Children and Liturgy

I often lament over the well-intentioned adults who think we need to “do something special for the children.” Twenty years ago Thomas Shepard wrote a terrific piece, “What Does It Mean to Be a Child” (Funk, Virgil C. Children, Liturgy, and Music. Washington D.C.: The Pastoral Press, 1990). This essay is filled with sheer wisdom. He explores the qualities of childhood and insists that adults do not understand children. He makes an important point; liturgies for children should not differ greatly from the order of Mass because their purpose is to lead children toward celebrating with adults (75). This essay has resonated with me for all these years.

To add to the misinterpretation of liturgies with children, it seems we have a new phenomenon creeping into our liturgies. Children are often expected to hand in some sort of attendance sheet when coming to Mass; or they are given a card to have scanned; or are expected to have the bulletin signed by the celebrant. This expectation is often connected to catechesis for first sacraments. I fear this might feed into a consumerist approach to pastoral ministry.

There is no doubt: Sunday Eucharist is the most important event for the baptized. All are invited and encouraged to be part of the Sunday assembly; however, I strongly resist this current trend. In our time, we need to discover new ways to educate toward liturgy. One way might be to take the centrality of adult catechesis seriously.

In my lament, I welcome comments and suggestions for more creative ways to bring children and families to the Eucharistic assembly.

Dr. Donna Eschenaur wrote her Ph.D. dissertation at Fordham on “The Paschal Triduum: A Roman Catholic Way of Teaching How to Live and How to Die.” She is director of catechetical ministry at the Cathedral Parish of St. Agnes in Rockville Centre, where she also serves on the liturgy committee and coordinates the Catechumenate.


  1. +JMJ+

    liturgies for children should not differ greatly from the order of Mass because their purpose is to lead children toward celebrating with adults


    Ideally — and I think we should fervently and urgently work to realize this ideal — the parents of children should catechize them at home before and after Mass. Let the children become accustomed to Catholic worship, and let the parents present the readings and homily in a way which their children can grasp what is important at their particular age. The home must be a domestic church!

    One way might be to take the centrality of adult catechesis seriously.

    Yes, adults should be capable of handing the faith on to their children, or else we will fall into a dreadful cycle of parents who don’t know their faith sending their children to learn the faith from adults who barely know it, and those children growing up to be either 1) parents who don’t know their faith, or 2) teachers who barely know it! A rare gem will be the child who “really gets it” and takes his or her faith formation seriously, reading and studying and learning on his or her own.

    We need those gems to be less rare!

    1. Jeffery,
      There is an urgent need to appreciate and work toward the ideal. We ought not compromise the ideal. For example, the church tells us that parents are the primary educators of faith; the baptismal ritual for children affirms this. “You have asked to have your children baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training them in the practice of faith. It will be your duty to bring them up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. do you clearly understand what you are undertaking”?
      Parents : “We do” (Baptism for Children #39).
      This, I believe is the place to begin parent catechesis.

  2. This practice may be connected to the reception of the sacraments, but it also has a more practical application: determining who is and who is not a member of the parish for the purposes of school tuition.

    In my diocese, anecdotally, 40-50% of our Catholic students are not attending Mass on Sunday. Principals and pastors have tried asking, pleading, and guilting parents. Some have resorted to tactics like those described above out of desperation. I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that it is ideal.

    I’ve sometimes thought that a more positive spin would be to give each child a small “Sunday Passport” at the beginning of the liturgical year. Each page would list the date, relevant feast, readings, and a short reflection question. In places that choose to do so Father could even stand in the back of the church and stamp each child’s passport as they leave. This might be a more effective stopgap measure as we work on adult catechesis for liturgy.

    1. Jonathan,

      I understand the practical application, I am faced with it in my work. Even with my resistance, I am asked to implement such practices.
      However, it is my conviction that such practices distort the meaning of liturgy, the ritual prayer of the community. Appreciation for the liturgical activity of the church requires serious consideration in our time. It cannot be one more thing to do or a homework assignment. Liturgy has been and will always first and foremost be prayer, God’s work and God’s initiative.

      While I appreciate your intention, a “Sunday Passport” stamped by the priest, is not the direction I am looking towards.

