Leading children to God in prayer and at liturgies
Only a few years ago our Catholic parish school transitioned into a parish supported and neighborhood sponsored primary grade school, also sustained with public funding. While we are allowed to maintain our Catholic identity, our neighborhood had long ago run out of the chain of supply Catholic youngsters who used to stock our classrooms. In effect, our school now serves a population who are simply not Catholic.
In an attempt to bridge this transition, presiders, principals, liturgists and teachers created some form of eucharistic hybrid whereby the students were allowed to attend the parish daily Mass once weekly, but of course never approached the eucharistic table. Some of them sat during the procession while others came up for a blessing, still others received a thumb-traced cross on their foreheads. In essence, the kids were an add-on, nearly a nuisance. Neither the kids, nor the Catholic adults understood why the other was present. All this in search of Jesus.
Discovering Jesus Christ can be an elusive, mysterious and rewarding journey, but not so much around the celebration of the Mass for youngsters who are strangers to our rituals. Some protest it is important that they be exposed to our faith, practices and rituals. Sadly, some leaders expect these students to be confirmed Catholics by high school graduation. Such lofty aspirations neglect the very foundation of church ministry and mission since the Second Vatican Council.
We live out the works of mercy (instructing, counseling, feeding, clothing, sheltering, spelling, adding, subtracting, reading, writing) as a church not to gain new members but precisely, because this is what we do as church. New members are a bonus; adherence, addition or conversion are secondary. Primarily, we evangelize because we have been so moved by our own faith so as to share its fruits with others. The good news is telling others the news of God.
And so, we pray in the name of God with youngsters unfamiliar with our approach. This calls for some ingenuity, thoughtfulness and creativity. Where father figures are absent, God as Father may not be an image relatable to families wracked with high male incarceration rates. The God of gaud — gold, incense, and myrrh — may be completely foreign to children born into poverty. The manicured, Little Bo Peep flock does not speak to youngsters whose breakfast and lunch are funded by the state and the eucharistic banquet table at home can, at times, be bare at their supper hour. A solemn, pious, silent Lord is far from these youngsters’ imagination of what a God of love must be like.
On the feast of Exaltation of the Cross, we place the processional crucifix in front of these youngsters. Instead of telling them what to think about the cross, we invite them to bring to words what they see. At first, they see gold, then Jesus, then wood and then they express deeper insight feeding off of each other’s responses: dying, suffering, forgiving, pain, etc. We inquire if they can relate to anyone in those circumstances.
In the image of a large framed portrait of a younger person tending two sheep, children are invited to imagine who the (rather androgynous) shepherd might be — a babysitter? teacher? day care worker? — even entertaining discussion of the shepherd’s gender.
Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes Sr. Doris Klein has a portrait entitled “Gramma God,” whom she describes as “warm and welcoming, a soft lap of safety, filled with hugs, treats, and treasures.” We invite the kids to reminisce about any such figures in their own lives.
In an urban setting, the sound of gunfire is the background music in many of the students’ neighborhoods. We dedicate and bless a peace garden at the school’s entrance to commemorate classmates lost to neighborhood violence and hatred, sending the message “not here, not on our watch.”
Singing Kyries or Glorias, while beautiful, do not yet speak to these youngsters. Rather what works are antiphonal/campfire upbeat tunes, familiar melodies which can truly drown out the “monkey mind” in their lives, repetitive refrains with body movements and hands, using the ancient orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer. We patiently encourage copious prayer petitions, using a rousing, cheerleader type refrain “Lord, hear us!” and “Let the people say ‘Amen!’” The clapping and all the rest invite primary students to own their prayer, to form relationships with ministers and staff present, their classmates, and the mysterious Spirit of God who hovers whenever people are gathered in Jesus’ name. Ashes, fire, incense, water, liturgical books, the Lectionary and all sacred objects form the backdrop out of which the mysterious God flows.
In essence, our search for God with children in communal prayer begins by ascertaining where they are coming from, we take them by the hand, and they lead us on the path to where God wants to be.
Celebration Publications - November 2017