Children at Mass

 

"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 families" (CCC para 226).

 

 

Every Catholic of whatever age has a right and duty to attend Mass “on Sundays and Holy Days”. (CCC para 2041). This precept reflects the universal and inclusive nature of the Catholic Church and the central place of Mass in worship and in belonging. Mass is where “All gather together..All have their own active parts to play in the celebration”. (CCC para 1348). Children therefore have a right to attend Mass and we as parents, have a duty to take them. It is good to remind yourself of this if ever you meet with someone who wonders aloud after Mass whether you “couldn’t just wait til, they are older “ or “ couldn’t just attend another Mass”… No, we cannot and should not. Our childrens’ place, right from birth is where Christ himself placed them; at the heart of the worshipping community.

 

So we can feel supported and justified in taking children along. This is necessary to fulfil our obligations, but not sufficient. A child can come to Mass every Sunday for years and remain either indifferent or become actively hostile to the Mass. Some seem to travel in their own little invisible bubble with Barbie Doll or Postman Pat and might be forgiven for thinking that the point of going to Church is to receive endless bread sticks or raisins in return for keeping quiet and sitting still. Children who need threatening or bribing to keep them compliant during Mass are just not understanding what is going on. Much more seriously, they may well be building up a resistance to ever finding out, seeing Mass as some onerous and frankly boring penance inflicted upon them by sadistic adults.

 

The love of God cannot be imposed upon a child or even taught to him or her. Parents and other adults do, however, have a duty to create the kind of environment in which a child may himself discover Faith and the love of God. As adults we also have the duty of providing our children with the example of how to behave. . We have a grave responsibility to give a good example, to evangelise our children and to teach them how to pray.(Catechism paras 2223 -2226). In order to facilitate the growth of Faith in a child they must have an experience of prayer as part of their everyday family life. They need to learn the Hail Mary and Our Father, by hearing them said every day and having the chance to join in when they are ready. They need to read the Bible and have it read to them so that they are familiar with the stories and people of the Old Testament and the Gospels. They also need to be taken to Mass. While at Mass, they need to see us witness to the love and respect we have for the Eucharist. A child will develop a sense of awe where the adults around him are clearly also awe-struck; a child notices everything about how adults behave; the younger the child, the more they notice and the deeper and more indelible impression adult behaviour makes upon them. If we bless ourselves as we enter, genuflect in front of the Tabernacle, move slowly and reverentially and speak softly at Mass, our children will absorb the sense of reverence, which is a necessary precondition for the awakening of their own life of prayer.

 

Such an environment and an example prepare the ground and provide the child with the openness needed to participate in worship, but more is needed.

The environment of the Church must be so designed as to provide for the special needs of the child. In order for Faith to grow and for children to be genuinely and fruitfully welcomed at Mass, there must be;

 

  • A clear indication that breast-feeding is welcomed in Church during Mass; it must be obvious to any new breast-feeding mother entering the church that she and her child are welcome throughout Mass, without her having to ask. ( “Breast-feeding welcome here” stickers are available from the National Childbirth Trust for display in buildings which welcome breast-fed babies.)
  • A clear indication that children of any age are welcome throughout Mass. If they are expected to be habitually taken out for periods during the Mass, we should not be surprised when at the age of 9 or 10 when they are “allowed” to stay for the duration, they do not feel welcome, do not know how to behave and vote with their feet.
  • Enough space for children to move around; it is quite unrealistic to expect any healthy child under the age of 6 to sit still for an hour in a seat designed for an adult; if we do expect them to do so, we are grievously failing to meet their need to move and to experience in the way that a child of this ages needs to.
  • Suitable resources to help the child enter the mystery of the Mass, and crucially a person to monitor the collection from week to week and to keep it in order. Note that offering Mass resources is not the same as giving children toys to entertain them. These resources need to be so made that they enable the child to discover a mystery through the use of their hands. Children under 6, learn best through manipulation; and they have an innate, God-given and overriding urge to learn. This urge is often in a healthy normal child stronger than any other desire, including a desire for “treats”. To tell a child of this age “don’t touch!” is rather like telling a starving man “Don’t eat!”. Any church which sets out to welcome young families needs to have a box of such resources freely available at some prominent location, possibly at the back of the church as families come in. It can include books about the Faith, especially books with a sensorial element such as flaps to lift, different textures to feel. Puzzles depicting Bible scenes are also useful to children. But books and puzzles are not enough. Other objects which can be of great help include large child-friendly non-toxic wooden rosaries ( we bought ours at Walsingham), tiny wooden icons which open to reveal a beautiful gold rimmed picture of Our Lady and Baby Jesus ( children of 18 months and up are fascinated by such things and can spend ages just opening and closing the icon thoughtfully) and a “holding cross” (a beautifully rounded wooden cross that fits comfortably in your hand and which you can hold as a focus of prayer; these are available from SPCK book shops or directly from St Michaels Cottage Crafts in Norfolk tel; 01603 746106) .

 

If such facilities are available to children and they are accompanied to Mass by an adult who gently invites (not forces) them to join in with the prayers that they already know, with the hymns and who draws their attention to the altar at the time of Consecration, then they will have a genuine opportunity to understand the depth and mystery of God’s love for us as expressed in the Eucharist. A very young child takes in everything in their environment; their environment and the happenings and atmosphere within in it, form the deep and unshakeable basis for their sense of self and of how the world is and should be. By the age of three, each child will count as part of him or herself all that he or she has experienced; all that has not been a part of their experience until then will be regarded as foreign to them. The following fact should give us all pause for thought; by the age of three, a child will either have had an experience of God as part of their Universe or God and Church will be seen as alien to them, however interested in them they may subsequently become.

 

We as parents are not responsible for whether or not our children choose to be practising Catholics. We will, however, be judged on the example and support we have given them and we are expected to facilitate the growth of their love of God and their relationship with Him. There can surely be no more awe-inspiring and exciting vocation in the world than that of Catholic parents. If we take our children to Mass, help them join in, explain to them what is going on, and above all show great reverence ourselves for the Real Presence, we will have done our duty. Incidentally, our children will also be much more likely to want to come to Mass of their own volition.

 

There are three excellent publications on the subject of children and the Mass, sadly currently out of print,

but old copies are sometimes available;

"The Mass Explained to children"" by Maria Montessori

"The Child in Church" by Maria Montessori

and "My Lord and my God" By Cardinal Heenan.

I have made notes on the last two, which I am happy to circulate by email to any one who is interested.