Monday, September 16, 2013

Setting up a Children's Liturgy of the Word

A post on how to set up your own Liturgy of the Word for children should probably have come up earlier, but there being so many existing guidance that I do not think much harm would come from me putting up this post late.

As such, I will largely limit this post to sharing some practical tips on the setting up of such a Liturgy of the Word for children.  This post then will be supplemental to those existing guidance. 

The website I find most useful and comprehensive is that of the Archdiocese of Westminster in England at  The diocese has even issued a guideline for it. 

Christine Skinner has complied a list of resources available online that you may find useful

In this blog, I am only discussing the Liturgy of the Word for children that is run as part of the normal Sunday mass, where children celebrate the Liturgy of the Word in their own terms separate from the rest of the community and rejoin the community for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  I am specifically excluding liturgies of the word celebrated as part of a children mass.

I will cover the various areas which you will need to tackle to set up the Liturgy:
  1. The parish priest and parish council
  2. The room and the logistics (moving from the church to the room)
  3. Preparation and your team
  4. During the mass and dealing with the children

The parish priest and parish council
Parish Priest
He is the most important person to the Liturgy of the Word.  The priest is the one will be responsible for everything you do.  Go through with him the objectives of the program, the format, the logistics, and the resources that you use for the liturgy.  If he suggest any changes, take it on board.  He is the one who is ultimately answerable to the Bishop for anything that happens in your Liturgy!

Keep in mind that different priests are different, just like any other men.  Some are incredibly open to children while others can be at sixes and sevens when kids are around.  

If you get a priest has a great affinity with children, grab him with both hands!  Good priests who are able to talk to children at their level are few and far in between.  You may even be able to get him to have a few words with the children about the reading when they rejoin the church after the session.  Some priests are willing to break the mass at an appropriate time (normally, before the Eucharistic Prayer) to do that.  Another I know chooses to end his communion distribution early to give him time to talk to the children.

If the priest is not comfortable with children, don't push him to do a lot with the children.  The discomfort will come through in his actions and would not be helpful to the mass.  He can still help you by giving you the support in the parish council or with any parishioner's complaints as well as advice and resources.

Parish Council
Don't forget the Parish Council.  While the word of the parish priest is decree in the parish, he normally relies on the Parish Council for support.  Make sure the Parish Council is aware of what you are doing.  They need to know your movements during the mass, the room and the route that you are using as well as the objectives, format and age-group of your programme.

Catechetical and liturgical group
It is often easy to classify such a programme under catechetics and you end up with meetings with the Sunday School planning group.  While you share many of the skill-sets and resources, this is not a catechetical programme.  It is liturgy and you should be with the liturgical planning group.  You may need to follow themes and rules/practices set by the liturgical planning group (whatever name such a group is called in your parish).

Still, you should keep in touch with the Sunday School group, maybe as an observer at their meetings.  Your facilitators are likely to come from there, especially at the initial stages.  You will also be sharing resources and training for catechetical skills and material.  Your calendars will also need to be aligned for reasons explained below.  And it is no harm getting support and publicity at the Sunday School.

The room and the logistics
Sitting together or with their parents
Do the children sit together in the church during the mass or do they sit with their parents?  You will have to answer this most fundamental question first as it will affect the decision for the room.

I quite like the idea of children sitting with their parents, because there is something meaningful to me for children to emerge from the body of the church as part of the congregation.  

However, that is a logistical nightmare. The only way to bring the children out without disrupting the mass is for the priest to invite the children at an appropriate point of the mass to come out and be sent off for their liturgy.  You can only do this if you have a priest with affinity to children as well as one who is not likely to forget.  And what happens if you have a visting priest with different ideas?

The simple method is for them to sit in the 'children's section' (let's call it that for now) of the church.  One option is to get the children to gather at the room, which means that they will miss the introductory parts of the mass.  I prefer that they gather at the 'children's section' before mass starts and celebrate the introductory rites together.  Any child who comes late can go directly to the room.  Some children may find their way to the room after sitting with their parents at the beginning of mass, but try to limit the number doing this as it can be disruptive.

After the session, they return to the 'children's section' to continue the mass and will only meet up with their parents after the mass.

For the rest of this blog, I will assume that they sit in the 'children's section'.

Room location
Choose a room that is just the appropriate size for your group.  It  should not be too big or too small.  Too big a room gives space to children to run around. Too small a room means that you are going to be too cramped up and you may not have space for support facilitators, observing parents, material (eg., whiteboard) or activity.

The room should not be no more than two minutes walk to and from the 'children's section' in the church.  If it is away from the church building, make sure that there is a covered walkway in case of rain.

Have a back-up room just in case your primary choice is not available that day.  This can happen because of another booking or the room is not suitable because the previous occupant has reorganised/dirtied the room.

Route to the room
Walk through the route to and from the church so that you’re familiar with it.  Watch out for doors, corners, and any nooks & crannies. Some children have a habit of wandering off or hiding among stacked-up chairs when they think you have turned the corner.  If there is any door, check to see if they are normally locked as you will need to unlock them before the mass.  Have an alternative route just in case you could not find the key-holder that Sunday.

