebrating Masses with Children, p. 74)

Either the priest or a lay person, he implies, can read the Gospel and deliver a homily to the children.

If even influential liturgists consulted by the Vatican as experts are confused (the Consilium was the group of experts appointed by the Vatican to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy), how could ordinary catechists -- much less the children -- understand that a priest is not interchangeable with a lay person?

If a separate children's Liturgy of the Word on Sunday is to be in accord with the DMC -- interpreted in the light of the GIRM and canon law -- it is clear that there must be a priest or deacon to read the Gospel and give a homily. Yet, the vast majority of respondents to the BCL's 2000 survey list religious education personnel, volunteers, liturgy personnel or students as "presiders" for children's Liturgy of the Word. Only 4% responded "priest or deacon".

Can volunteers or students explain the Scripture to children better than a priest or deacon? Does the pastor oversee what is done at the children's Liturgies? Why, for example, does the leader of the children's Liturgy of the Word described above introduce a discussion of metamorphosis? Remember, the reason given for separating children from the main celebration of Mass is that they will be able to hear a simplified reading from a Scripture that avoids sacral vocabulary, like "redemption" and "grace". Is metamorphosis more likely to be understood by children than redemption? Doubtful. But if so, something is badly askew with the pedagogy.

Review of Methods Needed

At the November 2000 Bishops' Conference, some bishops asked that a study be made of the pedagogical aspects of the use of the children's Lectionary. A serious study would have to make some attempt to see how often the norms of the DMC are violated and whether it is true that the lay teachers who "speak to the children" really are more able to adapt themselves to the mentality of children than a priest. But no such study is being planned.

Dramatizing the Readings

The children's Liturgy of the Word described in the US Catholic article illustrates other common problems with these separated liturgies.

For example, the children act out the reading. The DMC does not allow for any such dramatization, though liturgists who compiled the document wanted to include it.

A provision in an early draft of the DMC that would allow dramatizations during the Liturgy of the Word was removed after Pope Paul VI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith objected.

A provision for distributing a reading among several readers is in the document. A number of guides and commentaries on the DMC interpret this provision as allowing -- even recommending -- dramatizations. For example, Father Matthews thinks the rules should be bent to permit "more exciting" dramas:

More exciting than a solo reading is a group reading, like the script of a play. With different children taking the parts -- narrator, Jesus, Mary, an apostle, etc.... The Directory (§47) makes it quite clear in its reference to the Holy Week Passion reading that reading the Gospel at a children's Mass is not the priest's inalienable prerogative.

Reading a script is only one step from full drama. That step should be taken. (Celebrating Masses with Children, p. 135)

Respondents to the 2000 BCL survey listed a number of extraneous activities that are incorporated into the Liturgy of the Word for children: clown ministry, puppetry, skits, art projects and puzzles. Furthermore, the survey revealed that required elements of the Liturgy are often neglected. Few respondents list the recitation of the Creed, which is required in all Sunday Masses.

Volunteer planners of children's Liturgies may be well-intentioned, but frequently are unfamiliar with key liturgical documents. Instead, they depend on various planning guides and workshops for such training as they acquire. Many of these are unreliable sources of information, and may recommend illicit practices, even though their authors or editors are experts in this field.

The introduction to Father Matthews's book, for example, stresses his connection with the writing of the DMC. A description elsewhere in the book insists:

This is not just innovation and experimentation -- the recommendations this book makes are based on the Directory for Masses with Children, which has the full authority of the Church behind it.

The recommendations may be "based on" the DMC, but they are not in full accord with it.

Effect on Children

The most important thing to determine in a study of the use of the children's Lectionary and the DMC is the effect on children.

What about the two-year-old that Bishop Robert Tracy was so concerned about in 1966? He is now approaching forty. Has he had "many more opportunities for meaningful religion"? Have children's Liturgies helped his spiritual development?

If there has been no formal study of the results of decades of experimentation on children, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that should be disturbing.

It is widely accepted that young Catholics often abandon the practice of the faith in their teens or twenties. Why?

In an interview in the July 2002 issue of Catholic World Report, physicist Dr. Anthony Rizzi describes the results of his own early catechetical experiences:

Those of us who grew up in the post-Vatican II Church know how little the life of the mind was respected.... In CCD [Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine], for the most part, we made collages and talked about how we felt. So I had evidence, it appeared, that Catholicism was just about feeling. (p. 52)

Furthermore, he writes:

The new rite had made the Mass somewhat opaque to me; I thought that it was a celebration, a meal. Well, if that's all it was, I had more fun celebrating by playing football or baseball and eating afterwards!

Only later, after reading some old books did, he learn that the Mass is a sacrifice.

