The church is at a crossroads regarding Mass attendance, particularly by families of students in parish schools and catechetical programs. Regrettably, the struggle to discover ways to communicate the centrality of Sunday Eucharist sometimes triggers unhelpful innovations that are ineffective and can even erode the spirit of liturgical prayer. My lament over various tactics to attract families and children to liturgy sparks this reflection on the Directory of Masses with Children (DMC). Revisiting the DMC today will raise questions about its effectiveness, reveal its limitations, and ask challenging questions for pastoral practice with the hope of generating more meaningful possibilities for the future. I write these thoughts out of deep concern that children be shown how to pray as baptized members of the assembly.
Of special consideration for this article is the influence of the DMC on some specific liturgical practices, namely, Family Mass, Liturgy of the Word with children, and the how liturgical adaptation is done. Ultimately, careful attention to contemporary practice in relation to the DMC raises question about how we nurture children in the liturgical life of the church.
In 1973 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued DMC. The document was inspired by the Second Vatican Council, especially the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Designed to serve as a supplement for the 1969 General Instruction on the Roman Missal, its goal is to lead pre-adolescent children to better participation with the adult assembly. DMC also emphasizes the important connection between liturgy and Christian identity.
In general, the DMC allows for flexibility in the celebration of Masses with adults where children also participate, and in Masses with children where only a few adults participate. Noteworthy is the language used in DMC. Reference to Masses with children, rather than, Masses for children or children’s Masses, is significant because only one Order of Mass exists. Ideally, labeling Mass as “adult,” “children’s,” “youth,” or “family” should be avoided. Liturgy gathers all God’s people together.
The final paragraph of the DMC captures its essence. It states: “The contents of the Directory have as their purpose to help children readily and joyfully to encounter Christ together in the eucharistic celebration and to stand with him in the presence of the Father” (55). The DMC therefore has as its ultimate goal that children know Jesus Christ!
The DMC holds its place as a landmark document in its efforts toward adaptation and ritual flexibility. Special concern for pre-adolescent children is paramount, and there is a significant shift toward the responsibility of the family. The emphasis on community and liturgical catechesis is also noteworthy.
It is problematic, however, when the document is misinterpreted and misapplied. The DMC cannot be read in isolation. Those who prepare liturgies with children need to be conversant with the fundamental principles and guidelines offered in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and other conciliar and postconciliar documents. For example, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002), The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1988), and the introduction to the Lectionary for Masses with Children (1993) all provide necessary background for the principles found in the DMC.
DMC 46 indicates that it may be helpful to assign parts for the readings. In many parishes, this leads to the practice of Christmas pageants within the Liturgy of the Word. However, the introduction to the Lectionary for Masses with Children is clear, “The Mass is not a historical reenactment of the events of salvation history and care should be taken not to give the impression that the liturgy of the word is a play.” (52) Sadly, many parishes choose to ignore, or are unaware of, this most important point.
Chapter two of the DMC, “Masses with Adults in Which Children also Participate,” seems to be the inspiration for practices such as Family Mass and Liturgy of the Word for children. The Family Mass presumably came about with increased acknowledgement of the importance of the role of the family (cf. DMC 10). DMC 16 highlights the advantage of children taking part at Mass with their family. DMC 19, however, or its misapplication, is the culprit regarding some popular contemporary practice. Permission is given there to use the principles of adaptation on Sundays at times. It is the exception, not the norm. Unfortunately, Family Mass sometimes turns into doing something special for children, rather than showing children how to pray the prayer of the church. The search for something special misses the gracious character of the liturgy of the Church done week in and week out by all God’s people.
Efforts to engage children in various ministerial roles have their place, as DMC 18 points out. But this should not be at the expense of a liturgical understanding of participatory prayer. Sadly, liturgy becomes entertainment, children become the superstars, and adults become passive spectators. Ultimately, efforts to create something special blur the rich symbolic activity of our liturgical tradition. The special activity, rather than the ordinary ritual action, becomes the focus and memory for the child. Examples of this are readily seen in celebrations of first sacraments.
Weekly celebration of the Family Mass fractures the ritual prayer of the community. The purpose of Family Mass is inclusion of children and families. However, in practice it can promote child-center liturgy, thereby excluding other members of the assembly.
It is worrisome if Mass is used to appeal to our culture’s appetite for entertainment. A most important, however much neglected, aspect of the DMC is found at no. 21: “It is always necessary to keep in mind that these eucharistic celebrations lead children toward the celebration of Mass with adults, especially the Masses at which the Christian community must come together on Sundays.” Children and families can be recognized on special occasions, but not at the expense of anyone else’s full inclusion in the assembly.
