News Flash: 4-Year-Olds Don't Understand Mass


Sunday mornings I brace myself, I know it’s coming. “I don’t wanna go to chuurrrch!!!” our 4-year-old daughter wails.

Mom: Why don’t you want to go to church?

Vaughn: It’s bor-wing.

Mom: It’s a chance to visit Jesus at his house.

Vaughn: Well, I like Jesus {{pause}}. But I don’t wanna go to church!

I have to admit, there were times in my life when I felt the same way.

While Vaughn’s pre-Mass crabbiness is disheartening, there’s a silver lining: it reminds me how important it is for me, as a parent, to help her understand the significance and beauty of Mass. The Catechism says “parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray” (CCC no. 2226) and for Catholics there’s no greater prayer than the Mass.

Oh and she likes Jesus, we can build on that.

Part of the enlightenment process includes teaching her what Mass is not. It’s not a presentation put on by actors (e.g. priest, deacon and choir) for an audience (the congregation). It’s not just a series of random words and calisthenics: stand, sing, sit, respond, kneel, repeat. And it’s not an event we attend simply because the musical arrangements are nice or the priest’s jokes are funny. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate those things but they’re icing on the liturgical cake, so to speak. (On the subject of sweets, I’m not above providing a doughnut after Mass for good behavior.)

Now, on to what Mass is. What I want to get across to Vaughn is that the most important thing about Mass is … meeting Jesus! I want her to know how fortunate we are that the Eucharistic Lord comes to meet us each and every time we join in this celebration. He comes to feed us, strengthen us, get us through the nitty-gritty of the week—and ultimately to make us more like him. That’s an incredibly lucrative trade for one short hour of our time.

One way kids can begin to understand this encounter with Christ is by participating more actively in Mass. Last spring at Denver’s Living the Catholic Faith Conference, I attended a workshop called “Leading youngsters to full, conscious and active participation in the Mass.” Here, Sister Kathleen Harmon offered several ways to get kids involved. These suggestions can be incorporated any time after a child has graduated from the cry room or surpassed the need for a sippy cup, coloring book or other diversion in the pew (and as we know, these accomplishments vary from child-to-child based on age, maturity and attention span):

  • Tell them the parts of the Mass. Point out the four main parts of the liturgy and tell them to look for the Sign of the Cross, and the kiss, in each part. Ask them about something they’ve kissed (e.g. Mom, Dad, Grandma, a beloved Pillow Pet) and why.
  • Print a copy of a Eucharistic Prayer (she suggested #2 since it’s shortest) and read through it together line-by-line (for as long as they can sit still) then discuss: What does holy mean? What does it mean to “send your Spirit and make us holy”? What are ways we can treat each other in a holy manner?
  • Talk about the importance of looking at something (or someone) with reverence. Tell your child every time you look in their eyes it’s like Christ looking at Christ. Talk about what it means to look at someone in the eyes.
  • Bless your children at night saying “I love you and you are the Body of Christ.” Teach them who they are and who you are (a child of God).
  • Point out the concluding rites “Go forth. The Mass is ended.” Why does Mass end by telling us to go forth?

When we go forth on Sundays and keep Jesus present in our daily lives, hopefully it will sink in how important these weekly visits are—not only for the hour we’re there but all week long. While I continue to try to get that concept across to a determined preschooler, I hope the Sunday when I don’t hear: “I don’t wanna go to church!” is coming sooner than later.

Copyright 2011 Julie Filby


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