Many similarly grim stories can be found in the recent book by journalist Colleen Carroll, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 2002). For example, Miss Carroll tells of a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer who had attended Catholic schools, but found his religion classes mostly "psychobabble":

It wasn't until after college that he realized what Catholics believe about the Eucharist - that after the consecration of the host at Mass, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ are truly present.... (p. 26)

This is not an isolated example. Carroll conducted hundreds of interviews and says she heard too many "wacky" stories to recount. Her overall impression:

If you want to make a Generation-X Catholic laugh, ask him about his childhood religious education. (p. 66)

Advice from Planning Guides

It is likely that some of the wacky stories recounted experiences of "adapted" Liturgies, judging from the suggestions found in planning guides.

Consider some examples from More Children's Liturgies edited by Maria Bruck (New York: Paulist Press, 1981). As the title indicates, this is the second collection of children's Liturgies by the same publisher. All had previously appeared in Paulist's quarterly Service Resources for Pastoral Ministry and were judged worth reprinting. The book's contents are advertised as "a stimulus for original -- and sensitive -- planning". The contributors are mainly women religious, but a few are priests or lay people. The editor, Maria Buck, "holds an MA in liturgical studies from St. John's University, Collegeville, has taught for eleven years on the intermediate and junior high levels, and has served as a pastoral assistant for five years".

These two volumes are by no means the only guides for children's Liturgies, nor are they unusually bad examples. They seem fairly typical of what is available.

One suggestion is to hold a prayer service on February 2 (p. 246). This is the day on which the Church celebrates the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple. The "original - and sensitive" planners who devised the service, however, celebrate Groundhog Day. The "Service of the Word" features a reading about the groundhog and his shadow, and another about the shadows in our lives that "can be made of fear, anger, prejudice, jealousy, being stuck-up, or being confused about who we are". After a reading from the Gospel, the students are given paper and instructed to write down something that is a shadow in their lives.

The shadow papers are collected and the leader is to burn them in a candle flame: "As you are doing this, make some remarks that this action is meant to symbolize that Jesus as the light dispels our shadows".

The Church's Liturgy for February 2 features a blessing of candles and a procession with the blessed candles. Since most children find candles and processions particularly attractive, it is incomprehensible why anyone would remove these features and substitute this Groundhog Day service as an adaptation of the feast for children.

The same volume gives suggestions for a First Communion Mass [See "Teaching the Eucharist", page 12]. Here the homily focuses on "sharing bread" and is illustrated with a large bread-shaped piece of paper. This is torn into smaller and smaller bits as it is passed through the congregation until each person has a piece.

Thus the message: When we share whatever we have, there is enough for everyone. This is what the Eucharist is all about - having enough love to share with anyone who needs it. (p. 270)

There is no allusion to receiving Jesus, only to sharing bread.

It is hardly surprising that young Catholics subjected to a combination of these "adapted" Liturgies and vacuous catechesis reached adulthood without knowing that the Mass is a sacrifice or that the host is changed into Christ's Body and Blood. The reality is very far from the predictions of Bishop Tracy in 1966, and today's bishops are much less optimistic.

Bishops' Concerns

Last June (2003), at the meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, a day was set aside for prayer and reflection to discuss their greatest concerns, one of which was "Sacramental Life and the Need for Catechesis". Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh began his address by noting both a lessening of participation in the sacramental life of the Church -- in particular in Sunday Mass -- and a diminished understanding of the faith.

We have also come to understand that the two manifestations of ecclesial experience today are intimately related. The context therefore for my remarks is the greatly diminished knowledge of and therefore appropriation of the Catholic faith among at least one and now a second emerging generation of people who consider themselves Catholic. In this brief reflection I want to highlight that this is a recognized reality and that terminology such as the "lost generation" and the "undercatechized" are not pejorative but rather descriptive terms. (From the text of Bishop Wuerl's remarks distributed to the press.)

Certainly liturgical abuses contributed to this situation -- and many practices common at Masses and Liturgies of the Word for children are definitely abuses.

The Vatican and several US bishops have asked for a study of the use of the Lectionary for Masses with Children. Any serious study will have to consider the larger question of children's Liturgies in general. We can only pray that when the revised Children's Lectionary is presented for a vote, the bishops will seriously consider whether in practice separate Liturgies of the Word for children and "adapted" Masses have fostered faith and strengthened spirits, or whether they are likely to produce another "lost generation".

In the Liturgy, Catholic children should receive the Bread of Life - and know what they are receiving. To ensure that Catholic children are offered wholesome formation that will nourish their faith, bishops will need to be vigilant in protecting children in their care from those who, in an unending desire for "creative adaptation" of the Catholic faith, would give them a stone.

This concludes the three-part series on children's Masses and the Lectionary for Masses with Children, by Adoremus research editor Susan Benofy. She has a doctorate in physics from St. Louis University, where her husband is a professor of physics.

***

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