ASK FATHER: Inviting children to stand around the altar? Fail!

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

My wife and I have been taking our young children to “children’s Masses” in our diocese for several years, [WHY?!?] and it has become common at every church we have attended (including the cathedral) at Sunday Mass for the priest to tell the kids and their parents to circle the altar while holding hands to say the Our Father.
Needless to say, these are all N.O. Masses. [Indeed.] I believe the priests are well intentioned, in the sense that they want to make the Mass and prayer seem interesting and active for the kids, and yet my “Catholic radar” tells me there may be something inappropriate about this practice. May I ask, is what I’ve described a liturgical abuse? [Yes.]
Because I feel uncomfortable about this practice, I don’t let my kids do it, and I’m thinking that in the future we may go to a “regular” Sunday Mass and avoid the “children’s Masses.” [D’ya think?] The only problem with that is that we then miss out on the experience of parish life of being at Mass with other families. Thanks for your reply, and God bless you!

You would think that, by now, this sloppy sentimentalism would be gone as the aging hippies disappear.

For example, in GIRM 295 we read.

The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation.

Lay people are not to be in the sanctuary unless they have a ministerial role.  “Standing around” is not a ministerial role!

Furthermore, in these USA people are to kneel – not stand – from the Sanctus until after the Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer.

Back in 1981 the Congregation for Divine Worship’s official publication Notitiae (No. 17 (1981) p. 61) responded to a question about this matter.

Query: At the presentation of gifts at a Mass with congregation, persons (lay or religious) bring to the altar the bread and wine which are to be consecrated. These gifts are received by the priest celebrant. All those participating in the Mass accompany this group procession in which the gifts are brought forward. They then stand around the altar until communion time. Is this procedure in conformity with the spirit of the law and of the Roman Missal?

Reply: Assuredly, the Eucharistic celebration is the act of the entire community, carried out by all the members of the liturgical assembly. Nevertheless, everyone must have and also must observe his or her own place and proper role: ‘In liturgical celebrations each one, minister or layperson, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to that office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy’ (SC 28). During the liturgy of the Eucharist, only the presiding celebrant remains at the altar. The assembly of the faithful take their place in the Church outside the ‘presbyterium,’ which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and altar ministers.

Again, “standing around” isn’t a ministerial role.

Furthermore, at no point is there an indication in the rite for the priest or anyone else to invite people to come into the sanctuary and stand (against the Church’s clear direction during the Eucharistic prayer) near the altar.

In 1997 several offices of the Roman Curia cooperated in an authoritative document called Ecclesia de mysterio, called in English “Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding The Collaboration Of The Non-Ordained Faithful In The Sacred Ministry Of Priest. This instruction clarified the distinct roles of laypeople and of priests. In that document, we find:

In liturgical celebrations each one, minister or layperson, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to that office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.” (SC art. 29). During the liturgy of the eucharist, only the presiding celebrant remains at the altar. The assembly of the faithful take their place in the Church outside the “presbyterium,” which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and altar ministers. [Notitiae 17 (1981) 61]

Bottom line: the lay faithful (except those in liturgical serving roles) are not permitted to be inside the sanctuary, that is, “standing around the altar” during Holy Mass.

Moreover, the Ceremonial of Bishops 50 states,

“A minister who is not wearing a vestment, a cassock or surplice, or other lawfully approved garb may not enter the sanctuary during a celebration.”

The priest who is doing this should be dissuaded, perhaps over a couple mugs of rich and aromatic Mystic Monk Coffee If he will not be dissuaded, then he should be compelled.  Either his superior if he is a religious and/or the local diocesan bishop, whose task it is make sure that the Church’s liturgical directives are followed, should be informed.

One could also explain the situation to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments and ask for advice.

 

 

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34 Responses to ASK FATHER: Inviting children to stand around the altar? Fail!

