How to draw kids into Mass

If the most frequent chorus you hear at Mass is "When is it going to be over?" it's time for you and your parish to learn more about strategies for child-friendly liturgies.

Crayon Family DrawingIT'S THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT, the kind of gorgeous spring day when the sight of a dad leading a parade of stair-step daughters to church—four blondes, in black patent-leather shoes and white anklets, swirling the skirts of their sleeveless pastel dresses—could almost stop traffic.

Sun streams through the glass walls of the Church of the Epiphany, set in the trees in suburban Louisville. Grade-schoolers—some of the pastel sisters and a flock of others—are called forward after the opening prayer and greeted by the congregation.

"Bless the little children, bless the little children, let the children come to me," the congregation sings.

"Let me go and listen, let me go and listen, Jesus sets us free," the children sing in response.

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.

This is the story of Jesus going up on the mountain with three of his disciples, when Jesus' robes "became much whiter than any bleach on earth could make them," the children are told. Moses and Elijah come, and then a cloud passes over them, and God's voice thunders down, "This is my son, and I love him. Listen to what he says!" As they go back down the mountain, Jesus warns the disciples not to tell of what has happened until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.

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, Donna Scrivener, but what does that mean? They talk about the word transfiguration, then about metamorphosis.

"I think it has something to do with science," a girl says. "It's almost like caterpillars. They change into butterflies."

Or frogs, suggests a boy.

"Now is it still the same creature?" Scrivener asks. "If you had a tadpole named Buddy, and he turned into a frog, is he still Buddy?"


"Jesus was a man on earth. Then he died and rose from the dead. Is he still Jesus?"

Yes, he is.

One boy asks, "If God and Jesus are both the same thing, how can God be talking when Jesus is the same person"—why aren't Jesus' lips moving too? It's the classic kid question: pure and unfiltered, the kind adults forget to ask.

Back in Big Church—in Catholic churches across the country—grownups sit quietly after the gospel is read, supposedly paying careful attention, listening hard. If there are children in the sanctuary, they're supposed to be listening quietly too—not launching race cars across the pews, not fake-burping at the man behind them, not pulling up their skirts to check out their new underwear. They're not supposed to be asking, "When do we get the bread?" or, for the slightly younger crowd, "Everybody else gets to eat; it's not fair" then pouting, heads down, refusing to offer anyone the Sign of Peace.

They're not supposed to say, louder and louder as Mass proceeds, "This is boring. This is so boring." And "Is it over yet?"

What children are supposed to do at Mass—and what actually happens—are questions parishes across the country are trying to answer. Some, as at Epiphany, offer Liturgy of the Word for Children—different congregations use different approaches, but typically the children process from the sanctuary after the opening prayer, hear the gospel in terms that are easier for them to understand, talk about what it means, then return to their parents for the remainder of the worship service.

Many families think this is beyond wonderful. The children understand what's being said, they don't have to sit still for what seems like forever, and their parents get to spend more time actually listening and praying, rather than doing crowd control.

"Definitely, I can get more out of Mass if I'm not feeding my kids Cheerios and coloring books," says Barbara Dwyer, a mother of two from Louisville.

"We can understand it better because they say it in our words," says Hannah Feldkamp, a third-grader at St. Agnes in Louisville. "If we stayed out in Mass, we might not understand it because they use bigger words."

Others say it's not a good idea at all—that pulling kids out to hear scripture in simpler words is essentially dumb-ing down the liturgy, that children are a part of the family of God and belong in Mass right next to the rest of God's family.

"Did catechetical experts really believe Catholic kids would grow up more committed to the church if sent to another room and given pictures to color during Mass?" a mother of six from Saskatchewan wrote in a Canadian Catholic magazine.

A good pastor, so the argument goes, ought to be able to present the homily in a way so God speaks to all—from the little children to the 90-year-olds.

And all of this is part of a larger discussion—about what parishes do (or sometimes fail to do) to build connections and a sense of belonging between families and church. What do parents with young children want and need from the church, and what can parishes do to make families feel welcome? What are parents' responsibilities? And what can congregations do to introduce children to Catholicism in a way that the light of God shines through and into their hearts, so they don't think of Mass as just rote and boring, so when they get older and have more choices they don't walk away.

Refresher course
Parents are looking for help in raising children—what Kathleen O'Connell Chesto, a Connecticut writer who has researched prayer, ritual, and families, calls a "moral network of support." They're looking for somebody to back them up, their values, and what they're trying to teach their children. Because, she says, "we don't live in a society that supports that anymore."

Some churches that have religious education for children between the Masses on Sunday mornings offer "faith formation" and doughnuts for the parents, too. And some parents, if they're honest, admit they need it. Their own parents may have been of the pre-Vatican II generation, which means they got the Mass in Latin and were told not to read the Bible—that was the priest's job. They were given rules, but not much theology.

