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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“And thus, when we renounce for Thee | Its restless aims and fears, | The tender mem’ries of the past, | The hopes of coming years, | Poor is our sacrifice, whose eyes | Are lighted from above; | We offer what we cannot keep, | What we have ceased to love.”
— Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

The “Children’s Liturgy of the Word”
published 13 July 2014 by Fr. David Friel

FEW YEARS AGO, when I was a transitional deacon, I was assisting at a Mass with school children present. As the deacon, it was my role to proclaim the Gospel. Before Mass began, the priest forewarned me that we would be using the Lectionary for Masses with Children (LMC). The Gospel text was from Mark, chapter 14, where Jesus gives instructions for how to prepare for the Passover. As I looked over the text, I was stunned by the first line: “It was the first day of the Feast of Thin Bread.” I have been hesitant about the LMC ever since that moment.

In addition to the LMC, many parishes have the practice of providing a “Children’s Liturgy of the Word” (CLOW) at one or more Masses. This is done by dismissing children after the Collect and before the First Reading to a separate space, where they generally read from the LMC and engage in assorted other activities (Q&A, coloring, etc.) until returning to the church at the conclusion of the general intercessions.

The volunteers I have known in various parishes who have been involved in the CLOW are, to a person, terrific and faithful people with the best of intentions. I share their desire (intensely so) to “reach” young people with the Gospel and to help them become real disciples. Nevertheless, over time, I have grown more and more concerned by this common practice, because I am not sure that it accomplishes the desired end. Does the CLOW really help to form young people in their Catholic faith? Is this something that should be encouraged?

Here I shall present eight reasons why parish leaders might reconsider the usefulness of the “Children’s Liturgy of the Word.”

Reason 1: The corny send-off rituals & banal music that accompany the children’s exit
Almost universally, the ritual that facilitates the departure of those involved in the CLOW is shoddy in form. Very often, it is accompanied by some sort of saccharine ditty that functions, more than anything, to cover the noise of the children exiting their pews.

Regarding the ritual, the Introduction to the LMC provides two sample options for how the priest celebrant might dismiss those participating in the CLOW. This is the text of sample option A:

Receive this book of readings and proclaim God’s word faithfully to the children entrusted to your care. (#8)

In reality, though, the children are not entrusted to the care of the CLOW leader. In the ecclesial realm, the language of being “entrusted to the care” of a person always refers to the spiritual relationship of a bishop toward his flock or of a pastor to his people. That relationship of trust is not something that belongs to the priest in such a way that he can give it away or simply deputize a lay leader to take his place. It is something integrally bound up with his role as a sacred minister.

Reason 2: Children aren’t learning the rhythm of the liturgy
According to the Introduction to the LMC:

In adapting the liturgy for use with children, the Church’s goal is to nourish their faith and lead them to “active, conscious, and authentic” participation in the worship of the whole assembly, but not to establish a different rite for children. (#11)

It is good to read what the intention is and is not, but does this conform to the practical reality?

The liturgy has a remarkable way of forming us, particularly when experienced regularly. Similar things happen outside the liturgy, too. Take, for instance, the beginning of a school year. On Day 1, a first-grade teacher trying to take the class down the hall to the lunchroom will have tremendous difficulty. Explaining the meaning of expectations like “double-file line” and “quietly” is likely to be an exasperating process.

After a couple of weeks, though, once the children get into the rhythm of how things are done at school, it becomes an easy task to take them to the lunchroom. In fact, it almost becomes second nature. Similarly, if a child comes to Mass every Sunday, by the time he or she is preparing for First Holy Communion, the rhythm of the Mass will be second nature. The CLOW can disrupt this natural learning process.

Speaking of First Communion, what is the appropriate age for those participating in the CLOW?

The hearers of the Word for whom this work [the LMC] is primarily intended are children of elementary grades (preadolescents). (#15)

This is a wide age range, to be sure. It would seem worthwhile to establish an upper age limit as a means of narrowing the invitation to participate in the CLOW. At the very least, once a child has been judged old enough to receive the Blessed Sacrament, shouldn’t that same child also be judged old enough to attend Mass with the whole assembly?

Reason 3: Leaders aren’t attending Mass
For the one who coordinates or leads the CLOW, a legitimate question arises as to whether he or she fulfills the Sunday obligation. How likely, though, is the CLOW leader to attend a separate Mass? No one is exempt from the need to be fed at the table of God’s Word, so why are the spiritual needs of CLOW leaders so often overlooked or neglected?

Reason 4: Families aren’t attending Mass together
The Introduction to the LMC states:

Although the Church permits the Liturgy of the Word to be celebrated in a place apart from the main Sunday assembly, it seeks to protect and foster the domestic church, which is the Christian family. (#14)

This seems to me to be an admission of an obvious problem with the CLOW system. This admission, however, does nothing at a practical level to remedy the issue. How can we claim to “protect and foster the domestic church” while absconding to a separate room with the youngest members of the family for half of the Mass?

