Drawing on her experience as a primary school teacher and parent, as well as her academic work in Religious Education, Bernadette Sweetman gives us a comprehensive collection of ready-to-go Liturgies of the Word. This resource is beneficial for all parishes, whether they would like to set up a Family Liturgy, or wish to refresh one already in place.
Our Family Mass is the only Irish-based resource book of the Liturgy of the Word for children. It offers useful material that can be incorporated into liturgies involving children, such as dramatisations of the gospels and visual aids. This invaluable resource is suffused with strong home-school-parish links and all materials are presented in a manner that is meaningful, relevant and inspiring to families with children of all ages.
Bernadette Sweetman trained as a primary school teacher and is currently on a career break from St Colmcille's BNS, Swords. She holds a First Class Masters in Religious Education (Primary) and lives in Co. Dublin with her husband, Dave, and daughter, Annie.
Whether you are at the very beginning of your journey, or you have already established a Family Mass in your parish, it may be useful to look over the following questions as a checklist to help you make the most of the experience.
1. Team work!
- A Family Mass needs a Family Mass team. Who is willing to put in the time and effort (and it can be a lot!) to provide the assistance required?
- In your team, what different talents can your members bring , organisation, overseeing weekly practices, sourcing symbols/artwork music, etc.? It would be best to give your team members the chance to work at what they would be most suited to, have a particular talent for or interest in, and have the necessary time for.
- As time goes on, as children grow older, and younger children arrive, how open is your Family Mass team to accepting new members and ideas?
- How can you maximise cooperation with local schools? Perhaps school work or artwork, e.g. from religion classes, could be incorporated into your Family Mass.
How can you include people with special needs? Is there someone in your community who could, for example, sign during the Mass, so as to improve the experience of anyone with particular hearing or other language difficulties?
- Can people with special needs be meaningfully involved in all the different areas of the Family Mass? It is for everyone, and everyone has the right to contribute.
- A good team can flourish with effective leadership. On the other hand,
everyone on a team deserves to give input. How can you make sure communication in your Family Mass team is kept open and accepting? Have regular meetings to ensure that your Family Mass is the best it can possibly be.
2. Location and space
- Where will your Family Mass take place? The local church, school hall, etc.?
- What alterations are needed to facilitate a Family Mass? Perhaps additional seating, or microphones?
- If your Family Mass is taking place outside of the local church, e.g. school hall, what furniture will need to be set up, e.g. altar, arrangement of seating to facilitate communion, etc. Who will be in charge of this?
- Within your church environment, where is the best location for readers, participants in processions, etc.? Any movement to and from seats should be kept to a minimum to avoid unnecessary distraction.
- Is there an option to allow younger children gather at the altar for the Gospel reading? If so, do you need special mats or cushions?
- How big is your space? In a Family Mass, where more young children are present, the use of incense can unfortunately be problematic in a small space (think of asthmatic children; or if one child coughs, invariably others follow!)
- Where will you store the items for processions? (Keep in mind you will hopefully use them again next time!)
- At the Family Mass, where can you place any items for display, such as symbols brought up in a procession, or artwork?
- How can you suitably decorate the church? See Section B, Setting the Scene, for the seasonal colours; you could use them as a basis for your decoration.
3. Practical considerations , being realistic
- If you aim to establish a Family Mass, start off on a small scale. Is it feasible to use everything suggested in this book right from the start? Probably not!
- Can a Family Mass be facilitated every Sunday? If not, how about trying a seasonal approach, e.g. for Lent/Advent.
- Is it possible to have a Family Mass on feast days that coincide with school days?
- As a rule of thumb, anything that makes a participant (be they young or not so young) feel embarrassed or ill at ease should be avoided. For example, if a reading is too difficult for a child, have a parent read it instead; if someone is too nervous to take part in a procession, ask someone else to do so.
At all times, the focus is on the liturgy, not on any element of performance.
4. Creating the sense of the Sacred
Whether your Family Mass takes place in your local church or school hall, how can you highlight the need for reverence and respect? Here are some useful suggestions:
- Consider an Entrance Procession. It is not likely to be a regular Sunday Mass experience for most people, and would help mark the beginning of a special experience.
- Appealing to the senses can be beneficial in creating a different atmosphere.
- Try highlighting a particular act at various Family Masses. For example, the priest could explain why we genuflect before the tabernacle (and then we could all practise it together), or why we stand for the Gospel
- A Gospel Procession including candles, the Lectionary, cross, etc. can emphasise that this is Gods Word (each liturgy provides specific suggestions relevant to themes of that day).
- The Offertory, when the bread and wine are brought as gifts, could be extended to include the actual preparation of the altar. Consider, perhaps during a piece of music, preparing the altar by covering it with a special cloth, placing the collection (if any) and the gifts upon it. It is a visual way of helping the congregation prepare for the Eucharistic Liturgy.
5. Maximising the liturgical experience
The focus should always be on the liturgy , recognition of being in the presence of God, encouraging receptivity to Gods Word and ultimately the celebration of the Eucharist. Taking care of the little things will help keep the liturgy centre stage:
- Is the church warm enough and is there enough light?
- Can everyone hear the readers and see processions or dramatisations?