Now they're trying to explain to their own children things they don't much understand themselves—it's the parent who hasn't been to Confession in 25 years trying to communicate to a 6-year-old the vital significance of first Reconciliation, the dad who hasn't cracked the Bible trying to explain why Jesus went into the desert for 40 days.

"I'm the typical Catholic," says Scrivener. "I remember memorizing the Baltimore Catechism. I was never encouraged to read the scripture at home. We knew when to stand, when to kneel."

Some parents do expect the church to do it all—directors of religious education talk of "drive-by parents" who drop their kids off for an hour of instruction and Mass and pick them up when it's over. "I've had many children say to me 'I begged my mom and dad to go with me, but they said this is the only day they have to sleep in,'" says Pat Andrews, director of religious education at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Slidell, Louisiana.

"The church teaches us that parents are the first and best catechists of their children. But I don't see that happening a lot, and it scares me," says Mark Friedman, music director at St. John Fisher Parish in Newtown, Ohio, and campus minister and liturgy director at Summit Country Day, an independent Catholic school in Cincinnati. "There are an awful lot of people you see come to church on the big holy days," and when it comes to basic matters of faith, "their kids don't have a clue."

Over the past five or 10 years—no one's really sure how long—more and more congregations have turned to offering some form of children's liturgy as a way to build that sense of connection, and often those Masses are packed with families with small children.

There is supposed to be a structure for this, rules about what is and isn't appropriate—laid out in the 1973 document Directory for Masses with Children from the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship. In reality, however, sometimes it's done well, sometimes it isn't; a lot depends on the training and direction given to the volunteers.

Some parishes use other models—parallel Masses, with one for families with children and one for the rest of the congregation, for example; or keeping children in the sanctuary but trying to celebrate Mass in a way that includes them.

And there still are parishes with the basic philosophy that children should be seen and not heard. "We have been going there four weeks, and at two of the four, someone has come up to me during the Mass and asked me to get my children quiet," a parent of four wrote in an online Catholic parenting discussion. Not one person said hello, the parent wrote, and "they have a big sign when you first walk into the vestibule that says, 'Out of respect for our sanctuary, please be quiet.' "

At another parish, the priest announced from the pulpit: "No Cheerios in church."

Often, it's the pastor who sets the tone—either subtly or by what's directly said. "Our previous pastor felt the Mass was for everybody but mostly for grownups," Andrews says. "As a result, we didn't have a lot of children coming. Now we have kids all over the place."

Breaking open the Word
W hen children do leave the main sanctuary for children's Liturgy of the Word, they're usually elementary-age (although some parishes also have preschool programs), and it's supposed to be done in a way that does not exile them from the congregation but introduces them to what the Mass is all about.

At the Community of The Good Shepherd, a large congregation in Cincinnati, the children don't just straggle out—they process up to the altar, are blessed by the congregation and welcomed back in when they return, says Scott Mussari, Good Shepherd's director of educational ministries. The scripture passages are the same each week as the adults hear, only from the Children's Lectionary, "explained to a level where they understand it," Mussari says. "It's not an hour of total mystery, like it was pre-Vatican II . . . It makes it more real to them."

For some, though, the magic of a children's liturgy is not just in the structure, but in what happens when children encounter the Bible—what Sister Paule Freeburg, who has worked in religious education for parishes and written an adaptation of the lectionary for children, calls "breaking open the Word."

While some prefer a more structured approach, Freeburg relies on music and the power of the gospel itself to open children's hearts. And she tries to engage the children in what the Word is saying, often by asking them, "What did you hear?"

"I don't have any planned homily—I think to do that is to take away the immediacy between God and the children," Freeburg says. "I believe absolutely that God wants to, can, and does speak directly to children, who have a profound spirituality and are very open to the Word. And they get it. Actually, they get it better than we do, because they have no filter system through which to take it. It's an immediate thing for them. That's not to say they take it literally. But they get the meaning."

Sometimes Freeburg will ask the children after a New Testament reading, "What do you think Jesus meant?" The word "think" is very important, she says, because if she asks, "What does it mean?" they assume there's only one correct answer. And she'll often end by asking, "What do you think Jesus wants us to remember today?"

To be so unstructured can be difficult, Freeburg says, but "my goal is to help people understand how simple it is. That's not easy for people who have been catechists for many years. They're accustomed to teaching. You have to talk them out of teaching" and into following the children rather than leading them, even if the course is a little meandering, into believing that "God will speak to these children, through them and to them, and you don't want to miss that."

Not long ago, Freeburg was working with children at St. Joseph's Parish in Carpenteria, California on a Sunday on which the gospel story was about the owner who hires people to work in his vineyards and pays them the same amount, whether they worked all day or were hired at the last minute.

