Much has been said in our Letter columns recently about the problems of taking young children to Mass. Fr G. T. Burke, parish priest of Our Lady of the Forest, Sussex describes how his parish have developed a special Liturgy of the Word for children and trained their own catechists to work with young people.
Before Mass begins, two Bibles are placed on the altar, marked with short, simple passages specially chosen to link with the Liturgical Year and so with the Lectionary. All children start Mass as usual, with their parents in church. After the Act of Penance and opening Prayer (or before the Gloria, if a sung Mass) the children come forward to the altar in two groups.
The priest presents one child from each group with a Bible from the altar and all the children and their catechists go through into the house which, luckily, forms one unit with the church. They enter two rooms, prepared beforehand with crucifix and lighted candle clearly visible in each room. From time to time, the catechist reminds the children that the lighted candle stands for Christ, the Light of the World, 'present' in His living words — the most precious words ever written. The catechist points out that here, in the house, they have their Holy Book (Bible) and lighted candle just as the adults in the church have their Holy Book (Lectionary) and lighted candles, i.e. the catechist stresses that this is an R.E. lesson with a difference' — the children are 'at Mass' in the house as truly as the adults are at Mass in the church. They are doing in a simplified way what the adults are doing in the church — listening to God's teaching and responding in prayer.
The catechist reads slowly and carefully the chosen passage from the Bible and says at the end, 'This is the Word of the Lord'. If the passage comes from the Gospels, the catechist says, 'This is the Gospel of the Lord' and kisses the text reverently.
The catechist opens up the meaning of God's word and through question and answer, shows how it applies to the children's daily lives. Catechists are urged to make good use of topical examples, visual aids, pictures from colour magazines, etc.
When the priest begins the Creed, someone in the church slips through to the catechists in the house. This is their signal to begin rounding off their lesson with a simple act of Faith and Bidding Prayers suitable to the theme of the lesson, the events of the past week and the children's own experience at home and school.
The children then process quietly, by an outside route, to the porch of the church. Those who are carrying the offertory gifts gather at the back of the church, and, at a signal from the catechist, start the Offertory procession. All the other children come up behind them and return to their parents, who, at this stage, should be just about finishing the Offertory hymn.
Over the two ycars we have been following this approach to the Liturgy of the Word for children, I have noticed many valuable benefits not only for the children but also for the parents, the priest, the catechists and the parish community as a whole.
The children are in a more receptive mood. Their separate Liturgy of the Word makes them realise that they are noticed, that they young church is as important as the old church. After it, they seem to settle more quietly and reverently with their parents throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Parents make greater efforts to come to Mass every Sunday when they know that their children will receive regular instruction through a properly planned Liturgy of the Word throughout the year.
In our weekly news-material covered by the catechists week by week, so that the parents can help the children at home and build on the catechists' work. The catechists suggest follow-up work in the home — drawings etc. and occasionally, when we have coffee after Mass, we also stage an exhibition of the children's work for parents to admire.
Perhaps the most important advantage of a special Liturgy of the Word for children is the effect it can have on the parish community as a whole. As they see different members go out Sunday after Sunday with the children, the whole congregation is alerted to the fact that they (and not only parents, priests, teachers etc.) are responsible for the christian formation of the 'young Church' and they welcome and rejoice in this way of carrying out that responsibility.