Dumbing down the Mass is not Liturgical Catechesis
I recently read an article on parish practice which discussed the importance of liturgical catechesis in First Communion preparation. I am all in favour of liturgical catechesis, as I have written about here. However, the author seemed to present quite a different concept of it from the one I am accustomed to. From what I have studied, liturgical catechesis means teaching people the signs and symbols of the liturgy in order to draw them deeper into the Mystery of what is taking place. Through the visible signs, the invisible reality is made known. Catechesis – because it always leads to the Liturgy, the source of grace – can itself be ‘liturgical’: i.e. using signs, symbols, gestures, Scriptural readings. This links catechesis to the Liturgy.
However, I didn’t recognise what this author was describing as liturgical catechesis. His main point seemed to be that if you use a children’s Mass, and explain what is happening to the children, and ‘include’ them in it (whatever that means), the adults themselves will be catechised on the meaning of the Mass. This seems to me to have two clear problems:
1. Infantalising adults: Surely adults need to understand the Mass on an adult-level, not on a child’s level. Sadly it is the case that many Catholic adults’ understanding of the Faith and spirituality remains at the level of a child. It really is sad that the only way adults can understand the Mass is to be spoken to at the level of a child. This approach seems to favour disregarding external symbols in preference of banal ‘chat’ – in doing so, it obliterates the real meaning of liturgical catechesis: the visible leading to the invisible. Disregarding the visible signs in favour of mini-homilies throughout the Liturgy often means that the truth of the mind-blowing, invisible reality remains completely obscure. The much better solution it seems to me, is to let the Mass be the Mass – the words, liturgy, signs speak volumes if done reverently and beautifully – and give adults the solid, adult catechesis they need on the Mass, outside the Mass.
2. Diminishing the Mass, instead of drawing children up to it: In our parish we have three Presentation Masses through the year for our First Communion children. Each time they are presented at the end of the Mass with a different item: a Missal, a crucifix and a Rosary. Each of these Masses is a solemn high Mass, with a full choir, lots of servers and the Mass setting sung in Latin. The children do the readings (usually brilliantly) and the bidding prayers, but that is it. To me it seems much more important that these Masses are liturgical catechesis for the children, than that they each have ‘a part to play’ which gives them completely the wrong understanding of participation. Early on they are taught that we participate in Mass by praying in our hearts. It strikes me that, when they are sitting at the front of the church watching everything that is taking place reverently before them, taking in the beauty of the singing (one boy whispered as we were singing the Kyrie, “is this Latin or Greek?”), and becoming increasingly engulfed in billowing incense, this is nourishing their spiritual lives far more than standing around the sanctuary holding hands during the Our Father ever could. Instead we emphasise that the sanctuary is the holiest place in the church because this is where Jesus’ Sacrifice happens.
Teaching – implicitly through liturgy, or explicitly through catechesis – that the Mass is the most powerful, life-changing event that happened on earth, shows children that the Mass is bigger than they are, it is a great, magnificent Mystery that we go to be present at, immerse ourselves in, but never pretend we understand fully or dumb down for our own convenience. If liturgical catechesis tries to get across a different message than this, in my view it has missed the mark.