  1. celpar says:

    Every Maundy Thursday our PP (England) has the children who will make their First Communion in the summer come and stand around the altar while he performs a ‘show & tell’ consecration. I go elsewhere now for the Triduum! Luckily I have a choice.

  2. CradleRevert says:

    I drive a half hour to attend an FSSP parish, but there is a diocesan parish a couple minutes from my house. One of the two times when I went to this parish due to car troubles, I observed this practice also. It was on Mother’s Day, and during the same service Father also, rather than give a homily, invited all of the children of the parish to come sit on the sanctuary steps while he did a cutesy little Mother’s Day Q & A with the children.

    Although this priest is still there, they’ve since received a new, young Associate Pastor who appears to be doing good things there. On the parish’s Facebook page, I see that this new young priest has been reviving Communion on the tongue and the use of chapel veils during their Sunday Spanish Mass. This young priest also wears his biretta for his Masses.

  3. Michael_Thoma says:

    Unfortunately, many of the Latin Church priests that do this are higher up in the local diocesan positions, are friendly with the Bishop, and are well known for their ‘antics’. Some are promoted for their offensive practices specifically. I know of one that was doing this and other nonsense in one of the mega parishes for almost 15yrs. It’s hard to believe no one in the hierarchy knew about it. In addition, many of these priests ‘degreed experts’ and are given the responsibility of heading some important Diocesan Offices like that of Evangelization. For the particular case I know, I wonder who is being evangelized – if his method is ‘effective’, it will be to evangelize one right out of the Church and into ‘non-denominationalism’, since there is at least one generation in this particular parish that has only experienced goofy sentimentalism called “worship” instead of actual Catholic worship.

    What is one to do in these cases? Try to take your kids to a nearby monastery Mass, an Eastern Catholic Church, one of the groups with EF charism (IKCSP, SSJC, etc) , Anglican Use if near an Ordinariate or maybe even an Orthodox Church that is allowable according to agreements with the Holy Father or stay home and watch EWTN.

  4. Reconverted Idiot says:

    Visiting another church and attending their N.O. a few months back, I was a little disappointed to see the children being taken out of Mass for some kind of “Sunday School” – Children’s Liturgy was the title used if I recall correctly. My disappointment was quickly tempered when one child refused to go and insisted on staying for the “grown up Mass”. His parents quickly relented – I think they were rather pleased – and then (no surprise here) one or two of his friends decided to stay too. What a great example!

  5. Paul says:

    Children? We did this at a Cursillo, by a rock start priest in the Archdiocese of Boston no less. This was when I returned to the church and had no clue it was wrong, yet it still felt wrong at the time.

  6. Andrew says:

    Yowzers, I thought that travesty I still have nightmares about from my childhood in the 90’s was long gone. I know all children aren’t as weird as I was but the social pressures involved in that somehow were also frightening to me even before I learned more about worship and liturgy. Children also just sense things are stupid and fake and I’m pretty sure it is a contributor to why so many people my age in our early 30’s don’t go to Mass at all even if they still believe and why we have no vocations in so many dioceses. I also still remember the disapproving look from the youth minister when I was a teen and refused to go up during the life teen Mass, to which I never went again and possibly not too many other Masses for a while after that, related or not I am not certain. Man I really thought whatever else was going wrong at least that was done.

  7. mysticalrose says:

    Of course, this abuse would be easily solved by a communion rail, which gives a clear “barrier” beyond which people ought not go. But oftentimes “green-carpet” churches don’t even seem to have a sanctuary at all. It’s just one, big, amorphous space.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Make them all servers. Make them all come early and wear albs. Then they can be up on the altar, sure!

    I don’t know what you’d do with twenty servers, though.

  9. Dave N. says:

    Despite very specific instructions to the contrary, this practice is still perpetuated in parishes by groups such as LifeTeen.

  10. Michael in NoVA says:

    We try to avoid the Children’s Mass whenever possible. We want our girls to experience the fullness of Mass as much as possible, and too many Children’s Masses feature watered-down theology and ritual.

