If there's a Catholic child in your life, you have undoubtedly encountered the creature called "children's liturgy." Perhaps, even now, two months before the fact, already dreading the Christmas Eve Mass that you know is in your future, a scene bursting with restless energy generated by hundreds of little hearts beating with frantic anticipation and thousands of little fingers itching to do nothing but wreak hideous destruction on wrapping paper a few hours down the line.
I'll tell you now, and I'll tell you up front - I am not charmed by children's liturgy, and I never have been.
Part of the reason goes back to my oldest son's first experience of a Christmas children's Mass when he was five (He's eighteen now, to put it all in perspective.)
The liturgy was, of course, an extravaganza. Children dressed up like shepherds and angels. Huge cardboard cutouts of a birthday cake and a birthday card. A dramatic presentation. And, of course, the mainstay of children's liturgy, it seems, evidently derived from the Art Linkletter School of Homiletics: precious give and take between homilist and awesomely cute children who will, we can only hope, say the dardenest things, presumably so the homilist won't even have to try.
As we entered the chuch, we were corralled by the frantic coordinator of this affair, who was missing a child participant. She wanted to know if Christopher could fill in. All he had to do was, from his seat, call out an answer to the priest's question: "What else do we have at a birthday celebration?" "A birthday cake!" was Christopher's big line. No problem. Christopher was all for it.
When the moment arrived, Father asked his hopeful question. Christopher froze. The query was repeated. Finally, my little boy shrieked, "A birthday cake!"
Heeding the rules of children's liturgy, the adults in the congregation burst into laughter at the darling little one.
Christopher froze again -this time in shock, this time in horror. "They're laughing at me!" he gulped.
He spent the rest of Mass under the pew, humiliated to the point of tears.
It was pretty awful, and held out for me in stark relief how the concept of children's liturgy does, by its very nature, skew the proper priorities of purpose of liturgy itself.
The idea of liturgies directed at certain demographic groups flies in the face of what the Mass - the Eucharistic liturgy - is supposed to be all about - unity in Christ, for one thing.
It's ironic that in these post-Vatican II days of supposed liturgical "restoration," parishes regularly indulge in these segregated liturgies (for children, for the divorced and separated, for teens) which, by their very exclusivity, do severe damage to the powerful symbolism of Eucharist and would be unimaginable in the Early Church, a time in which apostles, teachers, presbyters and bishops were doing all they could to keep their flocks together.
Liturgical gerrymandering also effects a subtle shift in focus, evident in lots of other aspects of liturgical life today from hymn lyrics to church design: We're not so much there offering thanks to God as affirming ourselves.
Last year, at my old parish, I witnessed an almost startling expression of this tendency at yes, another children's liturgy.
It was the closing song, a little ditty called "I am Somebody." As the children's choir warbled the lyrics of this song Jesse Jackson might well have penned, a set of parents moved to the end of the pew, and, almost on cue, turned completely away from the altar, whipped out their video cameras, and started taping for posterity the image of their children singing about themselves at Mass.
But there's more, even beyond issues of divisiveness and undermining of symbols. We have to honestly ask - do children's liturgies work? Do they serve their stated purpose of making liturgy more accessible to children and therefore deepening their experiences of God's experiences of God by making liturgy more "accessible" to them? Does childish liturgy plant seeds for spiritual growth? Does it center children on what the liturgy is really about and hook them into the real source of power in the liturgy, which is the Presence of Christ?
I have to say - I really don't think so. Most of the time, incorporating amusing interactions and childish symbols into liturgy teeters periously close to giving children the distinct impression that the Mass exists to entertain them. Who could be surprised then, when as teenagers, these children claim "boredom" with liturgies that no longer entertain them?
Secondly, what purpose is served in bringing liturgy down to a child's level of experience and understanding? We could all stand a break from obtuse homilies, and there's a great value in involving properly trained children in appropriate liturgical ministries. But making a parish liturgy into Vacation Bible School Redux is almost a catechetical crime.
Children may be briefly and superficially engaged by gimmicks, but such things are counterproductive in the long run. They don't set the framework for growoing into a more adult approach to liturgy.
No, what truly fascinates children and, more importantly, enriches their faith is a fearless use of the robust liturgical symbols, sounds and gestures that our Catholic tradition offers. Incense, candles, quality art, meaningful music, chant, deeply prayerful presiding and even silence intrigue children and teach them that faith matters, that God is solid as a rock in His love, power and even mystery, and that Mass and Sesame Street are not synonymous.
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