Let the Little Children Run?

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Let the Little Children Run?

And Observations on "Redemptionis Sacramentum"

ROME, 11 MAY 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Little children frequently run around during the Mass fondly watched by their parents. Do parents have any responsibility in this regard? — R.C., Bangalore, India

A: This, apparently, is a ubiquitous pastoral problem, and expresses a tension that is part and parcel of being Catholic.

On the one hand there is a positive value in having families with children present at Mass with all that it implies as a sign of the Church as a family along with some of the disorder that is inevitable in family life.

I remember one convert from an orderly Protestant community who found it difficult to adjust to crying babies and the like until it dawned on him that the apparent disorder was also a reflection of what "Catholic" — that is, "universal" — was all about. After that he managed to adapt a little.

At the same time it is also true that we are engaged in a most solemn act of worship to which we strive to bring our entire hearts and souls. Many Catholics, by no means dour or rigid, find the presence of Children, especially toddlers, running all over the church to be very distracting and an impediment to living the Mass.

Thus there should be a certain degree of balance between the presence of families at Mass and the overall atmosphere of reverence proper to the celebration.

In this parents do have a particular responsibility, born out of charity toward others, to do their best to ensure the behavior of their little ones so that they are not a source of distraction for the entire congregation.

Even very young children can be taught to be quiet and still on certain occasions, and if Catholic parents bring their children to Mass it should be to take every opportunity to inculcate in them, even before reaching the age of reason, a sense of wonder and sacredness which can leave a lasting impression.

Some parishes, especially in the United States, resort to so-called crying rooms, usually reserved for mothers (or fathers) looking after babies, and from which they may participate at Mass without having noisy babies creating a disturbance to the other faithful.

This solution might be viable in some cases, although it may also have the disadvantage of dividing families as one spouse takes care of the baby while the other looks after older siblings.

It also makes it harder for the parent looking after the baby to follow the Mass because these rooms are usually at the back of the Church and the adults have the added distraction of being surrounded by crying infants.

Thus, while I admit to having relatively little personal pastoral experience in the use of these spaces, I would opine that they would be best used as places to go to when the need arises rather than having parents go there from the beginning of Mass.

A few parishes also offer free baby-sitting services during Mass and this might be worthwhile providing the decision on whether to avail of them is left to the good judgment of parents themselves.

* * *

The new instruction

I would like to take an opportunity to answer some questions related to the new instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," although with the proviso that, because the document is so recent, there is a stronger element of personal opinion than in other cases.

A priest from Malta asked for commentary on and clarification of the words "unduly prolonged" and "brief prolongation" used in No. 158.

Here is the text: "Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason."

This number must be seen in the context of the numbers of this section, which ask that the use of extraordinary ministers of Communion be limited to cases of real need.

At the same time it tries to leave sufficient space for common-sense solutions, which is why it includes a phrase such as "considering the circumstances and culture of the place."

For this reason "undue prolongation" and "brief prolongation" are not subject to mathematical precision.

One factor I believe should be considered is that a certain degree of proportionality should be respected — in other words, how much time is taken up by the distribution of Communion with respect to the other parts of the Mass.

If we were to take an hour-long Mass as a benchmark, then a proportionate amount of for the distribution of Communion could hover between 6 and 10 minutes. On special occasions it could reach 12 minutes, but much more time would probably be out of proportion.

Papal Masses, for example, which average about two hours in length, usually take about 15 minutes to distribute Communion to thousands of faithful.

Other factors to be considered are the amount of time between Masses, the time necessary to prepare the next Mass, and the time required for the church to empty and fill.

All of these factors depend on culture and circumstances. For example, the situation of a church where most parishioners are within walking distance is very different from one in which most arrive by car.

These factors should also be taken into account when establishing Mass schedules. But there is no doubt that circumstances exist when even a five-minute delay in the Mass can cause mild mayhem.

Considering these factors should make it easier to determine what constitutes undue prolongation in order to determine first if extraordinary ministers of Communion are necessary and, if so, how many.

It should also help decide the duration of a "brief prolongation" insufficient to warrant the use of extraordinary ministers of Communion.

Another correspondent asked with regard to No. 75 on "Joining of Various Rites with the Celebration of Mass."

The reader asked about the appropriateness of including within the celebration of Mass a commissioning "service," for example, the commissioning of newly qualified instructors at the end of their teacher-training course. If appropriate, at which point in the celebration of Mass should the commissioning take place?

The instruction says:

"On account of the theological significance inherent in a particular rite and the Eucharistic Celebration, the liturgical books sometimes prescribe or permit the celebration of Holy Mass to be joined with another rite, especially one of those pertaining to the Sacraments.[157] The Church does not permit such a conjoining in other cases, however, especially when it is a question of trivial matters."

