Monday, November 4, 2013

Reading the Gospel to children

Reading well is of course a fundamental requirement for any Liturgy of the Word.  Lectors at Sunday mass normally undergo some sort of training and why shouldn't those at the Children's Liturgy of the Word.  This post will not make you a super reader to whom children will listen enraptured but I hope to share with you some features of reading that I believe will be useful to impart the revelation of the Holy Spirit to the children when they listen to the Scriptures for the Sunday.

Basic public reading skills
I don't mean primary or elementary school reading skills here.  It is important that a reading be read well at mass. One of the sad things I see often is members of the congregation feeling they need to use the Missal in order to follow the readings.  A good reader will be able to not just read clearly but also maintain the intimacy of eye contact with the congregation during the reading. Much of human communications subsist not just the words used but also in the facial & other expressions and the tone of voice: both of the which contains much information to the listener.

Here are a few points that you may need be aware of for a good reading.  You will need attend a proper readers training in order to pick up points of reading that is well beyond this post.  

Breathing exercises
Breathing exercises involve more than being able to hold your breath for a long time. It is not the capacity of your lungs that counts but whether you are able to release the air in your lungs at a measured pace.  Too much or too little air in your lungs when reading aloud will make it sound a little too forced or artificial.

One exercise I do is to take in a long breath to fill up the lungs to the full and then release the air in my lungs evenly over a count of, say, twenty.  You can even do it while walking.

Pronounciation and intonation
Names of people and places in the Middle East are often mispronounced by English speakers.  In case you haven't noticed, pronunciation of vowels in English is rather inconsistent, unlike say, the Latin languages.  If you listen to a native Arab speaker pronouncing place names in Palestine, you will realise that, it often differs from how you would pronounce them.  Nevertheless, to avoid confusion, it is best to read using English-style pronunciations if you are uncertain - stick to what you are comfortable with.

Reading for emphasis
Reading for emphasis does not mean emphasising every word that is read.  If you do so, you will only exhaust your listeners.  Emphasise only those few words or sentences you wish to bring attention to in the reading.  You should read the rest of the reading clearly but in a neutral voice.

Do not hesitate to dramatise the reading with your voice.  Where the reading of requires it, use a loud voice or a soft voice; a high tone or a low deep tone; a fast pace or a slow pace; a tender voice or a hard voice; or use pauses between words.

I notice that many readers do not know what to do with their hands during readings.  If you have a lectern and the Gospel Book rests comfortably on the lectern, place both your hands on the sides of the Gospel Book.  Then move your finger of your right hand along the end of each line (or the left hand along the beginning of each line) in order to keep your place in the reading.  Do not move your finger of across the page but rather run your finger down the edge of the page as it is less conspicuous and less prone to error.  If you do not have a lectern, hold the Book with both hands, resting it on your open palms & fingers and then use your thumbs to keep your place.

Different types of readings
You will encounter many different types of readings, each of which would require a different style of reading to get the attention of the children.  After a bit of practice, it can be rather fun for the reader and the children.

Whichever style you adopt, the reading must have clarity and dignity.  Without clarity and dignity, the point of reading at mass is lost, and no amount of flourish will ever recover the objective of having a reading during mass.

This is a story with characters and, often, with dialogue.  For instance, a parable.  Use different voices for different characters in the story.  Children love to hear different voices used to tell stories.  If you had time to prepare, you may even share the reading with other facilitators, with each facilitator playing a different role with a different voice.  Preferably without any body acting.  The non-dialogue part of the narrative should be in a neutral voice.

Proclamations are normally from the Old Testament.  I do not expect many such readings in Children's Liturgy of the Word, especially if you stick to Gospel readings.  If you do get one, use an appropriate voice: loud and deep; or soft and tender.  But be careful that you do not emphasise all the words, particularly if you have a long reading.  It is just too exhausting and tiring on the ears.

A discourse is a monologue commonly found in the letters or when Jesus teaches or prays.  Many monologues, like the Sermon on the Mount comprises many messages in a short paragraph. You can break up some of these messages by pausing and looking up for a second (or less) to indicate a break between the messages - but limit the number of pauses otherwise the reading becomes too choppy.

The most challenging discourses are those from John, especially the Sundays of the second half of the Easter season.  These discourses are not designed for children at all and there is no easy way read them.  It may help to share paragraphs or sentences among two or more readers in order to break up the monotony of the reading.

Some practical tips

Liturgical commissioning
Liturgical rules currently allow only the priest or a deacon to read the Gospel reading.  However, the priest is allowed to delegated to someone else to read the Gospel during masses with children.  As such, it is best for the priest to commission children facilitators to be readers of the Gospel for children at an annual celebration.  This will obviate the need for the priest repeatedly delegate that task of reading the Gospel to a facilitator at every mass.

Preparation before mass
It is important to go through the readings before the mass so that you can decide how you will read it: difficult words or pronunciations; breathing points to break up long sentences; and places where emphasis or de-emphasis are needed.

Editing the reading
If the reading is too long, feel free to reduce it.  This is allowed by the liturgical rules, provided you do it with understanding.  The Sunday Missal sometimes allow a shorter version for long readings, which is something you should consider.  However, it does not always follow that children should always get the shorter reading.  I have sometimes chosen the longer reading when a shorter reading is available as an option or even the section that the shorter option allows us to drop and drop the recommended shorter section instead.  It all depends on which part of the reading is the appropriate anchor for the discussion that follows.

Liturgical rules discourages the paraphrasing of the Holy Scriptures and I agree that Children's Bibles should not be used.  However, some countries and dioceses may have sanctioned the use of certain Bible translations more appropriate for children and these may be allowed for the Liturgy.

I do, however, substitute individual difficult words (but not entire sentences) with simpler ones that children can understand - I really do not want a hand to go up with "What does adultery mean?" during a solemn reading.  I also translate units of measure if an archaic one is used and if it is important for them to grasp the context during the reading itself.

Where important characters or concepts are required to understand the readings, I would introduce them before the Gospel Acclamation: for instance, Samaritans or Jewish laws.  I never stop a reading when in full flow in order to explain certain concepts or to answer questions. 

Silence from the children
Good liturgical practice calls for silence at strategic points of the mass, especially during the Liturgy of the Word.  Children's voices, however seem to expand and fill up all sound vacuums, and so silence is sometimes not easy to achieve.  Silence therefore sometimes have to be enforced, but it has to be done sensitivity in the spirit of the Gospel.

If you introduce the Gospel with the acclamation and the opening dialogue, it is normally easier to get the required silence because these are cues for the children to be silent.  However at times, during long boring readings, children may start whispering.  When that happens, I try to keep on reading but glance up to the offender every now and then.  This is a sign for the other facilitators, or sometimes even an older child, to intervene to maintain the silence. Sometimes when there is no intervention, I may pause at a convenient point of the reading and look at them.  That always does the trick but at the cost of disruption to the flow of the reading, something best avoided if possible.

Last word
To me, the dialogue at the beginning of the Gospel reading has a significant meaning.  It comprises two lines, each with its own response by the congregation, with a "you" in each response.  The first "you", or "your", ("with your spirit") refers to the reader but the second "you" ("Glory to you, O Lord") refers to God.  

It means that when the Gospel reading is read, it is no longer the word of the reader but the Word of God that you hear.  All the more reason then to be silent and enter into the grace of God as he reveals himself in the Gospel reading.

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