"That typically is seen by children as unfair, as it is by adults, except that they say it, whereas we say there must be some reason," Freeburg says. But that day, a boy of 8 or 9 said, "To me it's like Baptism. It doesn't matter if you're baptized as a baby or a little older . . . or just before you die. Everybody gets the same—heaven."

When she asked children another day about Transfiguration—"What do you think it means that Jesus was shining with glory"—a first-grader said, "I think it means Jesus really is the light of the world."

Liturgy of the Word
with Children:
Some basic guidelines

1. It's liturgy—presenting the scripture to children—not catechesis.

"The big temptation," says Emile Noel, director of religious education at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in New Orleans, "is to make children's liturgy into a religious education class."

In many children's programs "people tend to impose catechetical activity on the liturgy," says Sister Linda Gaupin, director of religious education for the Diocese of Orlando. "People make the liturgy something that they form instead of something that forms us."

2. Children shouldn't just wander out of the sanctuary.

If children are going to leave the sanctuary, they should be called forward, acknowledged by the congregation, then sent forth formally to hear God's Word. The experience should teach them about the structure of the Mass—using the lectionary and the same liturgical colors, following the same basic structure, and using the same sung and chanted responses as the adults.

3. Children should hear a presentation of scripture that is, in the words of Sister Paule Freeburg, a children's liturgy presenter, "true to the Word--that is to say, not a paraphrase, but an actual adaptation."

The Bible passages are presented in a language that is meaningful to them, but unembellished, with the focus on the scripture, the actual words.

4. Adult volunteers need to be not just willing, but prepared.

At St. Martha's Parish in Louisville, there's a rotation of presenters—giving children a chance to hear different people, "broadening the children's vision that we are all called to break open the Word," says Ann Pifer, a volunteer. The volunteers are given background materials—more than they can use—and encouraged to try different approaches, some verbal or sung, some more interactive, some acting out the scripture. "It causes me to really sit down and explore that scripture that week," Pifer says. "I can't proclaim it to the kids unless I've really chewed on it myself."

5. The music matters and should follow the lectionary, too.

At Epiphany Parish in Louisville, the sung responses each Sunday are the same as the adults use, and when the gospel is about forgiveness, the children sing about Jesus knocking on the door (knock, knock, they pound on the floor). "Oh, sinner, why don't you answer? Somebody's knocking at your door."

6. The program should be for elementary school children.

By the time they're in fifth grade, children should be able to stay in Mass and understand the priest. "I like to go to Communion and I like to sing in the choir and I like to go to the children's liturgy, because it's funner," said Catherine Kosse, a 9-year-old from St. Agnes in Louisville. But socially, Ann Pifer says, "fifth graders start thinking they're too good for that kind of group."

Another day, she told of Jesus' healing the centurion's servant. One boy said, "I did meet Jesus. When my little brother died, God came to get me and took me where Brendan was. There were a lot of people." For that boy, "there's no question that the communion of saints exists, that his brother is now in heaven," Freeburg says. "If you don't get in the way, children will tell you those truths."

Should kids stay or go?
There are others, however, who think it's better if elementary-age children remain in the sanctuary with the rest of the congregation.

"A lot of people have centered their whole programs around separate Liturgies of the Word for children, and they're real proud of it," says Sister Linda Gaupin, director of religious education for the Diocese of Orlando and former associate director of the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the idea of a separate liturgy for children is referred to "in only one document in one line," the Directory for Masses with Children, which says it can be done "sometimes" if the place and the nature of the community permit, Gaupin says. Instead, what was supposed to have been an exception, she says, has become for many parishes the norm.

When children are baptized, they become full members of the church community. So it doesn't make sense, Gaupin says, to send them away from the rest of the community during Mass. "When you're dealing with ritual, especially sacred ritual, children are formed by it," by experiencing the ritual Sunday after Sunday, by growing up with it.

"Liturgy is not just about cognitive understanding—that's the bottom-line mistake," Gaupin says. "Liturgy is about our praise and worship of God, and God transforming us. So I think the issue is, how do we prepare the liturgy that's given to us in such a way that it engages believers of all age levels?"

The real issue, she says, is "poor liturgical celebrations for everybody"—lackluster presentations of the liturgy that leave everyone, adults as well as children, feeling bored and unengaged.

At Ascension Parish in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, children do not leave Mass for a separate liturgy. Instead, about once a month during the school year, the parish offers a Children's Focus Mass in which children take over many of the responsibilities—ushering, bringing forth the gifts, reading the scripture—preparing beforehand with practice and prayer. Instead of the typical homily, the priest, or someone experienced in working with children, will gather them forward and ask questions about that day's gospel readings. Part of the idea is to see "what new insights the whole congregation can get from listening to these children with fresh ears" hearing the Word of God, says Christine Ondrla, Ascension's director of religious education. "And the adults often say, 'Boy,

I really learned something today.'"

