Planning a Liturgically Sound Children's Christmas Mass
by Mary McEntee McGill
We all have beautiful and treasured memories of Christmas children's Masses.
We all have beautiful and treasured memories of Christmas children’s Masses. In our preparations for these special liturgies, however, we sometimes face a strong pull to emphasize the pageant. I suggest that we merge two of our catechetical gifts—our professional and liturgical knowledge and our cherished Christmas memories—to provide a sound and beautiful Christmas Mass for the children, their parents, and the community.
To create a liturgically sound children’s Christmas Mass, I recommend referencing the following resources. I also note that these resources are not for Christmas Masses only. Rather, because you are responsible for catechetical and liturgical leadership, you want to consult these resources regularly. You likely have some of these already. They are tools that every parish religious education program should have available.
Code of Canon Law: This book provides the rules and orders of everything from catechetical instruction to sound liturgies to teachings about the Sacraments to being an active member in the Catholic faith community. A basic knowledge of the Code of Canon Law can help you plan liturgies and programs. (You can access the Code of Canon Law at vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM. You can purchase one at your local Catholic supply store and online.)
The Rites of the Catholic Church: This is the resource our bishops, priests, deacons, and liturgists use in the celebrations of the Sacraments. This is a great resource, especially if you contribute to the planning of liturgies in your parish (two volumes, available from Liturgical Press, litpress.org).
Catechism of the Catholic Church and National Directory for Catechesis: You no doubt have these resources readily available. They are indispensable to our work! (Both of these are available through USCCB Publishing, usccbpublishing.org.)
Directory for Masses with Children: This is a brief but valuable document from the United States Catholic Conference (found in The Liturgy Documents, vol. one, from Liturgy Training Publications, ltp.org).
Religious Education, Parish and Youth Ministry: Legal Issues for Catechetical and Youth Leaders:
This book by Mary Angela Shaughnessy, SCN, expands her previous work titled Religious Education and the Law: A Handbook for Parish Catechetical Leaders. It is essential for us to know clearly what we can and cannot do in our ministry. (The National Catholic Educational Association carries this title.)
Resources like these can help answer the “can we,” “do we have to,” and “is it okay to” questions.
A Meaningful and Memorable Celebration
Your parish children’s Christmas Mass can be meaningful and memorable, but this takes careful planning. The following will help you create a liturgically sound children’s Christmas liturgy to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.
Scheduling and Planning
* Allow plenty of time; this might mean weeks or even months of advance planning.
* Make a list of things you need to get done and when you will accomplish them. Create a timeline. Also make a list of things you will need for various aspects of the liturgy: church decorations, costumes, special audio or visual equipment, worship guides, etc. If you plan to have a reception following the liturgy, make a list of what you will need for that event as well.
* Build a team. Ask for the help you need from catechists, parents, and the parish staff. Be sure to consider the many aspects of this special Mass and the reception that you may plan for afterwards. People love to be a part of this—even the clean-up when everything is over.
* Consider the various sites you will need for the afternoon or evening. Be sure the areas (the church, classrooms, storage and preparation areas, gathering area for a reception) will be available, and confirm this with the parish schedule.
* Make sure your pastor and/or associate pastor and deacons are available and eager to work with you and your team on this liturgy. Put your plan and schedule in writing and give each of them a copy. Remember that these men always have many responsibilities, so the clearer your plan and the more detail you can provide, the better.
* Become familiar with the readings and the Gospel. Remember that you cannot simply chose to share a version of the story of Jesus’ birth! You must use the readings and the Gospel selected for that liturgy. However, after the proclamation of the Gospel, the celebrant, you, or the children can in some way add to the account additional characters that may not have “appeared” in the Gospel (such as the innkeeper, shepherds, angels, the magi).
