So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Exiling of Children: contra children's liturgies.

Shunting children off to a children's Liturgy of the Word seems helpful and harmless enough. But is removing children from the Mass and the unified Body of Christ at worship really the best way to engage children and build family and parish unity?

What if, rather than removing kids to some side room and unnecessarily interrupting the Liturgy upon their return—a situation that is always awkward and frequently chaotic—children were seen as capable of (gradually) rising to an adult faith? Let's not render the Mass banal or mediocre in a vain attempt to reach kids. Rather, let us each model the Faith by—and here's a novel idea—being faithful and by introducing children to the rich tapestry of images and wisdom of the saints. The souls of children are, after all, first in the hands of their parents.

Gradual Graduation

Just as parents should be the primary educators who prepare their children to be morally upright citizens, should they not also be the ones who take responsibility for raising their children to be messengers of the Gospel? The Catholic life is marked by graduation ceremonies that transcend and enable a child's transition into adulthood, e.g.,
  • First Confession
  • First Communion
  • Confirmation
Pope Francis, by his example, has repeatedly affirmed the missionary aspect of discipleship.

The Formative Environment: oasis or dead sea?

The church building should engage the whole person: mind, body and spirit. Authentic education engages and forms the whole person. However, the imagination is starved, deprived of creative content in banal church buildings. Beautiful churches—that "speak" visually and texturally, combining visual reminders of the story of the Faith with beautiful music that orients the ear to beauty and goodness—engage and form the imagination.

Religious educators employ a variety of tactile methods to engage the youngest members of their flock. How many times have we witnessed children return to the congregation feverishly waving colouring sheets in attempt to gain the attention and approval of parents? Is this participatio actuosa for children? Why not give a child a rosary (of the tough, knotted cord kind), or one of those non-toxic "chewable books" containing biblical stories or scenes from the lives of the saints?

Have religious educators given in to the secular preoccupation with pandering to a child's insatiable demand to have his self esteem constantly stroked lest he be harmed for lack of attention? Children's liturgies, rather than enhancing creative encounter, are more likely to stunt the imaginations of children because the content they are receiving, while claimed by catechists to be tailored to younger minds, robs children of the opportunity to encounter real beauty and truth and goodness on their own terms with their informed parents ready to provide guidance. We tend to copy what we see and hear, and if all we see are bland images, and what we hear are heterodox texts set to flaccid melodies, we will become that to which we are constantly exposed. Junk theology produces junk liturgies and impaired disciples.
We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become.—St. Clare of Assisi
Having children doodle or playing a game during some paraliturgy do not enhance the imagination but merely encourage childish competition or foster a demand for attention. These approaches are diametrically opposed to authentic catechesis. We do not remake nor fabricate the Faith; the Faith is handed on. Children must be exposed to good art and beautiful music (really beautiful sacred music, not flaccid, saccharine devotional ditties that dull the spiritual senses) in order to develop in them an appreciation for what is truly good and beautiful. A bare sanctuary and nave create unimaginative christians who soon lose the story and legacy of Jesus Christ, i.e., the Holy Gospel. If contemporary times are any indication, the fascination with technology only confirms that people are becoming even more prone to ideas that rob them of their authentic individuality and sense of belonging. People turn to rituals that soon terminate in micro-universes imprisoned in iPods, iPhones, tablets, etc. Those pseudo-rituals offer nothing more than mind candy that, ironically, stunts curiosity and robs the heart of its innocence. A few good uses for technology might be the provision of access to: Holy Scripture, Church teaching and history; christian education, college level formation, evangelization and knowledge of the sacraments; sacred music; beautiful art; and information about current e.g., international conferences, eucharistic congresses, pro-life and other diocesan and parish events.

Friends, as long as children are exposed to dull churches with dull approaches to catechesis, we will not only lose another generation of artists, musicians and architects, we will lose children who won't grow up to be imaginative parents who, not loving Jesus and the Church, will only become part of the pre-existing problem. We are starving our children of art. We are starving them of the Faith.

So then, parents need inspiration, an inspiring community and an inspiring space in which to worship. Four bare walls with shopping mall decor, the tabernacle hidden from view, an altar that looks like a lego project gone horribly wrong, felt banners or gold lamé streamers and goofy vestments—this won't do. We need beautiful expressions of the Faith that draw in the senses, and fuel the imagination.

Time Out!

The time allotted for children's liturgies is impractical.

Instead of giving children the opportunity to wonder in awe of the beauty around them, the opportunity to be fascinated by the gestures their parents are modelling and the rituals the priest is celebrating with us and for us, the children get a confused message, i.e., that inflation of their egos is more important than the self abnegation all Christians must learn this side of heaven. 

