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Forming Children in the Word

Maureen A. Kelly  

Today many parishes celebrate a separate Liturgy of the Word with children. This article will attempt to explain what the Liturgy of the Word with children is, its origin, and how a parish celebrates it well, that is, for the benefit of the liturgical life and faith of the children.

It is essential to keep in mind that the Liturgy of the Word with children follows the same rhythm and purposes as the Liturgy of the Word with the assembly that is celebrated at the same time in a parish community. The Liturgy of the Word with children begins with the dismissal of children from the Sunday assembly and continues with the proclamation of some or all of the Sunday readings and the singing or saying of the responses between the readings. Within this liturgy is a homily that is to open children to dialogue and reflection with the Word in ways that will help them relate the good news of Jesus and the mystery of God's redeeming, saving, forgiving love to their lives. The Liturgy of the Word with children concludes as the liturgy does in the larger assembly, by responding to the proclamation of the Word with an affirmation of faith in the recitation of the Nicene or Apostles' Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful for the Church and the world. Children then return to the assembly to continue the celebration of the Eucharist.

In its broadest sense, the Liturgy of the Word with children is the work of children with the Word. Both the assembly and the person who is the presider, or prayer leader with children, assist and guide the children in this important work. The primary purpose of dismissing children is to provide them with a focused environment and process in which they are more likely to become conscious, active listeners and responders to God's Word in the Scriptures. Remember that although children move to a different space, they are still part of the assembly. The Liturgy of the Word with children is a liturgical experience that opens young people to hear and respond to God's Word in ways that enable them to be nurtured and challenged by its power and to experience the grace of ongoing conversion to the vision and values of God's Word.

It is important to remember that children are sent forth by the priest celebrant and the assembly for worship and continuing the liturgical action. It is not for religious education, arts and crafts, or child care.

The Directory for Masses with Children (DMC) was developed as a response to the direction in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that provided for adaptations of the liturgy for special groups (38). The DMC was approved for use in 1973 by Pope Paul VI and, as a document focused mainly on children's liturgical formation, it may have been one of the more pastoral documents issued as a result of the Council.

When introduced, the Directory for Masses with Children was a groundbreaking and forward-looking work. It was only a beginning. The later developments of the Lectionary for Masses with Children and the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children provided more resources for Eucharistic celebrations of the mystery of faith that would tap into the "special religious receptivity" (2) of children. For this reason, the DMC was and remains a somewhat prophetic document. Pastorally, the Directory takes the religious experience and learning styles of young children very seriously, without watering down in any way the essence of full and active participation in the ritual of the Eucharistic celebration of the whole Church. As the Introduction notes, it could not be a matter of "creating some entirely special rite but rather of retaining, shortening, or omitting some elements or of making a better selection of texts" (3).

The Directory is meant to be a guide to help form young children gradually in the values expressed by the Eucharistic assembly when gathered for the Eucharist (9). It emphasizes the importance of the Word of God (Scripture) having a "greater place" in the liturgical formation of children. While it may seem outside contemporary experience, prior to the Second Vatican Council emphasis on the Scriptures in the catechesis of children, or adults for that matter, was negligible. Today, most catechetical programs emphasize Scripture as an integral part of each session. Many Catholic schools and religious-education programs also take some time during the catechetical sessions each week to reflect on the weekly Lectionary readings with children.

DMC, 17, raises two important points:

It is necessary to take great care that the children present do not feel neglected. Some account should be taken of their presence (throughout the Eucharistic celebration).

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.

The second point energized parishes to begin celebrating the Liturgy of the Word with children. Since that time, some have debated the appropriateness of dismissing children from the assembly. Stories from parishes, parents, and children who have been involved in the Liturgy of the Word with children point to its efficacy. But that is not enough.

Critics are correct to point out that abuses have occurred at times. Some practices have developed that are not in keeping with the celebration as a liturgical experience. So what do we do to make that happen?

The leader is not a catechist. He or she is a leader of prayer, a presider.

Those who lead the Liturgy of the Word with children, as well as those who proclaim the Word, need basic training in and awareness of their liturgical roles. The role of the one who leads the celebration is not to teach religion; rather, it is to lead prayer and to guide children during the homily/reflection to dialogue with the Word and their life experience. This is not an easy task. The prayer leader needs to be comfortable with liturgical language and gesture. Body language is important. The leader needs to stand erect, use expansive hand and arm gestures, and be aware of facial expressions and voice tone throughout the celebration.

During the dialogue with children the leader actively listens to the responses of children and draws from them as they share their experiences of God being present in their lives. Respecting their responses and experiences is more important than the rightness of children's answers.

With larger groups of children, consider having assistants who can be present to children who have special needs or giving special attention to those who are easily distracted. The role of the assistant is to provide the help that enables the prayer leader to be free to lead children through the worship experience.

Create a liturgical environment
Arrange the space in which the Liturgy of the Word will be celebrated as a liturgical space where ritual actions such as processing, standing, sitting, and proclamation can take place with ease and grace. Table and/or lectern covers and banners should be the color appropriate to the liturgical cycle. Symbols that are part of the environment should be the primary liturgical symbols. If a classroom is used, rearrange chairs and move desks out of the way. Create a space where the Lectionary, candle, and other seasonal symbols are prominent.

Be prepared
It is essential that the prayer leader be familiar with the entire "script" for the celebration. Liturgy can be likened to drama. Good drama occurs when the players make the script their own. A good prayer leader will not improvise until the basics are mastered. Knowing the script is essential for timing and presence to children throughout the ritual. Fumbling for what comes next makes it difficult to lead or be responsive to children. Thorough preparation allows the prayer leader to be present to the children who, in turn, will be attentive to the ritual as it is happening and to the reflection of the lay presider, or the homily, if the presider is a priest or deacon.

