Today many parishes celebrate a separate Liturgy of the Word
with children. This article will attempt to explain what the
Liturgy of the Word with children is, its origin, and how a parish
celebrates it well, that is, for the benefit of the liturgical life and
faith of the children.
It is essential to keep in mind that the Liturgy of the Word with
children follows the same rhythm and purposes as the Liturgy of
the Word with the assembly that is celebrated at the same time
in a parish community. The Liturgy of the Word with children
begins with the dismissal of children from the Sunday assembly
and continues with the proclamation of some or all of the
Sunday readings and the singing or saying of the responses
between the readings. Within this liturgy is a homily that is to
open children to dialogue and reflection with the Word in ways
that will help them relate the good news of Jesus and the mystery
of God's redeeming, saving, forgiving love to their lives. The
Liturgy of the Word with children concludes as the liturgy does
in the larger assembly, by responding to the proclamation of the
Word with an affirmation of faith in the recitation of the Nicene
or Apostles' Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful for the Church
and the world. Children then return to the assembly to continue
the celebration of the Eucharist.
In its broadest sense, the Liturgy of the Word with children
is the work of children with the Word. Both the assembly
and the person who is the presider, or prayer leader with children,
assist and guide the children in this important work. The
primary purpose of dismissing children is to provide them with
a focused environment and process in which they are more
likely to become conscious, active listeners and responders to
God's Word in the Scriptures. Remember that although children
move to a different space, they are still part of the assembly. The
Liturgy of the Word with children is a liturgical experience that
opens young people to hear and respond to God's Word in ways
that enable them to be nurtured and challenged by its power and
to experience the grace of ongoing conversion to the vision and
values of God's Word.
It is important to remember that children are sent forth by
the priest celebrant and the assembly for worship and continuing
the liturgical action. It is not for religious education, arts and
crafts, or child care.
The Directory for Masses with Children (DMC) was developed as a
response to the direction in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that provided for adaptations of the liturgy for special groups
(38). The DMC was approved for use in 1973 by Pope Paul VI
and, as a document focused mainly on children's liturgical
formation, it may have been one of the more pastoral documents
issued as a result of the Council.
When introduced, the Directory for Masses with Children was a groundbreaking and forward-looking work. It was only a
beginning. The later developments of the Lectionary for Masses
with Children and the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with
Children provided more resources for Eucharistic celebrations
of the mystery of faith that would tap into the "special religious
receptivity" (2) of children. For this reason, the DMC was and
remains a somewhat prophetic document. Pastorally, the
Directory takes the religious experience and learning styles of
young children very seriously, without watering down in any
way the essence of full and active participation in the ritual
of the Eucharistic celebration of the whole Church. As the
Introduction notes, it could not be a matter of "creating some
entirely special rite but rather of retaining, shortening, or omitting
some elements or of making a better selection of texts" (3).
The Directory is meant to be a guide to help form young
children gradually in the values expressed by the Eucharistic
assembly when gathered for the Eucharist (9). It emphasizes the
importance of the Word of God (Scripture) having a "greater
place" in the liturgical formation of children. While it may seem
outside contemporary experience, prior to the Second Vatican
Council emphasis on the Scriptures in the catechesis of children,
or adults for that matter, was negligible. Today, most catechetical
programs emphasize Scripture as an integral part of each session.
Many Catholic schools and religious-education programs
also take some time during the catechetical sessions each week
to reflect on the weekly Lectionary readings with children.
DMC, 17, raises two important points:
||It is necessary to take great care that the children present
do not feel neglected. Some account should be taken of
their presence (throughout the Eucharistic celebration).
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.
The second point energized parishes to begin celebrating
the Liturgy of the Word with children. Since that time, some
have debated the appropriateness of dismissing children from
the assembly. Stories from parishes, parents, and children who
have been involved in the Liturgy of the Word with children
point to its efficacy. But that is not enough.
Critics are correct to point out that abuses have occurred
at times. Some practices have developed that are not in keeping
with the celebration as a liturgical experience. So what do we do
to make that happen?
The leader is not a catechist. He or she is a leader of prayer,
Those who lead the Liturgy of the Word with children, as
well as those who proclaim the Word, need basic training in and
awareness of their liturgical roles. The role of the one who leads
the celebration is not to teach religion; rather, it is to lead prayer
and to guide children during the homily/reflection to dialogue
with the Word and their life experience. This is not an easy task.
The prayer leader needs to be comfortable with liturgical language
and gesture. Body language is important. The leader needs to
stand erect, use expansive hand and arm gestures, and be aware
of facial expressions and voice tone throughout the celebration.
During the dialogue with children the leader actively listens
to the responses of children and draws from them as they
share their experiences of God being present in their lives.
Respecting their responses and experiences is more important
than the rightness of children's answers.
With larger groups of children, consider having assistants
who can be present to children who have special needs or giving
special attention to those who are easily distracted. The role of
the assistant is to provide the help that enables the prayer leader
to be free to lead children through the worship experience.
Arrange the space in which the Liturgy of the Word will be celebrated
as a liturgical space where ritual actions such as processing,
standing, sitting, and proclamation can take place with ease
and grace. Table and/or lectern covers and banners should be the
color appropriate to the liturgical cycle. Symbols that are part of
the environment should be the primary liturgical symbols. If a
classroom is used, rearrange chairs and move desks out of the
way. Create a space where the Lectionary, candle, and other seasonal
symbols are prominent.
It is essential that the prayer leader be familiar with the entire
"script" for the celebration. Liturgy can be likened to drama.
Good drama occurs when the players make the script their own.
A good prayer leader will not improvise until the basics are mastered.