      1. Donna,

        I can’t say I disagree. In fact, the diocesan Office for Catechesis I oversee does not endorse such practices for just those reasons. On the other hand I have yet to hear any practical/successful solutions for tackling the abysmal attendance rates of children, particularly those in Catholic schools.

        The passport idea arose out of my own wrestling with these questions and, I would hope, at least has the advantage of doubling as a tool for liturgical catechesis rather than a strict “check-in” mechanism. But I have no plans to design or implement it in my diocese.

      2. What if we took a cue from the RCIA and partnered Catholic school families with other parish families who participate regularly in the Sunday Masses? and parish life? They serve then as supports for the school families, encouraging deeper participation in the parish liturgies and life, answering questions the school families might not feel comfortable asking parish staff, being a resource in parenting through a Catholic perspective, teaching parents by example how to talk about faith and hand it on to their kids, both families being accountable to each other in their parish commitments, etc. I can see many benefits all around with this kind of process.

        For most people, if there were people they knew and liked and who connected with them in a social way outside of Mass, they’d be more encouraged to come more often.

        We also need to look at the day to day relationship between the school staff and the parish staff. In the language used in both venues, is it clear that school and parish are united?

  3. Thanks for this! I often get surprised looks from youth and teen coordinators when I tell them that good liturgy with adults is also good liturgy with youth and teens, and vice versa, because good liturgy is prepared using liturgical principles that span all age groups and are adapted for those age groups.

    One of the best resources I’ve found for those preparing liturgies with children is the leader’s manual for the Hymnal for Catholic Students (LTP). Gabe Huck contributed an article listing 15 principles to keep in mind when preparing liturgies with children. Things like: repetition is not only OK, it is required; liturgy has times of silence; liturgy doesn’t happen in a void.

    I don’t think LTP publishes it anymore, at least I couldn’t find it on their Web site.

    1. Diane,

      Yes, thank you, the RCIA provides profound wisdom for parish life!
      My experience with young catechumens shows that children have a natural affinity toward ritual prayer.

      I am familiar with the resource you mentioned. It is one of the best on the topic.

  4. Donna,

    Several parishes with which I am familiar now have Children’s Liturgy of the Word. All I know about it is that the kids return with some coloring materials. What do you know and think about this practice? Maybe this is a subtle way of taking attendance?

    Since the Liturgy of the Word is a pretty passive event during which my mind often wanders, maybe we adults should get coloring materials too? Perhaps we could give them to the homilist as we exit? (Hmm a big blank).

    In the 80’s on the Canadian Sunday TV program Meeting Place a Catholic worship service had the children gather around the circular sanctuary step before the Lord’s Prayer, they were then sent back into the congregation to distribute the Sign of Peace. Seemed to be a good way to use youthful energy.

    Music seems to be a good way to bring young people into the parish liturgy as choral groups, cantors, instrumentalists. I’ve seen a lot of this in parishes with good music directors.

    Not very many young people are lectors. Although one parish does have a program whereby its high school students do the readings, all dressed up as for a special event. Gives a lot of dignity and specialness to the readings since it is a special event in the lives of these young people.

    1. Jack,

      At its best, Children’s Liturgy of the Word is designed so that children are dismissed with a catechist to go to another place; a place that is a prayerful environment, (not a classroom). The Word is proclaimed (with appropriate adaptations), followed by a reflection, creed, and prayer of the faithful. The children return to the assembly for the preparation of the gifts, communion rite, and dismissal.
      Liturgy of the Word with children is not a catechetical session or should it be an opportunity to color. In other words, Liturgy of the Word with Children is ritual prayer.

      There are many practices parishes have implemented that are far from ideal. I certainly agree, children’s choirs are a terrific way to “teach” children about ritual prayer.

      1. +JMJ+

        Liturgy of the Word with Children is ritual prayer

        Thank you for saying this! The Liturgy of the Word for Children should be just that: the Liturgy of the Word!

        I’d prefer it to be done in a church-like setting… perhaps with a simple altar with candles, an ambo, and chairs for the children rather than having them sit on the (dirty?) floor. This way there would be a visual and ritual connection between where their parents are and where they are.

  5. Tough topic – have seen some success with having a separate liturgy of the word for young children; we also support and encourage both youth and high school lectors (unfortunately, does not follow through on extraordinary ministers). We have three choirs for children, youth, bells. These are integrated into the other choirs, liturgies on a schedule.