    The only time I was invited to stand around the altar was (sadly) on a vocation discernment retreat at Mundelein seminary. The other young men and I who were discerning a call to the priesthood were invited by a previous rector to form a circle around the altar during the consecration (I guess to see what it is like to concelebrate?). Since I was uncomfortable with this concept, I managed to make sure I was off to the side/front of the circle and not in the sanctuary area proper.

    Later on, when there was a Q&A between current seminarians and the discerners, I asked a question about how priests were trained to respond if someone mentioned the use of birth control during confession. This same rector (who of course never wore clericals, even in his official photo) started his response with “Well, you know, you have to account for the primacy of the individual conscience…”, conveniently omitting the “well-formed” part of that equation. Fortunately, the seminarians gave a much better answer.

    Needless to say, I was one of those who were relieved when Cardinal George did a little bit of housecleaning at Mundelein a few years later. I imagine that a discernment retreat with Fr. Barron is quite a different experience.

  11. CJ6 says:

    My husband and I take our ten month old to the children’s mass in our parish. She is at an age where she likes to vocalize loudly and doesn’t yet understand that there are times and places for quiet. It’s not uncommon for toddlers to throw fits or make a break for it up the aisle during this mass. I really appreciate the opportunity to attend mass as a family without disturbing older attendees.

  12. frjim4321 says:

    I found such intimate settings for the Eucharist were most impressionable for me in my youth and continued to be so throughout seminary.

    For 10+ years at First Communion we bring the 2nd graders up around the altar from Preparation until the Sign of Peace.

    To my mind it works very well. No complaints, ever. No letters downtown, ever. Happy children, happy parents.

    I’d have to be bribed with huge quantities of MMC to even consider changing this practice.

    [I’ll bet the readers will ante up if we can find a mechanism. In the meantime, how about a steaming hot cup of “KNOCK IT OFF!”?]

  13. jasoncpetty says:

    Ugh, a priest at my university did this. I dreaded the days when he was the celebrant because I knew it would mean no Holy Communion for me, since he just passed it around to the hand-holding loons brazen enough to encircle the altar when he called them up (all of whom also self-communicated from the chalice placed on the altar).

    Also, either hold hands or do the orans thing during the whole Mass or don’t do it at all. It’s beyond stupid—‘oh, this means I’m praying’—what, were you not praying every part of the Mass except the Our Father?

  14. iamlucky13 says:

    “During the liturgy of the eucharist, only the presiding celebrant remains at the altar. The assembly of the faithful take their place in the Church outside the “presbyterium,” which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and altar ministers.”

    I’m sure there are some who will object that this denies them their role in what is going on at the altar. The answer to that is simple.

    YES! It does. It is not our sacrifice that atones for our sin, but Christ’s, which is exactly why the priest is at the altar, acting in persona Christi, not us lay folk.

    Our place and posture during the Consecration make us better aware of the reality of what is taking place and why.

  15. benedetta says:

    I could go on at length here, as a teacher and a mother who was once a child herself, as to the right that children have to spiritual formation and worthily celebrated sacraments…but I won’t, and instead only repeat once again what I often say to people who attempt to assert that the current public school iteration is yet a superior environment for a child’s learning, be it social emotional, skill based, or any other sort: I as a parent desire that my child learn to swim; that is why I do not just throw him into the lake, ocean or tributary…

  16. benedetta says:

    As to the other comment about missing out on families — likely one will find other families at other Masses. I suspect a bit of a corralling effect to these children’s programs that has a dark side of preferring not to see nor hear children all that much in other places, in some cases. Best to have all the generations freely worshipping together at worthy liturgy than giving children the false and inappropriate and erroneous impression that Mass is for only certain times and contexts as officiously defined.

  17. Elizabeth M says:

    Thank you for the clarification and documentation. It greatly helps when conversing with people to have a solid reference.
    This is why we drive further to attend EF. Our parish down the street has a “youth ministered Mass” and now is looking for young adults with musical talents to join the Praise & Worship Band (Come on in and get ready to play and sing some awesome praise and worship music.).
    Le headache!

