Every week should be "Mothering Sunday", with childrenfriendly Masses featuring children's liturgies. But Elizabeth Black (below) argues that her church does not cater for her children's needs. Murray White (right) found a much more welcoming service in Watford
1 HAVE A SIX-YEAR-OW BOY already asking questions about his First Holy Communion, and a three-year-old girl called Grace who thinks Hail Mary is a prayer I invented specially for her and her friend Mary.
They are keen embryonic Catholics, but I have fundamental problems about taking them to Mass. Discussions among Catholic mothers about the difficulties of taking small children to Mass are as common as those about the difficulties of natural family planning, but at least the contraception question has been fullfrontally recognised as a problem, and most of us have whole-heartedly clear consciences about our resolutions.
Of course, taking small children to Mass is an issue of quite different proportions, but it causes me far more Catholic angst than a condom or a coil ever could. Firstly, having moved to a new parish and being in the process of divorce, I still feel slightly uncomfortable explaining my situation in front of my children, and people at Mass seem to be those most interested in the process. Though in the mixed circles of everyday life I don't find it hard to explain gently that the children's father doesn't live with us but with someone else, in Catholic gatherings I suddenly get rather defensive. It's true that I have had far more reactions of sympathy than disapproval, but those few negative expressions oF a situation I didn't want in the first place make the subsequent explanation feel like the confession of a mortal sin.
In addition, I have young children who are easily distracted, rather loud and frequently quite unbearable. I believe that the vast majority of priests have adapted to suffering little children exceptionally well, and I am unfailingly impressed by their ability to give a coherent sermon to a chorus of baby babble and wandering infants. Like my mother, I have become outwardly nonchalant about my credit cards and cigarettes being spread haphazardly around the church while fixing my gaze upon the priest. But, as my conscience jangled, the prehistoric words of my first convent teaching ring in my ears: "Offer it up as a sacrifice for your sins."
Sadly, my local priest is one of the most child-unfriendly I've ever come across, racing through Mass without a nod to the children. To take them to Mass there has become not so much a sacrifice as a penance, albeit a quick one. It's not that I expect children's singsongs and simple language at every visit, but total disregard or tacit disapproval are
more than my feeble faith can manage.
When my son was very small and an only child, we went to a baptism Mass for one of my nieces. As a godmother, I was required to sit at the front near the font. At one point, my son crawled up to the altar rails and pulled himself up on them. To my lasting shame the priest stopped celebrating the Mass altogether until it became obvious that his continuing required the removal of the offending object.
My brother and his wife made of sterner left feet than I continued to take their two babies to church despite a full-scale lobby to the priest from some of the congregation asking him to discourage them from coming en famille. On the Sunday following the lobby, the brave old priest launched a determined encouragement of families with babies, saying that if there was a crescendo during the sermon it was a sure sign that he had gone on too long during a family Mass.
A great friend, too anxious about the noise her energetic boys made in church, had postponed going until they were a little older. One Sunday morning after Mass the priest arrived. She took him into the sitting room with the children and offered him a drink. He quietly said that he realised it must be difficult for her to come to Mass as her husband wasn't a Catholic, but he would still be very pleased to welcome them at church. The invitation took an hour and two glasses of sherry, by which time two-year old John had climbed the dresser twice, smashed a plate and trampolined on the sofa. She decided it was time to distract John, and tactfully showed the priest out. As he left, he whispered "I expect to see you at Mass on Sunday, but don't bring that one, will you?"
At Christmas I went back to my old parish some miles away for carols and Mass. All the children were gathered onto the altar where they sat surprisingly quietly; they were blessed by the priest who seemed to remember all their names, they were invited to sing Happy Birthday to Jesus and to play with the crib figures.