DMC 17 states: sometimes it is appropriate to dismiss children for a separate Liturgy of the Word. As with Family Mass, this is not intended to be the norm. Added to this misunderstanding, many fail to realize that a separate Liturgy of the Word for children is liturgy, not a catechetical session. Dismissal of children should be done with the same clarity and grace as the dismissal of catechumens. Once dismissed, children go with a capable leader of prayer to another appropriate place prepared with ambo and lectionary. They gather around the table of the Word for an age-appropriate experience of the Liturgy of the Word. Succinctly, it cannot be reduced to arts and crafts. It is critically important to note that the rationale for a separate Liturgy of the Word is not cognitive. The Liturgy of the Word is not something children or adults understand instantaneously. The Liturgy of the Word is an experience of the living Word of God; appropriation of this living Word unfolds gradually over a lifetime.
Part II of the RCIA, “Christian Initiation of Children Who Have Reached Catechetical Age,” is applicable to the application of DMC. Experience demonstrates that children in fact can connect word and sacrament to their lives. Unfortunately, many adult leaders do not understand the RCIA or its impact on the entire parish. The RCIA is not merely an activity listed in the parish bulletin. The RCIA is more like a wave that washes up on the shores of parish life, transforming it forever. Undoubtedly the RCIA is indispensable for greater understanding how to celebrate liturgy with children. The RCIA teaches us that our ministry with children should primarily be initiatory and formational. The goal is to initiate children into the liturgical life of the Church.
Underpinning the DMC is the imperative for adaptation. Chapter three, “Masses with Children in Which Only a Few Adults Participate,” elaborates on the principle of adaptation in the context of weekday celebrations of Mass with school children (which is the primary intent of the DMC). Adaptation should be faithful to liturgical principles. Unfortunately, teachers and catechists misunderstand adaptation by attempting to create liturgies for children. Again, the attempts of well-intentioned adults fall short. Masses with children are adaptations, not innovations. We need only to use well the gift and grace of the Order of Mass. Assigning themes for Mass is not helpful. There is one theme for every Mass – paschal mystery! Accordingly, in regard to adaptation, DMC 21 states, “Thus, apart from adaptations that are necessary because of the children’s age, the result should not be entirely special rites, markedly different from the Order of Mass celebrated with a congregation.”
The provisions found in chapter three of the DMC regarding modifications in environment, music, gestures, silence, and visual elements need to be interpreted in light of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Otherwise we risk inappropriate innovation. Better celebration of liturgy with children requires good collaboration among liturgists and catechists. Catechists need to be helped to grasp a more properly liturgical understanding of liturgy with children.
When considering liturgy with children, let us not forget that children are natural mystics. Developmentally, children experience a profound sense of identity in and through ritual. Young children do not acquire Christian identity from a textbook. Rather, their Christian identity is formed through ritual activity that appeals to the senses.
The Paschal Triduum provides a helpful example. Despite its richness, many adults argue, the Triduum is not for children. I wholeheartedly disagree! I find it disappointing that the DMC does not treat feasts and seasons of the church year. Children appreciate and readily participate in rituals such as foot washing and veneration of the cross. The Easter Vigil is rich in the stories and symbols that teach young and old who we are as a Christian people.
Ironically, childlike qualities are an important aspect of adult faith. A childlike attitude is essential for full, active, and conscious participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. By its very nature, liturgy presupposes a childlike faith that engages the imagination in order to experience the presence of God here and now. In the liturgy, transformation occurs if we but be like little children – open to the God of surprises and treasures. In reality everyone is a child of God. An overly strong sense of factions and cohorts should not predominate when the community gathers in faithful companionship around the Lord’s table.
Critical reflection on the DMC suggests important implications for the celebration of liturgy. I suggest serious consideration of the following. Have we taken adaptation too far? Does the DMC serve best as a resource for catechesis toward liturgy? Has the expectation to lead children to participation created an audience of adults with children performing all of the ministries? Have we unnecessarily put children on display at Mass? Has inclusion of children and their families led to exclusion of others in the assembly? Is there the expectation for entertainment at Mass? Have we underestimated the natural tendency of children toward the mystical? And most importantly, have we failed to show children how to pray?
Careful consideration of the Directory for Masses with Children provokes much-needed attention to the role of children in the liturgical life of the church, and, at the same time, much-needed attention to the importance of celebrating all liturgy well. For it is the liturgy which forms us in our way of being in the world.
Donna Eschenauer holds a Ph.D. in Religious Education from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, Fordham University. She is Director of Religious Education at the parish of Saint Agnes Cathedral, Rockville Centre, New York.