If the route takes you through the sacristy, get the sacristan's prior approval.  You have the additional task of making sure the children don't touch anything in the sacristy but you do have the advantage of showing things to the children while waiting to go back into the church.  Remember that sometimes sacristy doors are locked to safeguard the collections.

Choose a door near where the children will slip out of the church to go to the room.  This will minimise disruption to the rest of the mass.  Keep movement within the church and during the mass to a minimal.

You may end up with a different door to return to the church, and consequently maybe a different route.  Remember that moving back into the church tends to be more disruptive than moving out as the children look for the right place to sit and then settle down. 

Room setting
My favourite setting is an empty space where is the facilitator and the children sit together on the floor.  This very common setting involves the least work and also makes it a little bit more informal.  Make sure that the floor and the floor are clean and tidy.

I normally avoid tables and chairs as these are very classroom in nature.  If you have no choice (you are using a real classroom, for instance) consider rearranging chairs in a circle so that the children can see each other and better participate in the discussion.  It will be a pain to have to rearrange tables and chairs after that but if it is possible, I think it is worth it.

Preparation and your team


Determine the lower and upper age limits.  Children have different capabilities and requirements at different ages and as such, it may be difficult to adhere to specific strict age limits.  Strict age limits based on chronological age could lead to precocious children being excluded and hyperactive children who haven't learnt to settle down being included.

One guidance I have for the lower limit is children who are able to read, whatever the chronological age.  I find that once children have the ability to read, they normally have the attention span and understanding to participate in the discussions.  It usually also means that they have the necessary discipline and social skills not to disrupt others, though of course, there will be variations among children.

If you take them too young, there is also a risk that the parents may see you as a babysitting service.  That will be OK if it is your objective.

The upper limit very much depends on the parish setting.  Where does childhood end and youth begins?  In most parishes, it could be anything from 11 to 15.  Even so, children progress at different speeds and some children may not be ready for the adults' homily if you intend to enforce an upper age limit strictly.
I normally let children stay with the group until they feel like they ready to move on to the adults' Liturgy of the Word.  This could be when they feel they have learned all they could at your sessions, the adults homily is becoming more relevant, or just simply, they feel they are no longer children.  Having said that, those who are preparing for confirmation should not be considered children.

If you have a big group, you should break it down to separate age groups.  My suggestion is that no group should be larger than 20 or 30 depending on the ability of the facilitators.  Anything too big would be difficult to handle, even with supporting facilitators.  Too wide an age range would also complicate decisions of how to pitch the message to best suit the maturity level.

Which mass
If your parish has several Sunday masses, you will need to select one or more masses for your Liturgy.  Needless to say, this would be the one that attracts the most young families with children.  I find it useful to run it on the masses on both sides of Sunday School time (if it is run on Sunday morning) as they have the most children.

Which Sunday
As the Liturgy of the Word for children is part of mass, to hold it every Sunday would be liturgically correct. In fact, ideally it should happen at every mass where there is a willing child. 

However reality is a little bit more complicated.  Some Sundays, you could have less children attending mass because it happens to be a Sunday when Sunday School is not on, a long weekend, or school holidays/vacation time.  When Sunday School is not on, some of the families may attend another mass to get a lie-in on Sunday mornings.

So, do you have the Liturgy of the Word for children on those Sundays or do you give your facilitators a break?

My policy is to have it on those Sundays when Sunday School is on.  When there is no Sunday School we do not have have the Liturgy of the Word for children. The only exception is on Palm Sunday when we will have it whether or not Sunday School is on. This is because I feel that the Passion reading is important enough to be told to the children every year.  But organising one after the Palm Sunday procession can be a little complicated.

There is really no right answer here among the many permutations available.  You have to deal with this question taking into consideration the specifcs of your parish, in consultation with your parish priest, the Parish Council and most importantly, your facilitators.
Your team

Once you have determined how many groups, look at the size of your group of volunteers. Try to make sure that you have sufficient facilitators to rotate them at least once every two or three weeks.  The more facilitators the better.

You can get your facilitators from Sunday School and any other catechetical groups in the parish.  Kindergarten teachers will be great but I normally watch out for teachers who are a little too didactic in style as the format we have is more sharing rather than teaching.  That is why I eschew the term teachers: we are facilitators because we facilitate the children's understanding.

Get the parents to help out.  Some parents move up the age groups with their children and eventually move out altogether when their children are grown.  That is fine by me.

I recommend that you aim for a small core group of more or less permanent people to ensure continuity.  This will often end up as a group of friends.  Then, there will be the more transient members of the team who come and go.  Some of them may bring in new ideas and others are there to learn from the sessions themselves.  And that is fine by me, too.

If you have someone who wishes to be with children but not confident enough to faciliate a discussion with them, you could create a category of assistants.  Their responsibility is to get the rooms ready, help to settle children down and keep a watch for the appropriate time to return to the mass (more on these later).

The Roster
If you have enough, you may assign some volunteers as support facilitators whose task will be to assist with discipline or deal with questions from children at sessions.  Facilitators find it helpful to know that someone will rescue them if they get stuck.  If facilitators are encouraged to turn up even when it is not their turn (they have to come for mass anyway), I normally find that I do not need to have support facilitators onto the roster.

