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Children’s Liturgy of the Word – Is it Allowed?

May 8, AD2013 27 Comments


This is not the first time I have written about this topic. In the past I have raised several questions about the legitimacy of removing children from the liturgy. I always begin with the same question regarding the children’s experience while away from the sanctuary: Is it liturgy? If it is liturgy, then it seems there is a question about a non-ordained minister proclaiming the Gospel and “preaching” a homily (though “preaching” is often taken to mean directing an arts and crafts activity). If it is not liturgy, then this raises the obvious question about why they are being removed from the Church’s public act of worship. There is an additional question for those who are of the age of reason, particularly those who are able to receive the Eucharist. By missing half of the liturgy, is one’s Sunday obligation fulfilled? The same question applies to the adults and teens that direct the children. The whole thing just seems to go against Christ’s command to bring the children to him. Either that or it serves to de-emphasize the real presence of Christ in the liturgy.

While this is not the first time I have asked these questions, I think it is the first time I have attempted to provide at least the beginnings of an answer. One of the problems with tackling this is that the Church’s liturgical law is notoriously vague when it comes to children. Nevertheless, I was able to find a passage from the Decree and Directory for Masses with Children published by the Holy See in 1973. The Decree was previously published in the Sacramentary. I am not positive if it in in the new Roman Missal. In paragraphs 16-17, the document discusses “Masses for Adults at which Children are Also Present”:

\”In many places parish Masses are celebrated, especially on Sundays and holy days, at which a good many children take part along with the large number of adults. On such occasions the witness of adult believers can have a great effect upon the children. Adults can in turn benefit spiritually from experiencing the part that the children have within the Christian community. The Christian spirit of the family is greatly fostered when children take part in these Masses together with their parents and other family members… Nevertheless, in Masses of this kind it is necessary to take great care that the children present do not feel neglected because of their inability to participate or to understand what happens and what is proclaimed in the celebration. Some account should be taken of their presence: for example, by speaking to them directly in the introductory comments (as at the beginning and the end of Mass) and at some point in the homily. Sometimes, moreover, if the place itself and the nature of the community permit, it will be appropriate to celebrate the liturgy of the word, including a homily, with the children in a separate, but not too distant, room. Then, before the Eucharistic liturgy begins, the children are led to the place where the adults have meanwhile celebrated their own liturgy of the word.\” (paragraphs 16-17, emphasis added)

Much to my dismay, it seems that these sorts of celebrations are permitted. Of course, being faithful to the Magisterium means being faithful even in those things one finds difficult. Thus, it would be both intellectually irresponsible and disobedient of me to issue wholesale criticism of removing children from the main sanctuary during the celebration of Mass.

However, I think there is room here for an honest assessment of the Church’s intent in the words quoted above. I have placed in bold two phrases because I think they provide an important hermeneutic. What does it means for “the place itself and the nature of the community” to permit this sort of celebration. First, I take it to mean that there must be adequate facilities and a critical mass (pun intended) of children to make it both possible and worthwhile. However, it is important to note that the Vatican Decree uses the phrase “liturgy of the word” and “homily” in its approval. This seems to get at an answer to my opening question: the Vatican does consider the activity of the children during this time to be “liturgy.” More than that, it sees the action as an authentic “liturgy of the word,” going as far as emphasizing that this liturgy should include a “homily.”

With that, let’s turn to the 2004 document from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Redemtionis Sacramentum:

\”Within the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the reading of the Gospel, which is “the high point of the Liturgy of the Word”, is reserved by the Church’s tradition to an ordained minister. Thus it is not permitted for a layperson, even a religious, to proclaim the Gospel reading in the celebration of Holy Mass, nor in other cases in which the norms do not explicitly permit it … The homily, which is given in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass and is a part of the Liturgy itself, “should ordinarily be given by the Priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating Priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to a Deacon, but never to a layperson. In particular cases and for a just cause, the homily may even be given by a Bishop or a Priest who is present at the celebration but cannot concelebrate.” (paragraphs 63-64)

Notice that the homily is considered “part of the Liturgy,” further evidence that the Decree above, read in continuity with RS, considers the children’s liturgy of the word to be “Liturgy.” Further, the norms about who should proclaim the Gospel and preach a homily (an ordained minister) and who is prohibited from doing so (“never a layperson”) are crystal clear.