When the issue came up a few years ago, Ascension opted not to do a separate children's liturgy for several reasons, Ondrla says. To leave the sanctuary, the children would have to go outside to a separate building. Also, at the time the parish was introducing a new Montessori-based religious education program called Good Shepherd—one emphasis of which was to prepare children to participate in liturgy.

In that program, the children use a model altar and handle miniature versions of the chalice, and learn what the words and gestures mean when the priest calls the Holy Spirit down over the bread and wine.

Once, after she'd asked a class to watch specifically for the priest offering the wine and bread up for God to bless, she saw three children "literally hanging off the sides of the pews" to get a better look. "They develop a language of the liturgy and the awareness of it."

Keeping kids connected
However parishes handle things, the bottom line is to have children see Mass not as an obligation or duty but a place where God really speaks to them. It's especially important for children to experience that in elementary school, parents say, because by the time they're teenagers, they tend to naturally turn away. Teenagers say, "'I don't know why I have to go to Mass. My mom and dad make me.' They stand in the back—I call them the pillars of the church," Andrews says.

But what can draw teenagers back, parents say, or at least keep them from leaving forever, is whether they've ever experienced church and Catholicism as a place to be of service to others, a community where they can ask questions and have them taken seriously, a place where they sense that God is at work.

Barbara Coloroso, an author of books on children and parenting, says her parish begins working with children before kindergarten, sharing Bible stories and preparing them for what she calls a "mature faith" in which they understand Catholic rituals and traditions and know that it's acceptable to ask questions.

"To sit through a sermon on abortion when you're 8, or on infidelity or wrath, is just inappropriate," Coloroso says. Explaining things in terms they can understand is not denigrating to the Mass, she says. "It's making it child-friendly. It's making the ritual and the traditions real in their lives. How are they going to understand the mysteries without being given instruction?"

Another component in how children feel about Mass is what they encounter in religious education. Some parishes intentionally try to build a link between what the children learn in religious education and what happens in worship.

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Louisville uses a lectionary-based approach that involves the whole parish. According to Ann Pifer, associate director of religious education, the parish emphasizes that the Word has a message each week for everyone, from grownups to children. So every committee at Lourdes—from the sports booster club to the parish council—starts every meeting by considering a question based on that week's scripture readings.

"It makes the breaking open of the Word very, very important. Because it's got a message for you, even for you, the second-grader," says Pifer.

Creating community
Some parishes also are looking for ways to get parents more involved—recognizing that if parents don't feel connected, chances are children never will either. The dynamics of that can be tricky, because the personality of each parish is different. Some parishes have schools with a tremendous sense of community—the children go to school together, play sports together, are in scouts together, usually for eight years. But not every Catholic family sends their children to Catholic school. And parishes that want to be welcoming sometimes must make a particularly intentional effort.

Chesto says her family spent two years in one parish, "and nobody ever spoke to us," except for a woman they already knew. "We even went to a parish dinner and no one spoke to us—and we're not wallflowers, we tried."

Friedman's parish, just outside Cincinnati, offers a religious education program with evening classes for adults during Lent and Advent and lots of opportunities for families of all types in the parish to get together. The church has a St. Francis blessing of the animals (dogs, cats, horses, goldfish, the occasional frog) followed by a party. They have simple Lenten suppers followed by a speaker. The children see "that church is more than just Sunday Mass," Friedman says. "It is the body of Christ."

How welcoming to be to children—how people react when a baby starts wailing or a father marches down the center aisle during the homily to take his son to the bathroom—is a touchy issue in some parishes.

Some parishes have "cry rooms"—and some parents view them as a godsend, others as a place of tortured exile. Some parents are good at keeping the fussing to a minimum; others don't even blink when their sweet darlings start pelting the nearby parishioners with Barbies.

Chesto thinks there are things parents can do to make Mass more meaningful for children. They can read and discuss the week's scripture passages with their children in advance, have them dress nicely for church—a sign they're going somewhere important—and sit near the front where they can see. When Chesto's three children were young, they were given their allowances on Sunday morning and asked to set something aside for the collection.

After Mass they'd go out for an inexpensive breakfast—"sort of a continuation of the celebration"—or gather for doughnuts at someone's house with friends from the parish. "My children had a sense of Sunday morning being special," she says.

Sometimes, despite all this effort, children will complain that Mass is boring. "I think Mass is boring sometimes," Chesto says, but "I don't go to Mass to be entertained. I go to Mass to pray with my community. I go to Mass the way I have dinner for my family around the supper table. Sometimes it might be boring, but it's important to all of us that you be here." 

Leslie Scanlon, a longtime newspaper reporter and columnist, is a Kentucky-based writer. This article appeared in the August 2003 (Volume 68, Number 8: pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic. 

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