This article by Dr Sue Price appears in Pastoral Review Vol 17 Issue 1 January/February/March 2021
My heart rejoiced the other Sunday, as I was sitting in a pew, appropriately socially distanced from anyone else, wearing my mask, feeling alone, when I heard a baby cry from somewhere behind me. At last, a normal, everyday sound full of hope and life. I have so missed the sight and sound of children at mass, the ‘wrigglies’ as one priest called them. I have missed the running up and down the aisle, the busy colouring in, the dropped crayons, rice cakes and spilt water. I have missed seeing them as the body of Christ processing up the aisle to receive the Body of Christ, or a blessing, with their smiles and nods of recognition. I have missed seeing the tiny babies fast asleep in their parent’s arms and the squirming toddlers held captive by grandparents. I have missed witnessing the cuddles, laughter, chatter and sshing that goes on within the usual family mass. I miss the youngest altar server who needs a physical prod from their big sister to remember what to do next and the older altar servers looking after the younger ones. I miss them, for they are life and they are the future.
This article is a wondering, with no clear conclusions but identifying real concerns about the future for our Churches when the children are not there, as a result of all that we have been through over the past few months of lockdown. We have got used to online streaming and now the slow opening up. We religiously wear our masks, cope with not singing and trying to work out what it means to be a parish community in this very different way. The article is a reflection on the witness the children receive by being present at a celebration of the Eucharist and on the witness the children give. It also reflects on the impact of online streaming on children and the potential long-term effects this may have on the children and their sense of being part of the parish.
The witness to the children.
Parish liturgies and communities have a very important part to play as witnesses to a life of faith to children. There is a clear understanding within the Catechism and echoed in the Baptismal Liturgy that parents are the first teachers of their children. The Catechism identifies that “Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God.” (CCC 2226) [i] However, that parental mission needs support. The parish community, through the parish liturgies, plays an essential part in providing this support. As the catechism goes on to state: “The parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents” (CCC 2226)[ii]. In this privileged place, pre Covid-19, children, as part of their families, were able to be absorbed into a Eucharistic community, taking part in the sacraments simply by being present at the Eucharistic celebration. It must never be underestimated the amount of information that children take in, simply through being present every week at a Sunday Mass. They see, notice, hear, receive through all their senses the witness of a eucharistic community. They are learning, perhaps without realising it, the rituals and prayers as well as the sense of community and friendship that is present within a worshipping community. Through seeing the welcomers, altar servers, readers, eucharistic ministers as well as the priest, they are being offered examples of service. The work of the children’s liturgy teams is a witness of caring for children within a church environment.
However, with the onset of live-streaming and the appropriate careful re-opening of churches, these real time actions have largely disappeared. Now in church, the children are present at a Eucharistic celebration that requires them to stay still in one place, that doesn’t allow them to find or sit with their friends. There are limited examples of service, usually confined to the priest, possibly readers and welcomers who are mainly concerned (quite rightly) about the importance of hand sanitation and track and trace forms, whilst being masked. Gone are the smiles of welcome, instead it has become necessary to be able to read eyebrow twitches and interpret muffled speech.
There will be some who welcome the quiet and solitude that is now a feature of our Eucharistic celebrations. However, I am concerned that the witness of our Eucharistic celebration has had to sacrifice something of what it means to be a parish community that can welcome the ‘wrigglies’. Instead of a celebration where all are welcome at the altar, only a special few can go near, the rest of us need to remain safely in our benches. I make the point, that, whilst not disputing the need for these safe and appropriate safe practices to deal with the seriousness of COVID-19, they come at a cost to our parish families. It is a cost that we must be aware of and take into our planning for the future.
The witness of the children
There is another cost that parish communities need to face. We have lost the witness of the children themselves. Children witness to adults through their very being. They remind us of the importance of living in the moment, this moment right now, for this is the important one. That moment might well be a two-year-old having a tantrum because they can’t make themselves or their needs understood, or the teenager altar server totally engrossed in the action of the mass, or the youngster carefully walking up the aisle with a parent as part of the offertory procession. It is also seen in the toddler determined to climb up the altar steps during the consecration, to the acute embarrassment of their parents. The children’s determination, sense of the present moment, natural ability to pray and to be aware of God are vital gifts to the parish.
In the same way, the altar servers and teenagers who are commissioned readers or Eucharistic ministers demonstrate to the parish community that there is a future, and that they see themselves as part of that future. These young people give us hope for it is from them that our future leaders will emerge. We, as a parish need the witness of these children and young people, as we journey with them in their faith lives. The whole community rejoices as the different groups make their First Communions and receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. I acknowledge and applaud the efforts that are being made to allow the children and young people to provide this witness during the current situation. However, I also sense the anxiety within parishes that seems to suggest there is a need to just get these sacraments ‘done’, in case they miss out. Everyone is missing out and we need to acknowledge that.
The potential long-term impact
We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that one day soon, all will go back to how it was pre Covid-19. That is unrealistic. We have to learn to live with this virus. Therefore, we need to seriously consider how we support children within our parish communities so that the ongoing witness to them and their witness to us can continue and be developed.
It is clear from the gospels that Christ saw children as central and integral to his mission on earth. He made sure that they were not hindered and were able to come close to him. (Luke 18: 15 – 17). Going forward I propose that we need to make sure that the measures we have to put in place do not hinder children but truly allow them to become close to God. I asked a 7 and 5-year-old what they thought of mass online. ‘It’s annoying’ was their immediate reply, and that was the end of the conversation, they didn’t feel it was worth talking about any further. I am told that on Sunday they might manage 10 minutes watching before they give up and move away to play. The online service does not bring them into the drama of the Eucharist, it is too remote, too distant and simply ‘annoying.’ In contrast, they are able to watch a 40-minute cartoon story with complete attention and absorption, caught up in the drama of the story.