* Meet early with your parish director of music to select songs. Make sure what you choose is something the children and the faith community can and will sing. Once again, remember that this is a Mass not a pageant or concert. If you want the children to sing something special, plan it as a part of the Christmas story told after the proclamation of the Gospel and/or during the Offertory or Communion. Also remember that the songs selected for Mass must be liturgical music; they must relate to the liturgy and Christ’s birth. (See “Selecting Appropriate Music” below.) “White Christmas” is a nice song but it is not appropriate for Mass.
* Practice. Well in advance of the liturgy, plan practice sessions—probably several of them—with all those who will be involved in the liturgy.
* Be sure that the entire parish knows about this liturgy. The best way to issue this information is through announcements in the parish bulletin for several weeks. Letters to parents also are important. Get this done early enough to have everyone know about the liturgy in time to participate.
* You may have some of the children design invitations that you can copy and send home with every student or mail directly to every household in the parish. Also, consider the convenience of e-mail.
* Once you have your team, be sure to keep everyone informed about their respective roles, the supplies they will need, times for practice, and times for arrival the day of the liturgy. Also give the personnel in your parish office all the information they need regarding the overall schedule.
* Prepare the church. The manger can be in front of the altar. Have any other decorations ready to be positioned. Remember that we never put holiday decorations on the altar, the ambo, the baptismal font, or the presider’s chair.
* Worship guides (booklets with music and other liturgical information) should be ready to give out as the community arrives. “Shepherds” and “angels” can help with this.
* Be sure that the gifts of the faithful are ready to be presented at the Offertory. Once again, consider having “shepherds,” “angels,” or “wise men” present the gifts. (Always remember: Safety comes first. No flames or candles at a height that could set fire to an angel’s robe or the priest’s vestment. No flowers or other decorations that could trip a child or adult. Use nothing that could topple and fall.)
* Insist that all those in the liturgy arrive early to line up and be ready to enter in the procession.
* Help greeters position themselves at the main doors where people will enter. Be sure they have the worship guides and impress on them the importance of giving one to each person.
* Watch out for the paparazzi! You could have parents with cameras everywhere. It is best to make an announcement before Mass letting people know where they can and cannot stand to take pictures. Once again, safety is essential. Let the community know that this is a Mass, not a pageant.
* Make sure that the worship space is arranged in such a way that everyone can see and hear clearly.
* Within a few days after the celebration, prayerfully reflect on this liturgical celebration.
* Make notes of what you would change when next you plan a special liturgy. What would you omit? What would you add? Your reflections and notes will help you—or the person and team that takes on this responsibility—to plan next year’s liturgy.
* Keep copies of everything—your planning notes, parish bulletin notices, letters to parents, e-mail messages, the worship guide. If you put all of these things in a file, a great deal of the planning work is done for next year.
Selecting Appropriate Music
In selecting music for your children’s Christmas Mass, give careful attention to liturgical, pastoral, and musical considerations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers clear guidelines for the selection of music for divine worship. In their directive titled “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship” (November 14, 2007), they outline three judgments to be applied to the selection of music.
The Liturgical Judgment
“The question asked by this judgment may be stated as follows: Is this composition capable of meeting the structural and textual requirements set forth by the liturgical books for this particular rite?” (n. 127)
The Pastoral Judgment
“The pastoral judgment takes into consideration the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place at a particular time. Does a musical composition promote the sanctification of the members of the liturgical assembly by drawing them closer to the holy mysteries being celebrated? Does it strengthen their formation in faith by opening their hearts to the mystery being celebrated on this occasion or in this season? Is it capable of expressing the faith that God has planted in their hearts and summoned them to celebrate?” (n. 130)
The Musical Judgment
“The musical judgment asks whether this composition has the necessary aesthetic qualities that can bear the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy. It asks the question: Is this composition technically, aesthetically, and expressively worthy?” (n. 134)
I share with you this special prayer from Scripture that I keep close to me in planning this event.
For thus says the Lord:
By waiting and by calm
you shall be saved.
In quiet and in trust
your strength lies.
Mary is the Pastoral Associate for Religious Education and Liturgical Education for Holy Trinity Parish in Dallas, TX. She is the author of Stories to Invite Faith Sharing (Resource Publications).
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