I always try to mix experience levels on the same Sunday.  For instance, if one age-group has a less experienced facilitator, I will schedule a more experienced one at the other age-groups.  That will leave me able to focus my support on the less experienced one.


This is where the parish priest and the parish council would be most helpful with their support.  Insert a notice in the Parish bulletin and the church notices that are read out during mass.

If possible, secure a slot for you to explain from the lectern to the parish at large. This could be after thanksgiving prayers following communion.  You could have five minutes with or without a presentation to explain your mission, the content & format of your session, and how it would benefit the children, the facilitators and the community.

Flyers may help, but I find it difficult to get the attention of people rushing into the church trying to settle the children down and being pushed a piece of paper.  It is best that you can station your facilitators at the church entrances to spot any parents with children and verbally explain to the parent about the Liturgy.  Most parents would be keen but you have to explain that this is not part of Sunday School.  As such, no registration is required as it is part of mass and you don't register for mass.

I normally also speak directly to the children themselves to persuade them to join in, pointing out that their friends are also there.  But don't push.  If the child is not willing, leave them be.  I get reluctant kids who initially refused but later turn up willingly.

During the mass and dealing with the children

Before mass starts

The room should be well prepared before you enter it for the Liturgy and you may need to assign someone to check this.  There is just no time to do anything once the children get in.  This means
  • the lights - children could be apprehensive if they are to walk into an unfamiliar dark room but will make ghost noises if they enter a familiar one.
  • the heating/air condition/windows - rooms take time to heat up/cool down and clear any stuffiness away
  • materials for the session - if you use whiteboards/blackboards or writing materials, they are there before you start.
During the sessions
If you have sufficient facilitators, station an additional one in each of the age groups. These support facilitators will have the task to settle any hyperactive children down while the primary facilitator is running the session.  It is too disruptive for the primary facilitator to have to stop every now and then to deal with any reluctant or disruptive child. 

You should also station another assistant to monitor the progress of the mass so that facilitators know when to finish off the session to bring the children back to the mass.  It is best that you pre-arrange the appropriate point of the mass so as to give you enough time to wrap up.  For instance, if you intend to bring the children back to the mass after the intercessory prayers, then you can start wrapping up the moment the homily finishes.

Also, pre-arrange a signal: your facilitator may not be alert for a signal if they do not know where to look.  

After the sessions
When the sessions finish and the children gather to return to the church for the mass proper, settled them down before they move.  It is important that you walk back to the church in orderly fashion as they are still at mass.  Hyper-active children walking into the church during mass would be disruptive to the mass.

You should re-enter the mass at the appropriate points, ideally when collection is taking place or a hymn is being sung.  If possible, avoid re-entering when prayers are being said and never while the congregation is kneeling.

If your route takes you through the sacristy and you are waiting to re-enter the mass, you may take the opportunity to explain to the children some of the objects in the sacristy.  Examples would be the Pascal candle, the vestments, the sacred vessels and the liturgical books.  You may have to prepare a number of these 3-minutes mini-sessions, just in case you need them.  Make sure that you get the Sacristan approval beforehand, as well as any prohibitions under the rules of the sacristy.

During the mass
During communion, I normally stand at the head of the children's queue to ensure that children are taking the communion correctly.  Some children not used to it may get their hands positions wrong.  Their hands should be held up high when receiving the communion especially if the communion minister is tall.  Leaving their hands down also confuses communion ministers as to whether the child is intending to take the communion by hand or in the mouth.  Make sure each child says "Amen" before receiving the comunion.

Don't let the children off before the priest leaves.  The cue is when the priest moves off after bowing to the tabernacle.  At one point, I had to explain to the children that one Apostle left the first mass early and I don't think any one of us wants to be like him.

Dealing with the children
Sometimes, you have to keep the children in line otherwise they make too much noise doing the mass.  If you do not, you will find that yourself quickly losing the support of the community that is trying to concentrate on the mass.

Be prepared to move children to breakup groups which is getting disruptive.  You may even  pre-empt it by identifying groups who are normally disrupted by splitting them up in the church.  However, once you feel that they got the message, you should let them sit together again unless they continue to be disruptive.

You may consider inviting a parent of any particularly disruptive child to sit in during the sessions.  Most will be willing to do so to avoid embarassments.  Such an invitation often persuade the parent to send their children to the Liturgy in the first place.  I find that the disruptive child normally behaves a little better in church if the parent sits in for the session, even if the parent do not sit with them at church.

Dealing with the parents and parishioners
You are going to get a lot of comments, 'advice' and criticism from parishioners.  I just receive them with a broad smile, and invite them to help out if they are so inclined. Unfortunately, most of more critical ones decline to help.

Take in their input, though.  Sometimes they are right and even if they are not completely right, they could be partly right.  Still, ultimately you will have to do what you think is right.  Refer to your parish priest if you are unsure and make sure you always have his support.

So, all the best and God bless your venture.  If you have questions, I will be happy to take them.

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