It appears that virtual masses can engage adults within a liturgy up to a point, but I doubt if they can really do so for children. This is not a recommendation for virtual masses to take on the features of a cartoon story. However, it does mean that we need to find and encourage other ways of enabling the children to participate, either virtually or within the current restrictions of being physically present, at mass.
One starting point would be to stop and consider the importance of children’s spirituality, to then be able to consider the ways that their spirituality can be recognised and incorporated into the parish liturgical celebrations. In turn, the children’s faith journeys are supported. As Rebecca Nye points out, spirituality is essential for faith, for childhood and for a sense of being whole (Nye, 2009 p19). [iii] If parish communities are to be the privileged places for catechesis, then ways that support the natural capacity for spirituality within children need to be found, for from that will grow their faith and their sense of wholeness. This is a far bigger project than focusing on how to get children’s liturgy or First Holy Communion preparation or Confirmation ‘done’ online. It is the essential first step that needs to be recognised to then work out the means of appropriate sacramental preparation and participation in the life of the parish community.
As stated in the introduction, this article is a wondering and a questioning of serious concerns that need to be considered going forward. I do not have solutions, but am interested in starting the conversation. I recognise that children have an innate capacity for spirituality. It will not necessarily be seen through intellectual and rational thought, but it will be seen through their relationships and embodied in their physicality, their actions and movements. It is also expressed in their non-verbal languages of play and of silence. Children do not necessarily have the words they need to express what they feel and know about God, they will need to express their relationship with God in other ways. I also recognise that children learn through play and experience. They play within families. The children then grow through their relationships in the family to create relationships with the wider world and become part of a wider community.
An important part of a Eucharistic community is that it enables children to experience relationships that are beyond their immediate family. Therefore, it is important to consider what happens when the experience of the Eucharist and liturgy takes place, through no-one’s fault, in a situation that hinders a sense of community. What is it like for a child going to mass these days, not allowed to mingle with their friends, which they can in a limited way do at school? Is it hindering or helping the children to grow in their understanding of what it means to be part of the parish family? Is this challenging the parish to re-think what it means to be a welcoming eucharistic community?
There needs to be creative and imaginative ways of helping the children move from passively watching either a virtual or ‘live’ mass to enable them to participate in the Eucharistic community. This is not a proposal for a free for all play session as part of liturgy, but I am suggesting that maybe elements of play and playfulness may offer a way forward that enables the children to connect with the drama of the Eucharist. Play, especially with younger children involves the concrete, real objects that are moved and handled, literally played with. Play involves gesture, movement, imagination and creativity. Play begins with concrete objects and can then move into being able to play with the abstract.
Would it be possible for each family to have a set of their own ‘holy things’ – a candle, some small wooden figures, a small bowl, a cup and a plate, that they use at home. Would this help families to engage with the ongoing action of the live-streamed mass? The candle to be lit by the family and held by the children in turn just as the candles on the altar are lit or the candles used to highlight the reading of the gospel. During the readings the small wooden figures could be used to help tell the story. The cup and the plate can be held as the chalice and paten are brought to the altar for the offertory and then through the Eucharistic Prayer. Maybe the small bowl can be used when the priest washes his hands, the children can copy the action. Maybe there are parishes who are already doing this, it would be good to learn from their experiences. Would this be a way of helping to move what has become a 2D experience back into a 3D practice?
As the catechism states: ‘Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ…by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the mysteries.’ (CCC 1075).[iv] If all that the children are experiencing is a two-dimensional version of the mystery of Christ, how does it work? Is there a danger of live streaming mass being overshadowed by engagement in online games and cartoons where the action seems more real? There is a danger that the real Mystery, encountered through the action of the liturgy and experienced through the physical presence of being there becomes lost if all that the children can experience is a passive, two-dimensional version of Eucharistic celebrations and community.
Are there possible ways of engaging the children within church settings that build on their previous experiences of children’s liturgy? My parish has worked with the Children’s Liturgy Team so that one Sunday mass each week begins with input from the Children’s Liturgy leaders. The children’s involvement they previously had in children’s liturgy has been moved into the mass. This means that with the help of roving microphones, and appropriate social distancing children can light the altar candles, lead prayers and have the gospel broken open for them by the Children’s Liturgy Leaders. Using recorded action songs, children are invited to join in using gesture and movement. British Sign Language has also been used for the Our Father and for other recorded hymns. However, the follow up activities tend to rely on colouring in pictures and word puzzles related to the gospel reading. Whilst this keeps the focus on the Word, it also keeps the engagement at a two-dimensional level. Would it work to use a bag of ‘holy things’ in church too, so that the children have a way of engaging in the liturgy of the Eucharist as well as the liturgy of the Word?
My aim in this article is to open up the conversation concerning this serious question: how does the Church move forward to ensure that children’s spirituality is supported, not hindered, by the way we now have to celebrate the Eucharist? For the Eucharistic Community needs the witness of the children, the children need the witness of the Eucharistic Community. Through this process, the Eucharistic Community becomes a witness to the Kingdom of God. Without this process, we risk witnessing to nothing.
Dr Sue Price January 2021
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church.
[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church.
[iii] Nye, R 2009 Children’s Spirituality: what it is and why it matters. London: Church House Publishing.
[iv] Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Photos by Chayene Rafaela and Jude Beck, Unsplash