    One big challenge – the parish elementary school does not focus on liturgy; their own school liturgies are not done well and do not support total participation nor do they link to the week-end liturgies. You also have the separate CCD school – little to no participation encouraged in the week-end liturgies; if anything, kids attend CCD and not eucharist??

    Realize that it takes resources but it is possible to merge sacramental preparation between catholic school and CCD; to merge week-end lturgiies and school day liturgies but it takes commitment and dedicated folks. The youth need to be involved in order to feel ownership – if not, they are just spectators.

    Part of the key is to use the same music (currently not done except for the eucharistic prayer responses).

    Agree with the suggestion about Gabe Huck’s work – excellent.

    1. Thank you Steve. I appreciate your interest. However, I currently have an embargo on it; therefore it is not available to the public. I am working on a book based on the topic.

  6. There should be no difference between the “adult” Mass and the “children’s” Mass. All Catholics, from infants to the elderly, should attend Mass together. The experiment with special eucharistic prayers for children failed. For good reason — the prayers were theologically ambiguous and rather poorly written. Also, a number of priests were saying these prayers without reasonable pastoral cause (i.e. to a congregation comprised mostly of adults).

    Any liturgical separation between children and adults will blur over time. Often this convergence will impact adult development more than children. Both adults and children should hear and pray the unadulterated Mass. An attenuated version “just for children” or “a family Mass” ends up serving no one but those who wish for a shortened Mass or a Mass that merely entertains at the expense of the fullness and richness of the Roman Missal.

    1. I hope we are not going too far off topic. However, I would like to point out that we must be careful about how we use language. When we refer to the Sunday assembly our aim should be to refrain from labeling masses “adult,” “children,” or “family” Mass. This language can possibly exclude people.

      In response to some of the above comments, the challenge is to make liturgy the center of all we do; school, catechetical programs, etc. come together on Sundays as one. In my experience the emphasis needs to be on “parish.” It is possible!

  7. Children’s Liturgy of the Word is a practical option for two reasons: children hear the Word in language they can understand, and parents who have not mastered the art of keeping restless children still during the homily get the opportunity to listen without distraction or distracting others). I agree that there is a necessary ritual prayer component which should not be compromised. However, as the homily is a teaching moment for the adults, so, the “coloring” or other activity speaks to the catechetical age-appropropriate component. Plus, when a child takes home a small resource with their artwork included, it affords the opportunity for the family to discuss the scripture story afterwards, continuing and reinforcing the catechesis.

    As to the question of proof of Mass attendance, I question the assertion that this supports a consumeristic outlook. The parents who drop their kids into sacrament preparation but do not practice the faith already have that outlook. They are purchasing the sacrament, in effect, to be able to check one more thing off their “I’ve been a good parent ” list. Making them go to Mass may not be ideal, but the experience of being there is formative and through the grace of God, has the potential to change a heart or two about Catholic practice. If only two families in a parish decide, after being made to attend Mass during sacrament preparation years, to continue the practice, we win.

    1. Joyce,

      I appreciate your attention to the original issue. Two things, first, the practice of Liturgy of the Word for children can be a positive experience; however, it needs to maintain its function as liturgy.
      Secondly, let me respond to your comment about proof of Mass attendance with a true story. Several years ago I interviewed a women who wanted to become a volunteer catechist. I asked her why she desired to teach. She responded; “for years I came to parish meetings for my older children and I sat in the back. During that period of my life I never went to Mass and you never judged me. And now all these years later I attend Mass daily. I would like to be a catechist.” In whatever was said at these meetings, this women heard an invitation.
      My approach has always been, to assume everyone attends Sunday Mass.
      Remember, good adult catechesis is key to life-giving sacramental practice for adults and children.

      1. To all who are concerned with children and liturgy, read Thomas Shepard’s essay that I refer to in my original piece. It is a classic!

  8. I work in a Catholic school with a different problem. We recently had two priests who had permission to be with us full-time, a wonderful, almost ideal, situation. They were monks from a large order, and the branch they came from is in a formerly-communist country. When they came on board one of the first things they wanted to do was make mass optional, at least for older students (we are a K-12 school). We are a fairly new school, and since 2001, once-a-week mass has been compulsory for all students (except the very young), even for the protestants (30-40% of the school).