Practice good homiletics
In the document Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, the U.S. bishops note: " A homily should sound more like a personal conversation, albeit a conversation on matters of utmost importance than like a speech or a classroom lecture. What we should strive for is a style that is purposeful and personal, avoiding whatever sounds casual and chatty on the one extreme or impersonal and detached on the other" (24).

Preaching the Mystery of Faith, the document on preaching that the US bishops approved in November 2012, explains that the homilist needs to be in touch with contemporary culture. "Effective preaching also entails a thoughtful and informed understanding of contemporary culture," the document states. It continues, "Preachers should be aware, in an appropriate way, of what their people are watching on television, what kind of music they are listening to, which websites they find appealing, and which films they find compelling. References to these more popular cultural expressions — which at times can be surprisingly replete with religious motifs — can be an effective way to engage the interest of those on the edge of faith." The reflections during the Liturgy of the Word are always based on the Scriptures of the day and geared to a conversational style. It is important to know the group and to relate the reflection or homily to their lived experience. When such is the case, children can more easily relate the Scriptures to their daily comings and goings. A good homily will inspire children to respond with sentiments of praise, joy, hope, and gratitude. These reflections are not meant to teach a lesson, to moralize or to evoke guilt. In a reflection, as in a homily, one proclaims the "good news" of Jesus.

Be a person of faith and prayer
It is easy to become lost in the details of doing the ritual correctly. As a result, a prayer leader might forget that the effective leader is a person of deep faith and prayer. A worshipping assembly, especially children, get "caught up" in a spirit of worship. Sadly, if the leader is not genuine in faith and prayer, the best techniques will not evoke authentic worship. Children know intuitively and respond to faithful prayerful leaders.

The basic definition of prayer is "raising one's mind and heart to God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559, in quoting St. John Damascene). Prayer takes many shapes and forms. It may be private or public, spoken or silent. It is multifaceted. The Liturgy of the Word is a public liturgical prayer. Liturgical prayer is ritual prayer. Children are born ritual makers. They come to know life and communicate through ritual and gesture — from realizing that the outstretched arms of a caregiver mean "come to me" to imitating the lives and roles of adults through play and ritual expression. Children are naturals at ritual action. Liturgical prayer provides a way for children to sense the mystery that is real but beyond their control. Liturgical prayer also uncovers a natural capacity to encounter God's presence and experience God's transcendence.

Children experience the fullness of prayer in the Liturgy of the Word in the sacred character of the space, the gestures, the objects, the music, and the people. The experience of prayer is enhanced or diminished by the way children are dismissed from the assembly, the environment of the space they enter, the way gestures are performed and music is incorporated, how silence is respected, and especially by how the prayer leader presides and reflects on the word with them. The processions to and from the assembly are processions. They are ritual prayer. It adds to the quality of the liturgical prayer when children are called forth and sent forth from the assembly with a short prayer or blessing from the presider. Encourage quiet and a slow procession both to and from the assembly. In some parishes, servers lead the children out behind the prayer leader. In others, the assembly sings a blessing song. Children may need some practice at first, but they catch on quickly.

Reverence shown to the Lectionary is also a gesture of prayer. Have children bow with the prayer leader or raise their hands when appropriate. Silence as centering prayer may be practiced when children enter or leave their worship space or between the proclamation of the Gospel and the reflection.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; . . . and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God" (Colossians 3:16). Music and singing play an important role in the liturgical celebration. Music evokes, forms, and provides a sense of the transcendent for both children and adults. Liturgical music forms, shapes, and gives voice to what we believe; it echoes God's Word and action in our lives and is a specific form of prayer. Short psalm responses help children remember the (psalm) prayer throughout the week.

The importance of music in the Liturgy of the Word with children cannot be understated. As you incorporate music into your celebration, keep the following in mind:
• Use the songs or responses used in your parish. This enables children to become familiar and comfortable with your parish repertoire. You may wish to consult your parish liturgy director or musician on your choices.
• Listening quietly to recorded music can also be a prayerful and centering experience for children.
• Live music is ideal. Although it is not always possible to have a parish musician or song leader available for the Liturgy of the Word with children, consult your parish liturgy director or musician about this option. He or she may be able to suggest someone who would be willing to be the music minister
• When live music or song leaders are not available, use a recording to help children sing and respond.

When you think about children and the Liturgy of the Word remember that words live. Words promise, challenge, comfort, or tell a story. God's Word is a living Word. The Scriptures are the inspired Word of God both in how they were written and compiled and in their effect as they are proclaimed in the midst of the Church today. During the Liturgy of the Word, God speaks to each of us, children and adults, in this moment . . . now, in a particular word or phrase that evokes a response. The Church says, "It is he (Jesus Christ) himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 7).

When one reflects on "feasting" in reference to the Eucharist, the focus is usually on bread and wine, table and communion. However, the Liturgy of the Word is also a feast. Just as readers of good books and poetry find nourishment and transformation from the words and stories, so do children as they listen to the inspired Word of God proclaimed and alive in their midst during the Liturgy of the Word. The breaking open and sharing of the Scriptures is a primary part of the children's liturgical formation. Christ, the Word of God, is present in the Scriptures. He calls all of us, especially children, through them.

Isaiah 55:11 reminds us that God's Word is effective: "(My word) shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it."

Maureen A. Kelly
is the author of Children's Liturgy of the Word, published by Liturgy Training Publications. She has an ma in theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and has held parish, diocesan, and national positions in child and adult catechesis and formation. She is one of the founding members of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.

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