Knowing the script is essential for timing and presence to
children throughout the ritual. Fumbling for what comes next
makes it difficult to lead or be responsive to children. Thorough
preparation allows the prayer leader to be present to the children
who, in turn, will be attentive to the ritual as it is happening and
to the reflection of the lay presider, or the homily, if the presider
is a priest or deacon.
In the document Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the
Sunday Assembly, the U.S. bishops note: " A homily should sound
more like a personal conversation, albeit a conversation on matters
of utmost importance than like a speech or a classroom lecture.
What we should strive for is a style that is purposeful and
personal, avoiding whatever sounds casual and chatty on the one
extreme or impersonal and detached on the other" (24).
Preaching the Mystery of Faith, the document on preaching
that the US bishops approved in November 2012, explains that
the homilist needs to be in touch with contemporary culture.
"Effective preaching also entails a thoughtful and informed
understanding of contemporary culture," the document states. It
continues, "Preachers should be aware, in an appropriate way, of
what their people are watching on television, what kind of music
they are listening to, which websites they find appealing, and
which films they find compelling. References to these more popular
cultural expressions — which at times can be surprisingly
replete with religious motifs — can be an effective way to engage
the interest of those on the edge of faith." The reflections during
the Liturgy of the Word are always based on the Scriptures of the
day and geared to a conversational style. It is important to know
the group and to relate the reflection or homily to their lived
experience. When such is the case, children can more easily
relate the Scriptures to their daily comings and goings. A good
homily will inspire children to respond with sentiments of
praise, joy, hope, and gratitude. These reflections are not meant
to teach a lesson, to moralize or to evoke guilt. In a reflection, as
in a homily, one proclaims the "good news" of Jesus.
It is easy to become lost in the details of doing the ritual correctly.
As a result, a prayer leader might forget that the effective
leader is a person of deep faith and prayer. A worshipping
assembly, especially children, get "caught up" in a spirit of worship.
Sadly, if the leader is not genuine in faith and prayer, the
best techniques will not evoke authentic worship. Children
know intuitively and respond to faithful prayerful leaders.
The basic definition of prayer is "raising one's mind and heart to
God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559, in quoting
St. John Damascene). Prayer takes many shapes and forms.
It may be private or public, spoken or silent. It is multifaceted.
The Liturgy of the Word is a public liturgical prayer. Liturgical
prayer is ritual prayer. Children are born ritual makers. They
come to know life and communicate through ritual and gesture
— from realizing that the outstretched arms of a caregiver
mean "come to me" to imitating the lives and roles of adults
through play and ritual expression. Children are naturals at ritual
action. Liturgical prayer provides a way for children to sense
the mystery that is real but beyond their control. Liturgical
prayer also uncovers a natural capacity to encounter God's presence
and experience God's transcendence.
Children experience the fullness of prayer in the Liturgy
of the Word in the sacred character of the space, the gestures,
the objects, the music, and the people. The experience of prayer
is enhanced or diminished by the way children are dismissed
from the assembly, the environment of the space they enter, the
way gestures are performed and music is incorporated, how
silence is respected, and especially by how the prayer leader presides
and reflects on the word with them. The processions to and
from the assembly are processions. They are ritual prayer. It adds
to the quality of the liturgical prayer when children are called
forth and sent forth from the assembly with a short prayer or
blessing from the presider. Encourage quiet and a slow procession
both to and from the assembly. In some parishes, servers
lead the children out behind the prayer leader. In others, the
assembly sings a blessing song. Children may need some practice
at first, but they catch on quickly.
Reverence shown to the Lectionary is also a gesture of
prayer. Have children bow with the prayer leader or raise their
hands when appropriate. Silence as centering prayer may be
practiced when children enter or leave their worship space or
between the proclamation of the Gospel and the reflection.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; . . . and with gratitude
in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to
God" (Colossians 3:16). Music and singing play an important
role in the liturgical celebration. Music evokes, forms, and provides
a sense of the transcendent for both children and adults.
Liturgical music forms, shapes, and gives voice to what we
believe; it echoes God's Word and action in our lives and is a
specific form of prayer. Short psalm responses help children
remember the (psalm) prayer throughout the week.
The importance of music in the Liturgy of the
Word with children cannot be understated. As you
incorporate music into your celebration, keep the following
• Use the songs or responses used in your parish.
This enables children to become familiar and
comfortable with your parish repertoire. You may
wish to consult your parish liturgy director or
musician on your choices.
• Listening quietly to recorded music can also be a
prayerful and centering experience for children.
• Live music is ideal. Although it is not always
possible to have a parish musician or song leader
available for the Liturgy of the Word with children,
consult your parish liturgy director or musician
about this option. He or she may be able to suggest
someone who would be willing to be the music
• When live music or song leaders are not available, use a
recording to help children sing and respond.
When you think about children and the Liturgy of the Word
remember that words live. Words promise, challenge, comfort,
or tell a story. God's Word is a living Word. The Scriptures are
the inspired Word of God both in how they were written and
compiled and in their effect as they are proclaimed in the midst
of the Church today. During the Liturgy of the Word, God
speaks to each of us, children and adults, in this moment . . .
now, in a particular word or phrase that evokes a response. The
Church says, "It is he (Jesus Christ) himself who speaks when
the holy Scriptures are read in the Church" (Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, 7).
When one reflects on "feasting" in reference to the
Eucharist, the focus is usually on bread and wine, table and
communion. However, the Liturgy of the Word is also a feast.
Just as readers of good books and poetry find nourishment and
transformation from the words and stories, so do children as
they listen to the inspired Word of God proclaimed and alive in
their midst during the Liturgy of the Word. The breaking open
and sharing of the Scriptures is a primary part of the children's
liturgical formation. Christ, the Word of God, is present in the
Scriptures. He calls all of us, especially children, through them.
Isaiah 55:11 reminds us that God's Word is effective: "(My
word) shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving
the end for which I sent it."