Monday, November 21, 2011

"Cute" Trumps All: The Ubiquitous Children's Mass

When it comes to liturgical issues involving children, a priest I know has a ready comment: “ ‘Cute’ ” trumps all,” he tells me. I know he’s right, but it doesn’t stop me from making myself unpopular with lots of folks who think that there’s nothing wrong with “cute” and that we should have more of it in the Mass.

I’m not talking here about the dismissal of children at Sunday Mass for a “children’s liturgy of the word” to take place in another room (but see Roma Locuta Est blog for a discussion of that issue). I’m talking primarily about the infamous “Children’s Mass” and the infamous “children’s” choir…and this is not to say that there is not a place for either. Both can be done properly, apparently (eyes rolling…sorry!). There does exist a Directory for Masses with Children, but, as seems to be the American way, it is much abused and disregarded.

The Directory describes acceptable norms and procedures for “Masses with Adults in which Children Participate” (which would be your typical Sunday Mass in most parishes), and “Masses with Children in which Only a Few Adults Participate” (which would be more along the lines of a daily Mass at a Catholic elementary school). I think the problem comes when the decision is made to have a Sunday Mass that looks like it falls into the second category, even though adults outnumber the children, and it’s the main Sunday Mass of the parish. Granted, it may be absolutely true that few adults are actually participating, but given the fact that the Directory was prepared under the guidance of Monsignor Annibale Bugnini, it is unlikely that the chapter title refers to anything more than the number of warm adult bodies actually present in the church.

So, here’s the problem, made specific to the parish nearest to my home (which is not to say that it is the parish of which I consider myself a member, nor does it say I am even welcome there…which I am not…either one):

On the first Sunday of every month from October to May, there is a “Children’s Mass” – explicitly so called by the pastor of the parish. I admit that I have not attended this Mass in a long, long time, but I know what it used to be like, and I’ve heard reports from reliable sources about recent occurrences. All reports indicate that things have gone from bad to worse. I notice that in the online parish bulletin, the pastor has decided this year to call it a “Youth Mass”.

[Pause here for a moment of hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, guttural noise-making, and even some outright shouting of “what is he THINKING!”…okay, I’m under control now. Let us continue.]

This first-Sunday-of-the-month Mass consists of music sung by a small children’s choir. (Small children? Or a small choir? Ummm…both, actually…) What’s wrong with that? After all, we have all seen some really good children’s choirs on you-tube – kids singing Gregorian chant or even sacred polyphony. No, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unfortunately, the kids in our local “children’s choir” are directed in singing little ditties along the lines of “Jesus Loves Me”, and other songs that would qualify mostly as Protestant children’s Bible songs, with little to recommend them to Catholic sensibilities. But it’s so cute!

In my main attempt to change the pastor’s mind about all this a few years ago, I wrote a letter to him, addressing the problems. In part, I said:

…Generally speaking, the music chosen for the children to sing is not suitable to Mass; there seems to be an increasingly childish flavor to the songs, and some are of questionable theological soundness. Even young children can be taught to sing hymns that are more reverent and mature than those currently in use. After one of the last times my daughter sang in the children's choir, she spontaneously noted, "I don't think Lord of the Dance was really an appropriate song for communion." When I asked her for her reasons, she said that it was not slow and serious enough. A good appraisal, I think, "out of the mouths of babes."  Lord of the Dance certainly is not conducive to pondering the mystery of the Eucharist.

There also seems to be an increase in the use of hand gestures and body movements in the songs. While this can be amusing and entertaining in a children's performance, it is liturgically inappropriate. Bishop Vasa's pastoral letter, Servant of the Sacred Liturgy, p. 26, reads "No dancing (i.e., ballet, children's gestures as dancing…) is permitted to be 'introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever.' (Notitiae II (1975) 202-205)."  The children themselves seem to be embarrassed at being asked to perform the gestures, and my daughter cites this as one reason she does not want to participate.

Having the children sing at Mass takes on the appearance of a performance, rather than a ministry. In fact, a number of times, when you have thanked the children's choir for singing, the congregation breaks into applause for them. I think this shows that the children's choir is not truly fulfilling a ministry in the minds of the adult members of the parish, and it is giving the children the wrong idea about what participation in the music ministry means. It is not about "performing" for the parents.

Lest you think I am totally “anti-children” (as the pastor has accused suggested) or that I am mean and stingy and unwilling to give credit where credit is due, here is the next-to-last paragraph of that same letter:

I admire your desire to cultivate children's interest in music and singing; and I appreciate very much the fact that, as always, you are willing to go the "extra mile" to implement a good idea. Still, there are other, more appropriate, times for the children to display their talents. For instance, the children could be invited to perform during the Knights of Columbus breakfast after Mass on the second Sunday of each month; this would probably also have the effect of increasing attendance at that event. Alternatively, a special performance could be arranged on a weekday evening – perhaps even during the Wednesday night RE activities. Most people – myself included! – do like to hear young children sing, and I'm sure performances outside of Mass would be well-attended.

At the time I wrote that letter, the children’s choir sang at the Sunday Mass, and that was that. It wasn’t called a “Children’s Mass”; it was just that we had the children singing. But now there is a change in the description in the bulletin: it is called the “Children’s Mass” or the “Youth Mass”, and we are told that the children will be found helping with every “ministry” available – and some “ministries” they are performing are simply not appropriate. In addition, there have been several times where Father had the children act out a skit which he narrated, in lieu of a homily. I am reminded of the time Father had all the children in attendance at Mass come up around the altar for the consecration! [Pause again for more gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Deep cleansing breaths…]

Tailoring a main Sunday Mass to the children is, in my humble opinion, reprehensible. It dumbs down the Mass, and this does not benefit the children any more than it benefits the adults. Even the Directory notes:

21. It is always necessary to keep in mind that these Eucharistic Celebrations must lead children toward the celebration of Mass with adults, especially in the Masses at which the Christian community must come together on Sundays… (my emphasis)

In other words, these “Masses with Children” should not be the Sunday Mass of the parish, and they should always lead children toward a more mature understanding of the liturgy. A “Children’s Mass” on Sunday, where the children sing kids’ Bible songs, “help” in preparing the altar, act out a skit for the homily, etc., does not fit the bill. It meets the requirements for neither the “Masses with Children in Which Only a Few Adults Participate”, nor the “Masses with Adults in Which Children Participate”. It is an anomaly.
Unfortunately, it is my suspicion that this anomaly takes place at many parishes around Christmas time…particularly that Christmas Eve Mass that many mistake for the annual community Christmas party.


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