- How can you keep the liturgy fresh and dynamic? For example, it is perfectly acceptable to replace a dramatisation with a song if it is becoming staid or unfeasible.
- How can you bring the locality into your liturgy? For example, if your parish is a fishing community, how might you reflect this in your choice of prayers, symbols or decoration?
- How can you maximise the use of the senses? (see next page)
- Remember: a Family Mass is for the family, not just children, so how can you involve parents, grandparents and other family members in a meaningful way?
- Consider giving a task at the end of one liturgy that will be relevant to the next Family Mass. This might be a memento of a baptism in preparation for the liturgy of the Baptism of the Lord, or perhaps asking the congregation to notice particular elements of nature in the week preceding a harvest-time liturgy.
Think about it
Our children will acquire skills such as listening, appreciating the need for silence and praying, as well as developing a sense of belonging and of celebrating , from their home life and the wider community. As a family team, how can you assist families in the community in their development?
The Family Mass is special for everyone involved. Young and old, we can all have a better and more meaningful experience of liturgy when we are comfortable, can see and hear what is going on, when our senses are engaged, and when we feel welcome to participate. It is especially important to involve those with special needs such as impaired mobility, sight or hearing.
It is very important to remember that we acquire meaning through the use of our senses. An effective liturgy recognises this. For young children, appealing to their senses can help make their experience special, and in the long-term help them develop a sense of sacred space when they attend a liturgy. But everyone else can benefit too!
What is the significance of this sense for our Family Mass?
Sound Ensure audibility and clarity in readings and prayers.
Bells; silence; music; encouraging vocal responses and vocal prayer (out loud). All these create an atmosphere of sanctity when used appropriately.
Sight Ensure clear visibility of the altar, ambo, crucifix and tabernacle.
Use of candles or lamps are effective to highlight Gods presence.
Use of signing for certain prayers (see Appendix I)
can deepen their meaning and encourage participation.
In some cases, the absence of sight can be useful. For example, a reader who cannot be seen could represent Gods voice in a dramatisation.
Smell Flowers and scented candles can help create the special scents for the congregation.
Use of incense where appropriate can be tremendously powerful in engaging the congregation.
Touch Sometimes it may be possible to invite younger children to the altar for the Gospel. At such times, it is beneficial to have cushions/mats for them. This can increase the special associations for their liturgical experience.
Alternatively, displays may contain particular materials that can be touched either before or after the liturgy.
From a childs perspective
Young people may find some of the concepts and messages of the readings and Gospels quite difficult to understand. Try to include some reference to characters from childrens programmes or films that could help to explain them.
Most of us know lots of children who love asking why? Wouldnt it be lovely it they wished to question the liturgy? There will be lots of things in the church , objects, places, banners, colours, symbols , that can spark the childrens imagination. Not only that, but many of the readings contain difficult concepts, and perhaps even older members of the congregation might like to ask about its meaning. It is important that when planning your liturgy, reflections and homilies, you take into account the kind of questions that children may like to ask, and try to address them in as brief and succinct a manner as possible. Think about it from a childs perspective. Taking the example of Lazarus from the fifth Sunday of Lent, it might be best to clarify that were not talking about zombies, and perhaps emphasise that nothing is impossible for God.
For further information on planning family liturgies, please refer to the Recommended Resources section for a useful list of books and websites.
the witness of adult believers can have a great effect upon the children. Adults can in turn benefit spiritually from experiencing the part that the children have within the Christian community. The Christian spirit of the family is greatly fostered when children take part in these Masses together with their parents and other family members.
(Directory for Masses with Children, 1973, n.11)
6. Parts of the Mass
Here is an outline of the parts of the Mass that may provide opportunities for participation by the family in terms of readings, dramatisations and processions. Remember, these are suggestions. The best Family Mass will be whatever is most suited to the conditions, location and ability of the people involved. At all times, the focus is on the liturgy and the celebration of the Eucharist.
Entrance Procession This can mark the beginning of the celebration. It should include the priest(s), altar-servers, readers and gift-bearers. Symbols can be introduced during the procession and then displayed for the duration of the Mass.
Theme Especially useful during the seasons of Advent and Lent, the theme can provide the overview of the season and the relevance of this particular liturgy to the overall theme of the season. For example, the decoration of the Jesse Tree during Advent or the description of the Lenten Garden could be referred to in the theme.
Penitential Rite The Penitential Rite prepares us to hear the Word of God by helping us to recognise our need for forgiveness and Gods grace in our daily lives. It helps to build a sense of community for the congregation. For young people in particular, the atmosphere of togetherness can contribute greatly to their understanding of Christianity as community.
Introductions to Scripture Readings Ideally part of every liturgy, the introduction should set the scene for the upcoming Scripture readings. It could begin by making a connection between our everyday experiences and the content of the readings that follow. The introduction is of great benefit in assisting the congregation in tuning in to the liturgy and being more receptive to the Word of God.
All the elements that will help to explain the readings should be given great consideration so that the children may make the biblical readings their own and may come more and more to appreciate the value of Gods word.
Among these elements are the introductory comments which may precede the readings and help the children to listen better and more fruitfully, either by explaining the context or by introducing the text itself.