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11-MASS

The challenge of uniting the generations at Mass

How can we ensure the young and old get involved in Church life? —By SALLY FRASER

“We went to a rubbish church when we were in [English town redacted],” my seven-year-old son is telling my eight-year-old daughter. “Zero points out of 10.”

Blimey, I thought. My son is notoriously not a massive Mass fan, and has been known to etch-a-sketch ‘church is boring’ by halfway through the Kyrie, but by anybody’s standards, scoring zero is harsh.

“What score does Mass at our church get?” I asked.

He thought for a moment: “Five.”

I’ll take that, I thought, but there is plenty of room for improvement. I kept the thought in mind as I prepared for a ‘family Mass’ at our church.

We called it a family Mass but the reality is of course that every Mass is a family Mass, because, like it or not, Church is a family, even if sometimes a dysfunctional one—perhaps because Church, I have come to realise, is a relationship, and like any other relationship it is built upon communication.

In my experience, age, and the (perceived) age divide, is one of the biggest sources of miscommunication and misunderstanding. At 35, I am young in Church terms, but working within the Church I see things from both sides.

The situation, as I see it, is this. Older parishioners feel younger ones don’t get involved enough. Younger parishioners feel they would like to get involved, but when they try, they find that there are too many systems already in place, too many toes to tread on, and their enthusiasm is quickly zapped.

Younger parishioners also feel judged for not having enough time to commit to things; not being available at short notice. Many women feel judged for having jobs and careers, and families can feel judged for not being able to come every week, for wanting to also honour their children’s commitments to dancing classes or swimming or football.

This is a challenge as a parent: no one wants their child to feel left out. I had a strong sense that sometimes the Church can feel like some sort of old auntie that you feel bad for not writing thank you letters to. If you just don’t go and see her, she won’t mention it and it can be some kind of low level, back burner guilt rather than an in-your-face challenge. It was this obstacle that I wanted to challenge.

The idea was pretty straightforward. Once a month we would flag out a Mass as a family Mass, and get more children involved in the liturgy. I would go across to the school and teach the children music, and help soloists and readers get ready for parts of the liturgy, so that they felt involved. And so we had Jess, aged eight, on the Kyrie, Daniel aged nine on the second reading, with his little brother on the offertory duty. A good couple of rows of kids made for an exiting Gloria and a moving Shalom. It was great to have them, to have different groups from our community coming together.

What surprised me was that, amidst the bustle and the singing and the running around making sure the microphones were the right height for the little people, I found the whole thing massively spiritual.

Because it was a celebration, and I believe in celebration. Carnival, polyphony. This mingling of voices, this place to bring the reality of our whole lives in all their mess and chaotic glory.

Children are not the future; they are the present, our priest said, and he is right of course. And I think children also have that gift for being present that we often lose. That presence, that connection to the now, which is the only place God can be. Children can’t be anyone but themselves either, they can’t pretend or hide things. And they show us that vital gift we need in order to function as a community: they allow themselves to need other people.

Spending time with children heals the soul, Dostoevksy said, and he generally said good stuff. We have to become­childlike to in order to see the kingdom of God, Jesus said, and He’s even more likely to be spot on.

It feels as if the only way I can navigate life at the moment, turbulent times personally and more generally, is by drawing on the joyfulness and in-the-moment-ness of my children and the other children I am lucky enough to spend time with, whilst leaning on the resilience and constancy of the older parishioners who make up so much of my Church life.

I suppose that’s what a community provides: all the different parts of life we need to sustain us, from joy to stability, hope to wisdom. Different lives and different voices in communion.

God would have liked that Mass, I told my husband later, and realised I was feeling pretty confident that that was the case.

I bet he would, he replied. But of course, we had yet to ask the most discerning critic of them all.

“Marks out of 10 for Mass this morning, Anthony?” I ventured, quietly confident.

My son paused, his serious little face thoughtful.

“Two,” he eventually concluded.

Wow, I thought. Tough crowd. That boy of mine is one tough crowd.

 

– Sally Fraser is a pastoral associate at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Leith, Edinburgh. She converted to Catholicism in her 20s and is married with two small children.

 

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