Liturgy Lines: Participating in Liturgy

by Elizabeth Harrington. 

Some people claim that bad things happen to them in threes. In my case, it seems that inquiries about particular liturgical issues come in groups of three. If nothing else, it gives me inspiration for “Liturgy Lines”!

First I received a phone inquiry was about the minimum age requirement for a reader at Sunday Mass. Apparently, a girl had read so poorly at a parish youth Mass on the weekend that the presider had had to intervene and take over the reading. As a result, several parishioners wanted a ban put on children below a certain age reading at parish Mass.

Whilst doing workshops in another diocese recently, I was asked if a reader was doing the right thing in letting his 10-year-old son share the readings with him whenever he was rostered. He did it, he explained, to give the boy an opportunity “to participate more in the liturgy”.

And yesterday a young lady preparing a family Sunday Mass for her community emailed to ask about the minimum age for readers and wanting information about other jobs that could be given to children and youth.

In every case, having young people read was seen as a means of giving them a chance to participate in the celebration. This indicates a misunderstanding about what it means to “participate” in liturgy.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says: “in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members”. (SC 7) It is Christ and the members of Christ’s body – all of them assembled – who “do” the liturgy, not the presider, or the liturgical ministers, but every single person of whatever age and stage who is present!

The role of liturgical ministers is not to do anything for others but to assist the assembly to do its work of worship. “Did I help the community to pray?” is a good question for liturgical ministers to ask themselves after carrying out their role.

The liturgy is indeed “the work of the people”. We all make the liturgy happen by acting as the Body of Christ at worship, by standing, singing, responding, praying, keeping silent together. This is our right and duty by reason of our baptism (CSL 14).

Those involved in preparing children for the sacraments misunderstand the meaning of active participation in liturgy when Confirmation and First Communion Masses are used as an opportunity to showcase the abilities of the children and every child is given an “up-front” part to play in the liturgy. But it is not “participation” when a child reads a Prayer of the Faithful petition but does not join in praying the Lord’s Prayer with the assembly.

The special role of those to be initiated is to share in the body and blood of the Lord for the first time. Before their first reception of communion, the children need to be told how to process to the altar and to answer “Amen”, and shown how to hold out their hands, how to consume the host, how to hold the chalice and drink from it.

The parish’s usual ministers should carry out their normal roles. Others minister to them as they are confirmed and welcomed to the table.

© Liturgy Brisbane. Liturgy Lines columns are accessible on the Liturgy Brisbane website. This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on July 23rd, 2017.


  1. Always a timely reminder. That the liturgical lay ministeria were introduced simultaneously with the widespread push for greater lay verbal and vocal participation in the liturgy was unfortunate timing. How could we have expected people not to confuse the one with the other?

  2. Several times during each year I take turns with other priests in the area to preside at Catholic grade school liturgies. They still select readers whom it is thought will profit from this kind of participation. On occasion I have spoken to school staff to suggest that they apply the same criteria used to select readers in parish Masses and have been looked upon as if I have no desire “to help the kids”, but just want to rain on their parade. Vocal participation in these school Masses is minimal. The staff seems to think that just having a school Mass enhances our Catholic identity, disregarding a well known fact that a great many of these kids are not regularly to be found at Sunday Masses because they’ve already been. I’ve been pastor of a number of parishes with schools noted for the children’s enthusiastic participation, but in this one I’m just one of the four sponsoring pastors. As far as I can tell the other priests lack much interest in the degree of participation.

  3. Often the problem in schools is one of tokenism. It is felt that every child should have the chance to exercise the same ministries as all the others, even if they are manifestly unsuited to them, and even if those are ministries better done by adults. So children whose gift is not breaking open the Word of God are allowed to make mincemeat of the proclamation so that it is difficult or impossible to understand; and yet the proclamation is supposed to be all about communicating the Word to others.

    Many teachers fail to understand this. They say that Johnny will feel left out if he does not take his turn at reading. My answer is always that Johnny has other gifts which can be used in ministry. I say to them, You would not ask a child with physical co-ordination difficulties to be in the procession of gifts, for fear of having hosts all over the floor; so why put some children through the misery of reading? Ah, they say, but Johnny wants to do it. I say to them, lots of adults also want to exercise ministries that they are manifestly unsuited for, but that doesn’t mean that we should let them do it.

    Some 7-year-olds are brilliant readers. Others are hopeless. There is no general rule. It’s all about discerning the different gifts that the children possess. Some children can handle a full reading, others only a single verse of scripture. Adjust both reading and reader accordingly.

    One ministry at which many children excel, in all celebrations, is the ministry of welcomer. Many children have no fear or embarrassment of greeting someone and handing them a worship aid. They can do wonders in putting nervous people at ease.

    Music is another ministry that an involve children, as can liturgical movement.

    And so it goes on. If we don’t use common sense in assigning people to ministries, it does indeed become play-acting or showcasing. That is true of ministers of all ages, old as well as young.

  4. This isn’t only an age thing, though is it?
    There are some truly terrible adult readers out there and the same sensibilities about not upsetting them by replacing them seems to prevail.
    It is good to remind people that ministry means service, and that a sense of entitlement should be left at home.

  5. Many years ago when I was pastor of a parish in Western Sydney, the child (one of a parade of many pray-ers of the faithful) invited us to pray for Pope John Paul “eleven”! It had been written, of course, as John Paul II.

    1. On a slight tangent, I think it was a Franciscan prayer book, published in England, where I saw in the sanctoral section the prayers for the feast of “The Visitation of the BVM to Elizabeth II.” The II meant “2nd Class Feast,” but when I first read it I thought I had missed a headline about a very significant event in the life of Her Majesty the Queen.

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