    The priests felt that compulsory attendance was problematic for several reasons, but the primary reason for them was that in the formerly communist country, citizens were compelled to do many things against their will and compliance was of course half-hearted and under protest. The Church in that country rightly did not want to be seen in any way as resembling the communist government, and they did not want to see people attending mass half-heartedly or under protest.

    Ultimately they lost that battle at our school when the board of directors held fast to compulsory mass attendance for all students as a symbol of unity. The priests ended up leaving after the two-year trial period they had agreed to. I can really understand their reasoning but many of our most faith-filled students begged us not to make mass optional because of the peer pressure they would feel NOT to attend. Interesting…

  9. Parents and religious educators can be too involved in children’s religious growth. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. In picking up the National Directory of Catechesis, I was amused that the Holy Spirit was not one of the ten chapter headings but was only subchapter heading #73 of 74, on pages 298-300 of 302 pages called “The Holy Spirit is the teacher within.” Since my interest is in spirituality, in the particular ways in which God wants to express holiness in us, I would have put that up front.

    About a decade ago I interviewed parents of children in our parish. For about half of them their real involvement in the parish was vicariously through their children rather than personally for themselves. We should not embarrass them or demand more of them, especially at a time when they have many other responsibilities. If they are happy with the parish’s religious education programs and are happy with their children’s participation, we should be happy. The sociological data indicates that adults get more interested in religion in their 50’s and 60’s.

    Both children and adults need breathing room to develop their own spirituality. Too many one size fits all programs in our parishes. We have all sorts of people in our parishes with different life experiences: professionally, personally and spiritually. These are the people that our children should be interacting with as mentors and role models. We need a lot more small niche groups, less formal programs.

    1. Jack, Indeed all is the work of the Holy Spirit and this is often forgotten. Since you mentioned the National Directory for Catechesis, it is worth pointing out that the section on Liturgy – Chapter 5 “Catechesis in a Worshiping Community, was intentionally placed at the center to demonstrate that Liturgy is the center of catechesis. The chapter retrieves, at least in theory, the historical connection between liturgy and catechesis. Remember, Virgil Michel was passionate about this.

      Yes, in our time, one size fits all programs are not viable. Pastoral leaders need to trust in the spirit active and present in all, accept people where they are, and, provide good opportunities, liturgical and catechetical, to further their awareness of God in their life.

  10. Donna,

    Thank you for your wonderful facilitation of this post.

    You kept things going and on track and brought out the best in a lot of different contributors, some frequent and some less frequent.

  11. Jeffrey said I’d prefer it to be done in a church-like setting… perhaps with a simple altar with candles, an ambo, and chairs for the children rather than having them sit on the (dirty?) floor.

    Yes to an ambo and chairs for the children, but a very definite No to an altar, however simple. By all means place candles around the ambo, if it’s safe to do so. But don’t try and recreate the Liturgy of the Eucharist in a space which is designed only for the Liturgy of the Word. The ambo is not an altar of the Word, either. It is a place for proclamation.

    So — not a church-like setting, but a setting for the proclamation and subsequent unpacking of the word.

  12. A few times in recent years I’ve met with students preparing for Confirmation to help them rehearse the music. They generally sing the songs they know from school Masses, but barely mumble through the acclamations sung only at Sunday Mass (eg. the Festival Alleluia). I’d stop and ask them if anyone knows this piece, and one or two hands would go up. Note that we have probably sung this Alleluia 100 times in the past three years on Sundays.

    I started asking them a simple question, within the context of my very positive and enthusiastic session. “How many of you come to Mass on Saturday or Sunday every week or almost every week?” A couple of hands go up. “At least once a month?” Maybe 1/2. “Does anyone never attend Mass on the weekends?” A few honest hands go up. I don’t dwell on this point, but try to get them engaged in preparing their Confirmation liturgy. The teachers just stand there and smile.

    Saying that this situation is less than ideal is like saying the Titanic had a brief delay on its voyage.

    1. Scott,
      A practical suggestion, use the same acclamations at school Masses as you use for Sundays.

      Also refer to my comments #2 and #18 above for my thoughts on this issue. There is no doubt, catechesis for parents is key! Remember it all is a process. The spirit is at work.

  13. Another practical suggestion, Scott. Make the Mass less predictable and uninspiring and a few more might make the effort to attend.

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