I'm not a natural tambourines-andclapping Catholic, but it felt especially welcoming, and my faith was truly restored. Before I had children I'd have thought this weak and self-seeking, but until I find somewhere or someone not so far away that can make going to Mass with children a positive experience for us all, I'll only be going when I can go on my own. IT is No CHILD'S play being a catechist for the children's liturgy at Holy Rood parish, Watford. Anyone with the thought that it was an easy option to escape from the sermon to look after a few "wee ones" for 20 minutes can forget it.
Several primary teachers, who you would have thought ideal for the job, have balked at the opportunity in the past. Contemplation of unpackaging the gospel for over 90 eager tiny tots has turned the most hardened professional to jelly.
An applicant for the post of Kiddie Catechist needs courage, fortitude, infinite patience, and an ample supply of balloons.
That is precisely the ingredients with which Jackie Elliot has come armed this week. Jackie is one of four catechists who take it in turn each week during the 11.15am Sunday Mass the most popular family service at Holy Rood to miss the "adult" sermon to present an interactive session for an audience whose criticism displays itself in boredom. Two or three fidget by the door as if trying to get out, although most sit in rapt attention or sing along merrily.
Drawing on the gospel theme of the Beatitudes, Jackie asks the large group "what is happiness?"
"Being together," shouts Rebecca, a lively nine-year-old.
Here is where the balloons come in. Jackie writes the children's answers on one each. Some of the 30 parents present become involuntary balloon holders.
Jackie holds back the last one, and quizzes her youthful congregation: "But what happens when you are not happy, when you are cross or argue?'
A puzzled hush is shattered as she bursts the balloon with a pin. The room collectively jumps. It is a simple but effective demonstration.
Order is restored and one child is invited forward to light a candle before the gospel is read. Jackie and her fellow catechists have at their fingertips a pile of resource books supplied by parish priest Fr Bernard Scholes.
She reads from Welcome the Word, by Notre Dame Sister Joan Brown, a collection of simplified versions of the week's prayers and readings.
A small line of youngsters shuffle forward to read bidding prayers. Rebecca is one of them: "Let us pray that nothing will hold us back from following Jesus."
A final song "Rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory..." complete with hand actions, suddenly speeds up after a head pops around the door to "call time".
Here lies the only real problem with the "Children's Liturgy of the Word" at Holy Rood.
It is a purely practical one: how to get almost 100 youngsters out of the main body of the church at the start of Mass and into the parish centre next door as quickly and quietly as possible. Surprisingly, it is managed with a minimum of fuss.
The children are invited by the priest celebrating Mass to leave with the catechists so the whole congregation is aware of what is going on.
Older parishioners appreciate the arrangement because it allows them to hear Scriptures and sermon without distraction.
The children love having their own thing too. Jackie Elliot explains that the material she presents takes into account different ages, so that youngsters as young as three or four and as old as ten or 11 are all kept interested.
This particular week, she gives each child a paper flower with seven petals to take home. She gets the youngest ones to colour in their flower, while the older ones are asked on each day of the next week to write down one particular way they could "put God first".
They are encouraged to involve their parents in the process by sharing what they write.
"It brings us all together as a community, and encourages the parents too, many of whom come out with their children," she says.
Fr Bernard first came across the idea of a separate children's liturgy of the word ten years ago at his brother's parish in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Since adapting the idea at Watford, it has, he says, "given a real boost" at what was already one of Hertforshire's largest parishes.
Each of the holy Rood catechists has received suitable training for the task. Back in the mid-80s, Jackie undertook a short course at the Westminster diocesan pastoral centre at London Colney, where among others her tutors included one David Konstant, just before he became Bishop of Leeds. But, as she says, the main qualification is bags of enthusiasm.
"Jump in at the deep end," she urges anyone contemplating children's liturgies in their own parishes. "It makes you look at things in a very different way."
A sense of humour helps too. Back in the parish centre, the question-andanswer session proves popular. "Happiness is... going to the beach!" A huge cheer echoes around the room. "It's not so happy when you get sand in your sandwiches," deadpans Fr Bernard.
In true panto fashion, the parents appreciate the gag more than the youngsters.