While it is important to consider what the Decree actually says in its approval of children’s liturgies of the word, it is also important to consider what it does not say. There is no indication whatsoever that the requirement of an ordained minister (deacon, priest, or bishop) to preach the Gospel and deliver a homily is waived. Putting all this together, we can return to the phrase “if the place itself and the nature of the community permit.” While the Decree permits the celebration of a children’s liturgy of the word, without removing the prohibition of a layperson to both preach the Gospel and a homily, it seems that the “nature of the community” includes having an extra priest or deacon who can lead the children in a separate celebration.

At the risk of beating this into the ground, a summary to things so far is helpful. According the current liturgical law, it is permissible for a parish is to incorporate a separate children’s liturgy of the word in which the children are lead out of the sanctuary to a nearby facility, so long as three requirements are satisfied. First, the children must be brought back before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Second, the Liturgy of the Word that they experience must actually be a Liturgy of the Word, which consists of the three readings, a responsorial psalm, and a homily (and not arts and crafts). Finally, the preaching of the Gospel and homily must be be done by an ordained minister, and never by a lay person. I am happy to be corrected by the Vatican on this matter, but this seems to me to be a reasonable and honest reading of the Decree in the context of the rest of the Church’s liturgical law.

While I would not want to make a blanket statement, I would venture to guess that this experience is rare-to-non-existent in American parishes, first and foremost because there are simply not enough priests and deacons to accommodate such celebrations.

After thinking about this and writing up my argument, I was feeling pretty good about myself. However, as always seems to be the case, on the internet there is nothing new under the sun, and it came to my attention that Jimmy Akin beat me to the punch by making exactly the same argument back in 2005. Being Catholic requires humility, and Lord knows I could use some. Thus, I would be remiss if I didn’t give Mr. Akin a hat tip and present at least his conclusion, which calls for a revisiting of some of the documents about children’s liturgies in light of more current liturgical teaching coming form the Holy See. It is precisely that with which I leave you:

“Thus as far as I can tell, it is a liturgical abuse to have a separate liturgy of the word for the kids unless a priest or deacon does the gospel and the homily.

“[S]uch liturgies are currently permitted under Church law. There is a document (printed in the Sacramentary) called the Directory for Masses with Children that came out in 1973.

“You may also note that I italicized \”currently\” in saying that such liturgies are currently permitted. I did that because the Directory for Masses with Children is waaaay too loosey-goosey for the kind of liturgy documents that the Holy See is cranking out these days. Among other things, it gives virtual carte blanche for further, unnamed ‘adaptations’ – all in the interests of the children, of course!

“There is no way the current administration in the Congregation for Divine Worship would approve such sweeping permissions for chaos and stupidity in childrens\’ liturgies. As a result, the DMC is ripe for revision, and I suspect that its current iteration won\’t be with us much longer. If Arinze [now Canizares] et al., continue in office for a while, I suspect that it will end up getting revised as part of the current revamp of the Roman Missal.

“One last note: Lest someone try to justify the gospel and homily reading as a further approved \”adaption,\” that won\’t work. There are limits to what that clause can bear, and one of the limits is what Rome would be willing to sign-off on if asked. There is no way Arinze [now Canizares] would sign off on laity reading the gospel and preaching homilies in front of children, so that dog won\’t hunt.

“Many of us have seen the new Mass texts, but we have not seen the actual printed Roman Missal. I wonder if the Decree will be included, as it is in the current Sacramentary, and if not, can we consider it abrogated? When the new Missals arrive, perhaps it would be a prudent time for someone to write to the Congregation for Divine Worship.”

© 2013. Jake Tawney. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Jake Tawney is a husband and father-of-six from central Ohio. He has spent nearly a decade working in education, serving as a teacher and administrator in the public school system, as well as an adjunct professor of mathematics for the Pontifical College Josephinum. When he is not helping his wife homeschool their children, Jake runs and writes for Roma locuta est, a website dedicated to all things Catholic with a particular focus on the Sacred Liturgy. Most recently, Jake has spend countless hours penning the New Translation Monday series which seeks to dissect and explain the changes to the new Roman Missal.

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