Some might argue that we should let children be children, and let them play. For goodness' sake, the Mass is not a playground. It is a school of prayer; it is an encounter, first and foremost, with the living God. Christ welcomed children and commands us to do likewise, but we should not confuse welcoming children with surrendering to childish ways that only increase the likelihood that children will misbehave during the Liturgy. Children are welcomed because they are gifts from God. We are, all of us, called to protect children. They are close to God. We welcome them because we want for them eternal life. We are called by Christ to call others to Christ.

Consider this thought:
Exiling children from the Liturgy, then returning them, forms in children an attitude that opting out of the Liturgy is not only permissible but laudatory.
Supplement, not supplant.

The proper and primary locus of the catechesis of children is in the home, not the parish. In a day and age when the family is subject to the forces of the marketplace and the insidious and often odious influence of the internet via electronic devices, parents need resources which help them help their children manage and evaluate information that can seriously undermine a young person's faith.
Rule number one: Direction. Form children in the Faith. Provide them with a moral and religious compass. Introduce them to Jesus Christ. Teach healthy morals according to Catholic wisdom. Parents—give reason for the hope that is within you!
Rule number two: Selection. Limit exposure to immoral content. Restrict access to the internet and give reasons why the restrictions are necessary. If parents withhold certain food items because they are not good for the health of their children—junk food, for starters—how much more important is it to their children's moral health and well being that parents should provide healthy alternatives to the mind numbing, soul destroying eye and ear candy to which children are nowadays exposed?
Rule number three: Innoculation. Empower children to evaluate information. Let's face it, kids will be exposed at some point in their teens, if not sooner, to gravely immoral behaviour. How will they parse that information and choose healthy behaviour over unhealthy addictive behaviours unless they have a set of cognitive keys to unlock the meaning and potential consequences of the information they receive?
Domestic Church: part I.

The college students I know who have been well formed in the Faith are the ones who have been home-schooled by parents dedicated to handing on the Faith in a home life that is permeated by prayer and saturated with faith seeking understanding. These young people exhibit a liturgical way of living because the Liturgy was and is taught and lived in the home and public square.

Next to the home-schooled kids, the students who are informed and well formed and thus able to live and share their faith with authentic passion, are the ones who have been well nurtured in faithful Catholic high schools that are, because they are founded on a lived Catholic Faith, another point of contact in the continuum of Christian education. A good Catholic school is a precious community of wisdom wherein young people build lifetime friendships and acquire the foundations of authentic citizenship. The Church has a huge treasure trove of resources which better enable Catholics to be better citizens. Better, that is, than citizens who have no sense of the common good and who are ruled by self entitlement and mere utility of purpose.

That said, Catholic schools in some regions still graduate far too many young people who are little prepared to meet the challenges that people of faith will meet in the public square. Many high schoolers are infected with the spirit of the age, i.e., rebellion (beyond normal teenage rebellion) and moral laziness, because their mentors only taught the Faith timidly, or out of ignorance failed to equip themselves with the necessary communication skills and Catholic content to help young people appreciate a Catholic worldview that has its source and summit in the Divine Liturgy.
Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.—St. Francis of Assisi 
The nation doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
Domestic Church: part II.

So then, back to parents and the home as the primary locus of preparation for Mass and for understanding and transmitting the Faith. We might better situate the formation of children in an environment which normalizes the Faith and thus normalizes the living of the Faith in the wider society. Removing children from the congregation to situate them in a remote location interrupts and undermines the continuity of the community and the unified public expression of the Faith. "Sunday School" within Mass, or rather at a tangent during Mass, reinforces separateness and a sense of disassociation. Thus, religion becomes something done 'off to the side', in private as it were, rather than connecting children with their elders in the context of a fully shared public worship.

Help parents inspire in their children a love of faith and reason. Provide parents with effective strategies to do just that.

The internet can be a wonderful place. There are many well-informed and well formed mothers and fathers online with blogs who routinely offer sage counsel about the very topic of this post. Those same parents are frequently more on the ball than many diocesan catechetical programs.

Do we want religious daycare for kids, or do we want christian parents who can articulate the Faith and provide for their children full immersion in the Faith? Both/and? Perhaps.

Catholic Homeschooling—a few sites to get you started.

Ascend Online: Catholic Education at Home (Bishop David Monroe, BC)

Blue Mantle (Canada)

Seton Home Study School (Bishop of Arlington, Virginia)

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