In my experience, the major problems of tweens and teens at Mass typically falls into 2 camps: they are involved in a ministry such as children's choir or altar serving and enjoy Mass when they get to do that but otherwise have to be dragged to Mass or they begin expressing serious doubts about God, their faith, etc. and object to going at all. As a result, this blog entry will have two parts. This first part will address those kids who gripe about going to Mass because "it's boring" and help you engage your children through altar serving or other ministries. The second post will help you with children doubting Catholicism, Christianity, and/or God's existence. That post will also include practical tips on how to set expectations for your tween/teen, especially if he or she is balking.
Please know that I understand these struggles intimately. Twenty-five years ago I was that child. I had been raised Catholic but never had any reason to be Catholic other than all my family and friends were. Your tween/teen needs reasons in order to become an interested and engaged Catholic. Not knowing why I should be Catholic nor fully understanding the treasures of the Church nearly led to my leaving on more than one occasion. I don't want that for you or your child.
The I'll-Go-When-I-Have-a-Purpose Catholic
We've all known (or been!) this teen or tween. It's his/her week to cantor at a teen Mass, lector at a children's-focused Mass, or altar serve. They jump out of bed and are ready to leave for church an hour before Mass begins. Fast forward to the next week when they aren't participating in an assigned ministry. "Why do I have to go?" "I'm tired." "This is pointless." "We had a Mass at school on Friday. That should count for something." (Insert whiny rant/complaint here.)
The trouble with these young individuals is that they don't realize that they are at Mass simply for the Mass' sake. They are there to pray the Liturgy. Liturgy is the "work of the people". Mass is not the work of (just) the priest/altar server/usher/cantor/lector. We are all there do to our work- to pray the Liturgy with the priest, our fellow parishioners, and saints and angels. While the Mass can never be less or incomplete due to our inattentiveness, our participation is essential. Our prayers, singing, and participation are why we are there. Most importantly, we are there to receive our Lord's Body and Blood. Praying the Mass is how we prepare our mind, body, and soul for the Heavenly Banquet as well as spiritually gear up for the week ahead.
One of my favorite catechetical tools to help young people is the book "Do I Have to Go?" by Matthew Pinto & Christ Stefancik. I used this excellent read as a supplemental text for the Confirmation curriculum I compiled. My students always loved it. Parents, please suggest to your child's catechists and teachers of students in grades 6th+ that they should consider purchasing class copies and reading/discussing one or two questions a class. If you're a parent, find a young adult in your parish to lead a book discussion for 4-6 tweens or teens in your home. If you feel your child would respond well, read it as a family, but I know that can be tricky at the age we're dealing with here. The casual style will definitely get your kids to start understanding why the Mass is so essential to our lives as Catholics. Some of a sampling of the questions addressed:
- Why should I go to Mass?
- What is the difference between Mass and my Protestant friend's Sunday worship service?
- What exactly is a sacrament?
- But why do we need to worship God with other people?
- I don't feel any holier after receiving communion. Is that normal?
Answers are short, refer to scripture and/or the Catechism, and provide clear explanations that even adults can enjoy, learn from, and discuss with their child(ren).
There are a large number of resources and programs you and/or your parish/school can use to help tween/teens understand the Mass. Tools such as the "Do I Have to Go?" book can go very far in helping young people desire to go to Mass. If you have good relationships with your pastor, principal, DRE, youth ministers, etc. I highly recommend discussing tools or adding programming, to help students better understand the Mass. A well-done, teaching Mass offered once/year to this age group can go far if you don't have the luxury of spending money or offering extensive programming. In my opinion, the best teaching Masses are "dry" Masses where you can allow students to pass around or come up closely to look at things such as the lectionary, paten, chalice, hand bells, etc. Plus, you aren't taking away from the sanctity of Mass. You'd be surprised at how much this can engage students.
The Altar Server Connection
Also, I think reviewing how altar serving training is done can have an enormous impact on young students' understanding of the Mass and help engage them in weeks when they aren't serving. Unfortunately, how we go about instruction doesn't always help this. Altar server instruction should be detailed and in depth. If possible, a priest should instruct but if a priest isn't available, use someone who is extremely knowledgeable about liturgy. Someone who won't just say, "bring the priest a bowl and towel at point X" but, rather, someone who can walk the students through the Mass in an in-depth, engaging, and intimate manner explaining the purposes of different prayers and gestures- particularly since they'll need to listen and watch closely for those gestures as their cues.
I used to attend a parish where altar server training was part of the school curriculum but signing up for the ministry was optional. Typically, catechesis for 5th grade covers Mass and Sacraments. This also tends to be around the age when students can become altar servers so there are many great reasons to do this formation at this age. (I will not engage in the altar boy versus altar server debate here as there are excellent grounds on both sides of things. I will touch on what you can offer the young ladies if only males are altar servers at your parish.)
Encourage whomever does altar server training to work with the school principal and/or DRE to build that into the catechetical instruction for students. Whether school or religious education, ensure all students get training in serving on the altar as part of their classroom time, hopefully inviting home school families to participate as well. After training is complete, send home permission slips for those who wish to sign up for the parish schedule. It is likely you'll get a much higher percentage of students stepping up to serve if they have had the training, know what it's about, and have had practice. Some students might be too embarrassed or hesitant to sign up for training, but this process could encourage those kids to become servers once they realize they can do well at it. Also, every DRE has gone through not having enough RE students trained as servers to help at RE Masses. This helps eliminate that problem.
If your parish only has male servers, what are they offering for the young ladies of that age? Is it feasible to start a Junior Altar and Rosary League or Mini Sacristans group? Educate and train young ladies on the tools of the Mass just as you do the young men. Can they assist older parishioners with upkeep of the sanctuary, washing/polishing vessels, laundering linens, etc.? The training is because they will treat the sanctuary area and vessels, etc. with more reverence when they fully understand the purpose of them and meaning behing them. How do you recruit ladies for such a ministry? Usually students need service hours for Confirmation and/or high school. What an excellent way to serve the parish and obtain those hours!
Stay tuned for my next post on dealing with those Doubting Thomas teens/tweens and more things you can do as a family to engage your children.