While I do not know what a commissioning service entails, the Church already has an "Order for the Blessing of Students and Teachers" which could probably serve this purpose as the rubrics foresee the possibility of slightly adapting the prayers to diverse circumstances.

This rite is among those permitted at Mass and instructions as to how to insert it after the homily may be found in the Book of Blessings, Nos. 526-529.

If the "commissioning service" is similar to a graduation, involving the handing-over of degrees and certificates, then it would be inappropriate to include it within Mass.

Related to this is a question regarding No. 73 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (and No. 70 of the new instruction) regarding the custom of bringing "symbols" in the offertory procession.

The new instruction only speaks of other gifts "given by the faithful in the form of money or other things for the sake of charity toward the poor. Moreover, external gifts must always be a visible expression of that true gift that God expects from us: a contrite heart, the love of God and neighbor by which we are conformed to the sacrifice of Christ, who offered himself for us. ... In order to preserve the dignity of the Sacred Liturgy, in any event, the external offerings should be brought forward in an appropriate manner. Money, therefore, just as other contributions for the poor, should be placed in an appropriate place which should be away from the Eucharistic table. Except for money and occasionally a minimal symbolic portion of other gifts, it is preferable that such offerings be made outside the celebration of Mass."

The instruction, like the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, is silent regarding symbolic gifts not destined for the poor. But the custom of bringing some symbolic element in the offertory procession on special occasions is so widespread that the new instruction would have addressed it if it were considered a serious abuse.

Of course, any such symbolic gift must be appropriate, discreet and not a source of distraction to the faithful, and, as the instruction says, be a visible expression of the Gift that God expects from us and in some way related to the reality of the Eucharistic celebration and the Christian life.

An example of an appropriate symbol could be a copy of the Catechism at the beginning of the school year. ZE04051122

* * *

Follow-up: Let the Children Run? [From 05-25-2004]

I received many comments from readers about toddlers running around church (see May 11). Some of the comments came from parents of large families who confirmed that it is possible to teach children to be quiet in Church, especially when given good example by mom and dad.

A few readers quoted Christ's words to me — "Suffer the little children to come to me, for it is to such as these, the kingdom of heaven belongs" — although it was not always clear if they quoted it for or against what I said.

If the text is taken to mean that children are welcome at Mass, I fully agree. If it is interpreted to mean that parents are somehow dispensed from teaching good manners to their children, then I cannot concur with such an exegesis.

There may of course be cases of parents who have children with special needs or conditions whose actions may cause occasional disruptions that cannot be attributed to bad behavior.

In such circumstances the parents require the support and the patience of the community, just as the children should not be deprived of God's grace in the midst of their difficulties.

At the same time, out of charity the parents should do all that is possible to take into account the needs of the other faithful, especially if they notice a particular agitation which might cause prolonged disruption.

In especially grave cases, parents could attempt to rotate Mass schedules so as not to attend the same celebration always. Or they might even speak to the pastor to see if a special arrangement can be made for the Christian formation and sacramental life of these children.

Some correspondents asked particular questions regarding Masses specifically for children.

A Kentucky reader wrote: "Our pastor has several children's Masses for the students (K-8) during the year. Sometimes he invites all the children to stand with him around the altar. Some of the children are very young and not attentive. He also asks the children to raise their hands just as he does over the bread and wine during the consecration. This action seems to obscure the difference between the ordained priesthood and the laity and therefore is not edifying to the children. Is the priest acting correctly or is either of these practices prohibited?"

The directory for children does allow for some adaptations of the rite for children's Masses, understood above all as weekday celebrations at which the vast majority are youngsters. But having the little ones stand around the altar is not one of them.

In some circumstances such as a church with a distant altar that hinders communication with children, it is probably preferable, as suggested by No. 25 of the Directory for Masses with Children, to celebrate the Mass in another worthy place.

Thus, while it is good that the children be close to the altar of celebration, some form of distinction should remain between the two spaces.

In a similar fashion, while the directory's Nos. 33-34 do allow for some adaptation of gestures (above all, encouraging processions), having the children raise their hands during the consecration is, like gathering around the altar, more likely to confuse them about the Church's Eucharistic faith.

As No. 21 of the directory states: "It is always necessary to keep in mind that these eucharistic celebrations must lead children toward the celebration of Mass with adults, especially in the Masses at which the Christian community must come together on Sundays. Thus, apart from adaptations that are necessary because of the children's age, the result should not be entirely special rites, markedly different from the Order of Mass celebrated with a congregation. The purpose of the various elements should always correspond with what is said in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal on individual points, even if at times for pastoral reasons an absolute identity cannot be insisted upon." ZE04042524

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