  18. And this is one of the reasons I left father social Ninny poo and his parish despite the parish being one my grandparents stuck with from materialization in the 60’s. That pastor is still there, dragging things down spiritually including keeping a heretical (former) Lonergan Theology professor as RCIA director, who doesn’t believe in gradation of sin and that if the church rejects en mass a doctrine or dogma, it is not follow able.

    Sadly this pastor is popular and he apparently is well connected so he won’t get removed, even after the 12 year mark hits his career at my former parish.

  19. rickamdg says:

    When our oldest received first Communion in our parish church, the kids were invited up. It rubbed me the wrong way. That was the straw that pushed us to find and begin attending a Tridentine Mass. The rest of our children thereafter received first Communion the normal way: kneeling at an altar rail.

  20. Latin Mass Type says:

    The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation.

    Communion rails anyone?

  21. JARay says:

    I am afraid that this antic is the regular practice in my local parish. The PP is very popular and a large number of parishoners think that he is just marvelous. I don’t.

  22. RAve says:

    Decades ago, before I knew what liturgical abuse was, I was introduced to this novelty. As we all stood there around the altar, the time came when we were supposed to kneel. I knelt. I didn’t realize kneelng (in accord with the rubrics) as we all were gsthered around the altar was subsversive. But apparently giving the finger to the rubrics absolutely was the goal. And father made sure I knew that by kneeling I was selfishly drawing attention to myself. It drove the pastor bananas, but I had no idea at the time.

    But I didn’t let that bother me. When he invited us up (and everyone went up) I always knelt. Sort of spoiled their vibe.

  23. Bea says:

    Children’s Masses are too distracting for True Devotion to the Sacrificial aspect of what the Mass IS.
    It is better IMHO to attend Mass as a family unit. That way we, as parents, can make sure that our children are delving into the depths of the Sacrifice taking place at the altar. All the rest is “fluff” that has nothing to do with The Holy Sacrifice of The Mass.

    Our children will not remain children long. They must learn to follow the Mass in an adult way in order for them to keep the Faith as adults. It is an insult to children’s capability of understanding, that we must downplay the Mass in order to …..What? ….. Entertain them?

  24. Geoffrey says:

    “A minister who is not wearing a vestment, a cassock or surplice, or other lawfully approved garb may not enter the sanctuary during a celebration”.

    Does this apply to ordained and instituted ministers only? Should commissioned lectors / readers be wearing albs? I just cannot stomach a veritable army of women in albs…

  25. Michael_Thoma says:

    [i]I found such intimate settings for the Eucharist were most impressionable for me in my youth and continued to be so throughout seminary.[/i]
    It’s intimate to stand around behind the priest with 20-50 other people while the priest consecrates Eucharist, praying and following the priest’s prayers quietly?
    Ok.. Then it must be 100X more intimate to stand behind the priest with the entire community facing the Eucharist together, praying quietly, right?
    Thanks Father for again supporting the EF, the Anglican Use, all the Eastern Liturgies and the OF Mass celebrated according to the actual books. When will you set up such an intimate and impressionable setting for your entire parish and not exclude the parents, couples, older folks, etc?

    [i]For 10+ years at First Communion we bring the 2nd graders up around the altar from Preparation until the Sign of Peace.[/i]

    If you turned around and they were standing at the first 2 pews you’d probably get the same effect through the entire Mass, while including the rest of the parish.

    [i]To my mind it works very well. No complaints, ever. No letters downtown, ever. Happy children, happy parents.[/i]Unhappy everyone else, complaints ignored from those you find disagreeable, I’m sure.

    [i]I’d have to be bribed with huge quantities of MMC to even consider changing this practice. [/i]
    Medical marijuana cookies and/or Mystic Monk coffee?

