Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then He embraced them and blessed them, placing His hands on them.
The above quote from Mark’s Gospel clearly shows how much Jesus loved the children.
With such a background, I would like to share with you as a priest the wonderful experience of “Getting to Know You,” to know the children of my past 26 years as a monk assigned to minister in parishes. I look back very fondly on these years; I was 56 when ordained to the priesthood; my ministry included seven different parishes; one in Kentucky and the others in southwestern Pennsylvania, and ministry as both parochial vicar and pastor.
Unfortunately, we received little training in our days in the seminary in terms of preparation for children’s liturgies. I officially “retired” at 75 but then my abbot called me out of retirement to help out at a twin-parish which had an elementary school. After four years, the bishop merged the parish. At that point I officially retired, but volunteered as a “senior priest” at one of our urban parishes with a school.
These occasions in my retirement years I cherish because I ministered to the children. You see, one of the great surprises about being 75-plus and being with children centers on how they saw me: Grandpa or Great Grandpa (mostly the latter). Thus, I could get away with a lot of teasing…isn’t that what grandparents are for?
The most important element that I feel any priest needs to possess in children’s ministry comes with the spontaneity of these sometimes little rascals. “Let the child in you emerge.” The priest needs to let his imagination flow with the kids; get in touch with their wonder and creativity. Priests need to “let go” of any fear or uptightness or intimidation in sharing about Jesus and his love and ways through the different liturgies that will emerge. Thus, the priest’s attitude of care and delight with them create the atmosphere for them to wiggle and still listen (hopefully).
In an article from National Network for Child Care, Dr. Corsini writes: “From their experiences with parents, teachers, and other adults, children will have developed some basic sense of trust or mistrust of adults. Some will approach adults with a basic trust, others with a basic mistrust, and others with a wait and see attitude.”
My experience in teaching Spanish to kindergarteners, first and second graders, taught me how sensitive and significant it is to develop trust and autonomy, and it helped me to translate such experience from the classroom to the church.
Here are some principles from my experience in the classroom with the children and some personal comments or guidelines in conducting the liturgy with children:
Many a new or even experienced priest may have problems relating to young ones. Here the idea of intergeneration relationships comes into action. Priest are celibate and thus will not experience their own children in their future; here inter-generational insights come into focus.
First, the priest needs to see the parish as a family; in a Christ-centered way, his adopted family. This also means the children of the parish. He must see each child as part of this parish family concept. In a kind of analogous family relationship, he can draw closer to them as Christ adopted children.
We all know that liturgy stands tall as the teacher of the message of Jesus. As we help the young ones understand in simple but precise words about this journey, then we teach as Jesus taught.
In the Classroom
• Here’s a story from kindergarten: I am fairly heavy with a big round middle — not a pear but truly an apple. One little tot all in braids said to me, “Your belly looks like a drum!”
• One more, I decided to sit in a circle with these rambling kindergarteners, and brought them over to the “story circle” where they were to sit around me in a circle. One young tot asked, “Father Bill, how many grandchildren do you have?” I responded, “Oh, about 500!” He then asked, “Can I be one of them?” I said, “Of course.” (You see this little one is in a single-family situation and does not have a father with him). I was over 75 with a white beard, white hair, and a big belly!
• Tying shoe strings: In this kindergarten class I saw that one little fellow did not have his shoe strings tied, so I leaned over and tied his shoe. While I was in this process of shoe-tying, it wasn’t long before the whole class wanted their shoes tied (they had untied them while watching me).
I could devote many more pages of my experiences with the young ones in the other grades, but the point I am making is to urge priests to feel comfortable being with children in the classroom, in sharing the Mass or Liturgy of the Word with them.
Liturgy of the Masses for Children
If assigned to a parish with a school, a priest probably will be celebrating a school Mass regularly. If he is a parochial vicar, this will be shared. If he does not have a parish with a school, then Masses with children will be infrequent except for First Holy Communion or Confirmation; sometimes the religious education director might suggest a Mass with the children which can involve any of the children attending a particular Mass.
In the case of a parish weekend Mass with children, you must use the readings of that weekend. If it is a School Mass you may have several selections. You can choose the readings from the Lectionary for Children’s Masses.
The development of Masses for children in school can come from many sources: liturgy committee for children; each classroom assigned to assist with the Mass; the priest by himself. Usually, but not always, the selection of the readings will come from the priest. But the total liturgical environment also needs participation.
From my experience, teachers like to have their students do the readings or petitions; this certainly creates a sense of participation which official documents recommend highly.
The problem is the child’s ability to read publicly and also to read with a microphone facing them. Preparation is needed. All upper graders do not necessarily read well publicly, especially with a microphone.
The Priest (or Deacon) as Homilist: Some Suggestions
After reading the Gospel, move as close as you can to the children in the pews. Try not to share your comments while at the lectern; this creates distance between the homilist and the children. Try not to read your homily; use notes just as reminders.
The homilist can walk up and down the aisle also to get their attention. Consider asking questions. Responses will come quickly and easily from children in the fifth grade to the eighth grade.
Bring some kind of “show and tell” — outward picture/symbol/chalk board/puppets, whatever might tease their imagination depending on the readings chosen. For example, if it is still Easter time, you can bring out the lily (represents a the empty tomb); Easter egg (represents new life); a rabbit (another sign of new life). All these children recognize these things and eagerly listen.
If the Gospel has Jesus talking about love, bring a blackboard in front of the altar and put the letters L O V E on the board and have the children take each letter and express something about “love.”
The presider (homilist) usually chooses the Gospel prior to the Mass. Thus he can prepare something that can tingle the imagination and also enable a good understanding of Jesus’ words.
Again, as mentioned elsewhere, involve as many of these children as part of your own sharing by specially eliciting responses from any materials you have brought as kind of triggers for understanding the meaning of the Word.
They love to bring up the gifts for the altar. The method of question and answer has been one of the main methods many children’s homilists use. The fun with this is that many primary kids will raise their hands but do not have an answer or their answer is way off. No matter what, they each need encouragement. By the way, if you are going to talk to any of the short young ones face to face, get down on your knees to their size.
An excellent source for “show and tell demonstrations” can be obtained from Emmanuel Magazine: “God’s Children: Teaching Liturgy to Children.” From my point of view, Ministry to the Little Ones enhances this concept of pastoral care in a very unique, loving and joyful way — never to be forgotten. TP
FATHER BEAVER, O.S.B., is a retired Benedictine monk at St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pa. Before entering the monastery, he had been an administrator in higher education.