By Lisanne V. Jensen
Children’s Liturgy of the Word (CLW) programs are a growing trend at many parishes across the country. During CLW, young children leave the sanctuary during the Liturgy of the Word to hear the scripture readings proclaimed and explained at an age-appropriate level.
These sessions are not faith formation classes, arts-and-crafts activities, or babysitting during Mass. Rather, the children hear the same Mass readings as adults – but in simpler terms that are easier to grasp.
One benefit of CLW is that, even when faith formation sessions end for the year, catechesis can continue during summer months. Some companies even offer educational materials specifically targeted for use in CLW programs.
Profile: St. Ann Catholic Church, Coppell, Texas
St. Ann Catholic Church in Coppell, Texas, has been offering CLW since 1999. Debbie Kaluza, director of Children’s Religious Education, explained that during their CLW program, the priest asks the children to gather in the center aisle after the opening prayer. He addresses them, giving a brief description of the readings. Then, the CLW leaders take the children to a special room down the hall from the main sanctuary. As the children leave, the choir sings the song, “Let the children come, let the children come to me, to me, for the kingdom of the Lord belongs to such as these.”
The children sit on the floor, and the CLW leader asks them to greet each other. Usually, they sing a gathering song (something child-friendly with hand motions). Then, the leader tells the children about the theme for the day.
“The next part of CLW is very much like the Mass Liturgy of the Word — the children listen to the readings and say the responses, which are written for them on big posters so they learn them,” Kaluza explained. “Sometimes a child is asked to read the first reading. Everyone stands for the Gospel and sings the ‘Alleluia’ together. The leader reads the Gospel, and after that, he or she leads a discussion about its meaning and does an activity to help the children understand it better (sometimes a skit, a game, or something interactive).”
At that point, the children profess a child-friendly version of the Apostle’s Creed, and if time permits, everyone offers petitions for prayer.
“The children are dismissed a few minutes after the homily and wait in the hallway lined up until everyone sits down after the Prayers of the Faithful,” Kaluza said. “Right as the ushers are getting the offertory ready and the offertory song begins, the children enter the sanctuary and go back to their families. At some of the Masses, we have many, many children, and the CLW room can get quite crowded. Also, we like to keep the ages for the children who attend CLW between five and eight, but sometimes parents send their wee little ones, and it is difficult to manage – especially if they aren’t really understanding what is going on.”
To gain feedback about their CLW program, she sent an e-mail question to parents in her parish.
“One mother wrote, ‘I loved CLW for my children,’” Kaluza said. “‘They came back understanding the readings so much better and were eager to talk about some of the things done to explain these. So, the lesson stuck with them! As a mother, that was important and meant a lot. I wasn’t just ‘dumping them off’ someplace to be babysat while I attended mass; I knew that they were getting it!”
Kaluza loves being with children and is a teacher by career.
“When I lead CLW, I am amazed at the openness, the love, and the questions that the children bring,” she noted. “I absolutely adore sharing the word of God with children, and I especially like when the children pray for their family and friends.
Some questions raised
Some CLW critics, however, express concern about children being taken out of the sanctuary during Mass – suggesting that they (as well as the adults and teens who help lead the CLW program) miss a large portion of the liturgy.
In his May 2013 article in the e-publication Catholic Stand, Jake Tawney, a father from central Ohio, raises some questions about whether this type of program should be allowed in parishes.
“Is it liturgy?” he asks. “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.”
Profile: St. Anthony Catholic Church, Dubuque, Iowa
St. Anthony Catholic Church in Dubuque, Iowa, offers an age-appropriate Children’s Liturgy of the Word for ages five through third grade during the 10:30 a.m. Mass. The children leave right before the first reading (the priest invites the leaders and children to approach the altar and process downstairs to a conference room). One child is chosen to carry a banner, and the leader follows with the children’s lectionary – holding it elevated. Music plays as they leave the sanctuary.
“We begin by lighting a candle and reading an opening prayer, and we try to model the same format that is going on at Mass,” explained Tina Pothoff and Laura Ripley, the parish’s CLW leaders. “So we have two readings, which are taken from the children’s lectionary and are simplified versions of the regular Mass readings for that Sunday. Between the readings, we have a children’s responsorial psalm.”
The group then discusses that Sunday’s Gospel message, sings a modified version of the Apostle’s Creed, and ends with Prayers of the Faithful. The children also receive a bulletin that accompanies the readings. Parents who are interested in the educational materials used during CLW can also access sample lessons through the parish’s website.
The challenges of the program are getting enough leaders and assistants to volunteer for the program, however, they added. “We have also had lower numbers of students coming down to the Children’s Liturgy over the past few years,” Pothoff and Ripley said. “Another challenge can be that sometimes the kids are a little shy and hesitant to leave their parents and join us.”
“The children appear to really enjoy the experience … especially when we relate the message to their everyday life experiences,” they said. “The children really enjoy acting out the Gospel readings and getting to share their ideas. Our parents seem to really love that their children are involved in the Mass at a level they can better appreciate and understand. The kids enjoy being asked to bring up the gifts during the offertory as well.”