Reason 5: Priests lose the chance to preach to children
Participants in the CLOW do not return to the main assembly until the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, at the end of the General Intercessions. As such, they are excluded from the benefit of the weekly Sunday homily.

As a young priest, myself, I am always seeking opportunities to reach out to young parishioners and share the Gospel with them. For the many Catholics who do not attend Mass, the only opportunities a priest gets can come in unusual places: on the basketball court, out in the neighborhood, at the parish carnival, etc. Is it unreasonable for a priest to expect that during the Sunday liturgy in the church, at least, he will have an opportunity to reach his youngest parishioners?

As spiritual fathers, priests have a responsibility to preach the Gospel to all members of their congregation, not just those of a certain age; similarly, as members of the flock of Christ, children have a responsibility to grow in wisdom, age, and grace, with the assistance of their parents, godparents, priests, and others.

Reason 6: Unsuitability of the Environment
The Second Vatican Council teaches that Christ “is present in His Word, since it is He, Himself, Who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #7). Indeed, we believe that the Lord is no less present in His Word than in the Eucharist. So the space in which we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word matters, just as the location of the Liturgy of the Eucharist matters.

Very often, the CLOW is relegated to a vestibule, spare classroom, or glorified closet. I’ve even seen it in a stairwell. Almost no one would suggest that the parish community celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist in such a setting, so why is this considered sufficient for the CLOW?

Admirably, the LMC expresses an interest in including sacred music within the context of the CLOW:

The Eucharistic liturgy requires the full use of music, which is integral to the whole celebration, including the proclamation of the Word of God. The responsorial psalm is normally sung by a cantor with the assembly singing the refrain. The gospel acclamation must always be sung. A sung response to the petitions of the general intercessions can enhance participation.

This, I suspect, is not a fair description of a typical parish’s CLOW. Unfortunately, given the constraints of the physical environment, it would be difficult in most situations to respect these norms.

Reason 7: The Lectionary for Masses with Children is a problem
The Introduction to the LMC proclaims:

This Lectionary for Masses with Children adheres as closely as possible to the selection and arrangement of readings for Sundays, solemnities, and feasts of the Lord in the Lectionary for Mass, while adapting them to the needs and capacities of children.

In the process of creating the children’s Lectionary, I would contend that the “capacities” of children may have been underestimated.

The translation issues related to the LMC are innumerable. Some passages are condescending, others unintelligible, and still others pedantic. In order to be concise, we shall treat only one specific example here. I began this post with a story about proclaiming the Gospel at a Mass with school children. I was stunned to find in the first line reference to “the Feast of Thin Bread.” What does this even mean?

The Feast of Unleavened Bread is the Jewish commemoration of the evening after Passover, when the Lord instructed the Hebrew people to flee from Egypt quickly. The meaning behind the feast concerns the speed with which the Hebrews had to pack and leave, which lead them to skip the leavening process. That unleavened bread is thin is an irrelevant consequence (an “accident,” so to speak), whereas the fact that the bread is unleavened is eminently germane to the story (the “substance”).

Moreover, what is to be gained by using the phrase “Feast of Thin Bread”? I see no advantage to the phrase. Are we to believe that children will “understand” that expression better? On the other hand, what is lost is familiarity with an elemental piece of scriptural vocabulary, the iconic term, “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” How does one build up scriptural vocabulary? Certainly not through disuse or avoidance.

Is this picayune? Perhaps, but it is not the only translation issue in the LMC.

Reason 8: The entropic explosion of children returning to their pews at the offertory
When it comes time for the children to return to the main assembly, it is impossible for the leader of the group to escort each child back to his or her family. The result, in most parishes, is that the children explode unchecked through the side door and run irreverently back to their pews. This frenetic motion disrupts the reflective spirit that ought to pervade the offertory.

The offertory, after all, is not simply a “halftime” or an “intermission.” It is, rather, the time during which all present—priest and people (both young & old)—ought to be prayerfully uniting themselves to the sacrifice about to be offered. Is full, active, conscious participation in the offertory helped or hindered by the boisterous reemergence of the CLOW participants in most parishes?

The Children’s Liturgy of the Word, I concede, can be put into practice with varying degrees of success and propriety. Even when celebrated in ideal conditions with true respect for the liturgical norms, however, I am not convinced that the CLOW better serves young Catholics than the regular worship of the parish community.

I am aware of the pedagogy that promotes various methods for reaching the different “ages & stages” of children. All of that is good, but does it trump all other factors? Moreover, “ages & stages” do not end with adolescence, so what about young adults, those in middle age, seniors, and widows/widowers? No one has suggested a separate Liturgy of the Word celebration tailored to them. In reality, experiencing the whole Mass in a pew together with their families may be the best pedagogical method for handing on the faith to children.

While I am serious about the need for questioning the future of the “Children’s Liturgy of the Word,” it is also possible to maintain a sense of humor. Thus, I encourage you to click here for a satirical take on the matter.