  26. Michael_Thoma says:

    I found such intimate settings for the Eucharist were most impressionable for me in my youth and continued to be so throughout seminary.

    It’s intimate to stand around behind the priest with 20-50 other people while the priest consecrates Eucharist, praying and following the priest’s prayers quietly?
    Ok.. Then it must be 100X more intimate to stand behind the priest with the entire community facing the Eucharist together, praying quietly, right?
    Thanks Father for again supporting the EF, the Anglican Use, all the Eastern Liturgies and the OF Mass celebrated according to the actual books. When will you set up such an intimate and impressionable setting for your entire parish and not exclude the parents, couples, older folks, etc?

    For 10+ years at First Communion we bring the 2nd graders up around the altar from Preparation until the Sign of Peace.

    If you turned around and they were standing at the first 2 pews you’d probably get the same effect through the entire Mass, while including the rest of the parish.

    To my mind it works very well. No complaints, ever. No letters downtown, ever. Happy children, happy parents.

    Unhappy everyone else, complaints ignored from those you find disagreeable, I’m sure.

    I’d have to be bribed with huge quantities of MMC to even consider changing this practice.

    Medical marijuana cookies and/or Mystic Monk coffee?

  27. q7swallows says:

    Confession: As a child in the late 1960s-early 70s, I remember being sent up to SIT around the Novus Ordo altar because Father asked all the children to do that. But also to keep an eye on my younger siblings so they didn’t do anything embarrassing up there. Sunday after Sunday. And I remember hating it and wishing I could grow up fast so I could be disqualified as “a child” — and a pawn.

  28. Gabriel Syme says:

    The majority of NO masses could be described as “childrens masses” – the atmosphere is often like a school assembly or childrens party.

  29. Joe in Canada says:

    “The hand-holding loons”? Some thoughts are better unexpressed.

    frjim4321 makes a good point: there are or can be plusses in just about any innovation. The question isn’t even if these plusses outweigh the negatives (in this case separating families, introducing sentimentality, etc) but simply whether we are receiving the gift Christ wants to give us or requiring him to modify it into the gift we want.

    I only assist at parishes (i.e. I’m not a pastor) and in one the children are invited up and they stood in front of the altar to “lead” the Pater Noster. The parish priest thought this was wonderful, so I simply asked the sacristan/mc if he thought it made sense for the children to enter the sanctuary and immediately turn their back on their Lord. He agreed with me, and instructed them to face the altar. The other compromise was I wouldn’t invite them up, he would. The pastor has recently retired and been replaced by a priest from India. We’ll see if it continues.

  30. Fr. D. says:

    Fr. Z. Thank you for all the references you send along. One of them raises a tangential question: Is the celebrant ever allowed to leave the sanctuary before the last blessing? I have become aware of some instances where the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and the celebrant leave for the sacristy to do the purification of the vessels immediately after Holy Communion has been distributed. All of the vessels, including those holding the Blessed Sacrament are brought there for “consolidation” and purification. As a result, the celebrant is gone from the sanctuary. So we have the exact opposite of what this post is about: not so much who is allowed in the sanctuary during the celebration, but now who is allowed out of the sanctuary! What messed up liturgical practices we witness.

  31. Mary Jane says:

    Someone commented that they attend the children’s mass so their children don’t bother others in the pews with the noise. I understand this desire to not bother others…however…children can learn to behave at Mass, and if someone is bothered by a baby crying that’s a problem they need to work on themselves (I’m not saying the baby shouldn’t be taken outside if the crying can’t be stopped quickly…I’m saying that if someone is upset at hearing some children-type noises during Mass, they have a problem, not you).

    Children won’t learn if they are never given an opportunity to learn. They need to be given the right opportunity to learn, at a Mass where it is quiet and reverent, not at a Mass where noise abounds and children are running all over (I may be exaggerating but it’s just to make the point).

