Sunday, June 29, 2014

Helping Young Children Appreciate the Mass

All of us have seen families who struggle to keep their young children "under control" at Mass. It's not pretty. Although this is understandable with children from birth until age 2-and-a-half, setting an early basis for a child's full participation at Mass not only helps them get through the experience with fewer tears, it can yield a big payoff when the child is older.

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I have seen children as young as three who can lisp Mass responses, sing acclamations and familiar songs, and stand, sit and kneel when everyone else does - all because their parents participate in the Mass and expect that their children will too. These are the same little ones who remain reasonably quiet during the homily, perhaps while looking at a children's Bible or board-book about the Mass or the saints or while playing quietly with a Jesus or saints doll.

Sadly, most parishes are not helping parents with this piece. Interaction with parents of young children after baptism is one of the most-neglected areas of ministry in parishes today. The basis for young children's participation and understanding of the Mass actually begins with liturgical catechesis for youth, young adults and candidates for marriage. If parents participate fully in the Mass and make the effort to teach their children to do so as well, it makes a difference - for the experience of both parents and child.

Failure to do that is possibly one of the biggest reasons families don't go to Mass. Although we tend to blame it on the culture, sports and other distractions, many parents admit it's because they don't want to fight with their kids about going to Mass. Of course Mass is "no fun" when you sit on the sidelines and only marginally understand what is going on and why. Some families go anyway, but don't seem to be fully present. As a cantor facing the assembly, I have seen quite a few families in which neither parents nor teens sing, say responses or do anything other than sit, stand and kneel, all while staring straight ahead with a bored expression. (Happily most at least do the Sign of the Cross, say the Our Father and participate in the Sign of Peace.)

More than simply helping kids to participate, though, helping then to make real-life connections so they understand the meaning of the Mass is even better. (File this under things I wish I had understood better 25 years ago!)

Dan Gonzalez, a father of two, creator of The Mass Explained app for iPad and author of The Mass Explained blog has just posted this great explanation of what he is doing with his own children. He has also posted the priest paper doll for learning about vestments, the first of 10 art and activity lessons for young children on the Mass, to which he will add to each week of the summer. 
If you think about it, Jesus didn't just suddenly walk into the Temple at age 12. He had been raised to participate in worship by Mary and Joseph. When my own boys were young, they went to Mass every week, and learned to sing and respond because I helped them follow along in the missalette and hymnal. While they may not go to Mass as often today as I would like, now that they are 29 and 31, when they do, they participate fully - because that was what was expected of them from the beginning. That's how it works.

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