I am not sure if it is a contradiction but I often find that you need preparation to run spontaneous prayers with children.
- Explain how you wish to conduct the prayers. Children unused to spontaneous prayers need instructions, without which, the prayers could drift. Giving instructions during the prayers breaks the solemnity and mood needed for prayers.
- Before the prayers, I would suggest getting the children to think about or bring out specific instances they wish to pray for. This provides a focus for the children, without which prayers can easily creep into areas you do not intend.
- A golden rule is not to push any child into doing a prayer when they are not ready. Do not assign prayers to specific children unless they have done it before and are comfortable doing it. If there is silence when we invite for prayers or things to pray for, do not point at one child to do so. We are not in a classroom. Instead, we prompt them with leading questions or examples.
Types of prayers
I am sure many of us have our own ways of categorising prayers. I will just use the categories I learnt while young. There are four catgories:
- Adoration = praising prayer
- Penitential = sorry prayer
- Petitional = asking prayer
- Thanksgiving = thank-you prayer
Prasing comes naturally to children. However, there are only that many words in the English language to praise with. So, don't be disappointed if the list of praises for God is short.
Invite the children to give a word that describes God's goodness. It is best to relate the word to the reading, particularly if the reading describes a miracle or an example of God's goodness. Alternatively, the children may base it on an experience of good deeds that they have encountered in the past week.
During prayers, you can expand the word for the prayer. For example, 'loving' becomes 'ever-loving' and 'good' becomes 'God, fountain of all goodness'. You can also make references to the little story that led to the intention to praise in the first place.
Nobody is going to be keen to share their wrong-doing in a crowd and children are no exception. This is most likely the most difficult prayer to do in public. It probably is best to leave it to a Sunday in Lent or during First Confession. In that sense, it could become part of a paraliturgy.
The focus of the prayer is not on the wrong doing itself but on the forgiveness of God.
Saying sorry to God is a redeeming action, not one that invites admonishment as we sometimes get when saying sorry to some people.
You can prepare the setting by conveying the image of God waiting wistfully for us to return to him. The story of the Prodigal Son strikes a chord with the children, especially if you emphasise the story of the boy. I would also put up the Rembrandt picture to add atmosphere if a paraliturgy is conducted. But I think that would be another post.
I do not recommend asking the children to the list wrongdoings but asking them to think of a situation that they think they need God's forgiveness would help to provide a focus. A pre-worded prayer done in common as in the Penitential Rite at mass should be followed by a pause that allows time for all attendees to reflect on incident of forgiveness that they seek.
This is probably the easiest prayer to do, but it is also the easiest one to get out of control. Asking for specific things runs the risk of becoming a Santa Claus list. The focus is not on what the children want but what God feels is necessary for his people.
I think in terms of concentric circles starting with the person himself/herself, and then the family around the person, then the friends of the person, then the community of the person, the wider church and finally the world at large. Somewhat similar to the Intercessory Prayers on Good Friday. You can invite one or more petitions for each one of the circles.
Of course, there would always be the one question about not getting the thing that you asked for. The truth is: the real petition comes not in the thing that we're asking from God but help to accept what ever God has in mind for us. I find it hilarious when people pray to God for good exam results on the way to picking them up. What do we expect God to do - change the chemical on the results paper to say A instead of D? Maybe we should instead be praying that God helps us to deal with whatever results that comes out, good or bad.
Sometimes, God gives us something other than what we asked for because he knows how to open doors to what we need rather than what we want. Here is a story to illustrate this.
Once upon a time, on the hillside there were three trees. And as the wind blows, the trees told one another about their dreams of growing up. The first tree wanted to be cut down to be made in a cradle for the most beautiful baby in the world. The second tree would like to be cut down to be built into a mighty ocean-going ship to bring treasures to every corner of the world. The third tree wanted to be built into a monument, standing on top of a hill to point the way for everyone to God. And as the wind blows, the three friends whispered about what they would like to grow up to be.
One day some men came and cut down the first tree and they mentioned how it would make a good feeding trough for animals. The first tree was very upset because he didn't want to be a trough. He wanted to be a cradle for the most beautiful baby in the world. But he was cut down and was made into a trough placed in a stable in a little village called Bethlehem where a carpenter and his pregnant wife stayed for the night.
Sometime later some men came and cut down the second tree and they mentioned how it would make a good fishing boat. The second tree was very upset because he didn't want to be a fishing boat. He wanted to be a mighty ship to bring treasures to the world. But he was cut down and made into a fishing boat used in a little lake called Galilee where a carpenter's son told of heavenly treasures that would later be carried throughout the world.
Sometime later some men came and cut down the third tree and they mentioned that they needed to work fast because there was going to be an execution and they needed to make a scaffold for the execution. The third tree was very upset because he didn't want to be a execution tool. He wanted to be a monument on top of a hill to point the way to God. But he was cut down on and made into a cross to execute the son of God on top of the hill of Golgotha.
While it is easy to invite children to ask things, you may need to moderate. This is best done by asking the children beforehand what they wish to pray for. During prayers, make sure that they stick to what they said.
This too is easy. You just need to get the children to focus on that one thing that they would like to be thankful for. However, I often ask how long do you say thank you for. I think that you say thank you for as long as you have been asking. If you have been asking for the iPad (years from how, you may need to update this sentence - how things change from our days) for two months, then you should be thanking God for two months after getting it.
This is probably easy and not that effortful to keep under control. Ask the children what they would like to be thankful for and then craft the thank you prayer around that gift from God. Try to get a mixture of physical & non-physical gifts and gifts for themselves & the world at large.
Including spontaneous prayers in Children's Liturgy of the Word
You can end the children's Liturgy of the Word with a prayer in one of two ways:
- If the children are more matured in being able to compose & speak prayers aloud and there is sufficient time, you could get them to say a prayer. It would be best to get to the children to state upfront what they wish to pray for. I would recommend to write them on a board if a board is available, so that it is easier for the children to follow and the facilitator to summarise.
- If either above conditions is not there, the facilitator could ask the children what they want to pray for. The facilitator can then compose a prayer based on what the children have asked for and voice it out.