    Believe me, I know how hard and frustrating it can be to bring young children to Mass and to try to keep the noise level down. Hubby and I have small children and we attend High Mass (EF) as a family each Sunday. Sometimes we don’t get to pray much ourselves because we’re taking care of the kids, trying to keep everyone quiet and still. It is hard, and you do what you have to…when they were really little a small quiet snack or a sippy cup was what we needed to keep the noise down. Now we’re at a point where picture books and a rosary to hold are all they (usually :) need. It’s still not perfect…but they are getting the hang of it. We don’t require the impossible, they are children and they’re learning, but we do require them to learn and to try.

    A story…one Sunday our oldest (he was 3 at the time) tapped me on the arm after the recessional and said, “Mom, I saw the angels!” It took me a minute to realize he was (I think! :) referring to the servers and Father processing out of the church. (Yes the vestments Father was wearing were beautiful). But even at that young age he knew something profound had happened.

    They won’t learn if they are never given an opportunity to learn. Take your kids to Mass, and take them to a non-children’s Mass. My two cents. :)

  32. Pcito says:

    I fought this battle in the late 90’s with Life Teen. As a vicar, I couldn’t change the pastor’s decision, so I decided to use theology and church law (all of FrZ’s references above). No go. When I asked the Life Teen leaders “why” the kids needed to be around the altar, I was told: “Because if we *don’t* invite the teens around the altar, we’re telling them that they’re not holy.” Try arguing with that circular logic.

    I reached a temporary understanding with my pastors by saying simply, “I *prefer* not to invite the teens around the altar.” And that worked, where pointing out their errors got them defensive. Eventually, I went armed with all of the above references and spoke to the bishop. God bless him, he banned the practice in the entire diocese (and we were a Life Teen “hub”).

    LT at the time had a lot of similar abuses, e.g. teens receiving the gifts and preparing the altar – priest remains seated – because they’re setting the “table” for “their dinner”. We priests knew there was something creepy about their founder, which later came to light. I knew that was the source for all the loopy invented rubrics, but most priests just adopted without question the latest Life Teen innovations, since it was cool, hip, and made the Mass not “boring”. Since I was first made pastor in the late 90’s, I simply banned Life Teen altogether, though they occasionally have some useful resources.

    Bottom line, fads come and go, rubrics don’t.

  33. aviva meriam says:

    OK. I’m just a dumb convert with a bad attitude by WHY is it necessary to dumb things down? Why can’t we just respect the holiness of what happens on the altar and recognize the privilege of being there as a witness?

  34. eulogos says:

    I have to admit that 10 or 12 years ago (before Benedict was elected) when all my recent experience of church for 20 years had been in the diocese of Rochester NY, I would have told you that I liked this, that the children liked it. One priest asked the children to copy all his gestures, and they watched him intently and did so. As a teaching exercise at least, it was very successful.

    So when I tried to think about what is wrong with it, I tried to imagine it in the Byzantine parish I attend (this is more emotionally neutral in discussion than saying I have been trying to imagine it happening at the EF, but really, the result is the same.) Immediate dissonance. This cannot be. Why not? Well, the priest has to do certain things, the deacon (when we have one) has to do certain things, the altar boy has to do certain things, they are very exact, they are very important, they are all part of the liturgy, it is very solemn, and you just could not have a bunch of children up there. The children know this themselves. I bet Byzantine children know by the age of 3, or earlier, that no one goes casually behind the iconostasis, that that is a special place. Why could you not change all that for the children? Because all those actions, movements, gestures, are part of the worship of God, an important, grown up affair that children are allowed to be part of, but that doesn’t cater to children, that isn’t about the children. It is never about the children. It is always about God. Don’t get me wrong, parents always bring children, as they all commune, but they learn it is about something awesome in the originial sense of the world, not about them.

    So, as nice as it seems to do this for the children in the NO, as much as they and their parents might like it, the fact that having children up around the altar doesn’t seem inconsistent with the celebration of the mass, reveals just what the usual celebration of the NO is missing.
    Gravitas, and more than Gravitas.

    Susan Peterson

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