Young people and the Liturgy

Since beginning my teaching career at second level in the 1960’s, teaching religion among other subjects, I have always used their involvement in liturgy as a way of bringing young people closer to an understanding and acceptance of their religious faith. Regular class-based Masses, a ‘graduation’ Mass for final year students, penitential services and other liturgies were organized. Occasionally there was a Mass for a dead student or past student; a special commemorative Mass for those who had died in Sandy Hook was organized in the parish church. We had a liturgy to celebrate the new millennium; though we didn’t have too many of those! A group of students volunteer each year to read once a week at the morning Mass in the parish church. I was never too happy with herding the entire school community into a church for a beginning of year or end of year liturgical extravaganza.
I was also involved with a youth conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. One of their annual tasks was to organize a toy campaign at Christmas, providing toys for needy local families. One of the local priests suggested that we might celebrate a special Mass as the focal point of this campaign; and so began our annual Toy Mass for the children of the parish (still going strong thirty years on) and my involvement in the liturgical life of the wider parish community.
A youth liturgy group was set up; not a children’s liturgy group, by the way, as the members range in age from sixteen to the mid twenties. This group was given the responsibility of organizing liturgies on five or six occasions during the liturgical year. They had already been organizing the Toy Mass just mentioned; to this were added the Harvest Mass, the Youth Mass, for all the youth orientated clubs in the town, the Mass of the Nations, a special celebration for all the non-nationals of the parish, a Lenten Liturgy of the Word, a Mass last year for the ending of the Year of Faith, a Mass for the vigil of Pentecost, and probably the liturgical highlight of their year, Toy Mass excepted, the Holy Thursday evening Mass.
All these liturgies are organized to a greater or lesser extent by the participants themselves; the Toy Mass, probably the most time absorbing of the year with preliminary discussions taking place as early as mid-October, is now prepared almost totally by the youth committee under the guidance of a young energetic leader.
Much discussion, much arguing, much writing and re-writing, much, very much, practicing.
My emphasis always has been on participation; the best way to understand what is going on is to take part: they read, they mime, they dance, they sing, they carry up gifts, they walk in procession, they dress the altar, they distribute communion, they dress as apostles for the Holy Thursday Mass, they have their feet washed (boys and girls), they write contributions for the Prayer of the Faithful, they select readings where appropriate.
Some of the liturgical actions are, I would think, unique to the group, having been suggested by themselves in the course of discussion over the years; there is always a tension between what they want and what is liturgically meaningful and correct, but a compromise is reached not always perhaps to the liturgical purists’ liking. They decided that the offertory procession at the Toy Mass would be more meaningful if the entire group of twenty five or so formed up in two lines down the centre aisle of the church and passed the gifts from one to the other towards the altar. The effectiveness of the handshake of peace would be more marked if, having received it from the priest celebrant, they then walked through the church and offered it to the congregation. (Having passed the offertory gifts from one to another, they then accompany them and assemble behind the priest celebrant in the sanctuary for the remainder of the Mass.) In some of their Masses emphasis is placed on the separateness of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist: at the Holy Thursday evening Mass the altar, stripped during the Liturgy of the Wold, is solemnly dressed in preparation for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Toy Mass, very much an Advent Mass (no carols!) usually begins with the children’s choir singing Prepare Ye the Way f the Lord as the young people first prepare a manger in front of the altar (no baby Jesus), then prepare the altar for Mass, and finally prepare themselves with a simple child- centred penitential service.
An attempt is always made to cater for various groups within the parish community. The Harvest Mass is especially for all those who provide our food and services with special involvement of the Camphill special needs community who offer the produce of their farm as gifts for use by the parish; the Mass of the Nations is for those from afar who are guests in our town: thus the cacophony of languages and flourish of national dress during the readings and Prayer of the Faithful, with on one occasion a man from Iran (Persia of the Magi) taking part in the procession of the Wise People carrying gifts to the crib; the Toy Mass is for the children; the Youth Mass (the congregation addressed, when the Mass has ended, by a well known sports personality) is for the young. All of them, of course, are for all the parishioners. Afterwards everyone is invited to the sacristy for tea, coffee and chat.
Of course none of this could happen without the cooperation of the priests of the parish who, despite the odd raised eyebrow, liturgical scruple, or exasperated grimace at the choice of reading, have been full-square behind the venture. Not every parish priest would welcome the turning of his church into a cross between a bazaar and a children’s picnic, as happens in the hours of practice and church decoration before the Toy Mass every year. Not that every parish priest is as conversant as we might like with the zeitgeist of young people. Many years ago I organized a penitential service for a school group in the school’s congregational chapel, which involved the participants holding lighted tapers. Beforehand, the parish priest asked me what he might talk about in his homily: ‘A few words about penance’, I suggested. He gave a twenty minutes detailed talk on the history of the sacrament of penance to the taper holding fourteen year olds standing to prayerful attention before him! Thank God, the floor was covered in parquet not carpet. And they were dead late for the next class.
Noel Casey,
Carrick on Suir,
Co. Tipperary.

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  1. Sean (Derry) says:

    “Not every parish priest would welcome the turning of his church into a cross between a bazaar and a children’s picnic”.
    This is the only slightly reassuring sentence in the whole article, the rest is just disturbing.

  2. Noel, this inspirational contribution gladdens my heart. How lucky they are to have you teaching and ministering to the youth and adults in your parish. You are teaching the all-important reality that the meaning of Eucharist doesn’t stop at the the end of the Liturgy….
    Congratulations for your insight and commitment and for the many extra hours you must give to this important work.

  3. Bob Hayes says:

    In my secular employment – the trade union movement in England – we frequently anguish over how to bring youngsters into the movement. I and colleagues around the country, predominantly 40+ years old, come up with all sorts of initiatives ‘to engage the youth’.
    Despite the best of intentions we quickly find ourselves sliding into stereotyping about what will attract ‘them’. Gimmicks quickly gain traction: a union stall at a music festival, discounts with retailers we 40, 50, 60+ types believe youngsters will appreciate. Invariably we are hopelessly out of touch! We hope that somehow the ‘the spirit of trade unionism’ will seep into the minds of young people as an incidental consequence of these gimmicks.
    You know what? It doesn’t work! The young people who DO join and become active do so for protection at work and solidarity – core trade union values.
    Young people will stay with, or return to, a Church that is true to and assertive of the faith. Those drawn by the ill-conceived gimmicks of the grey generations will be but transient. The souls of the future generations deserve more than a few words from a sporting figure in the parish hall or a proto-sectarian ‘yoof Mass’. They deserve to hear the Good News and be given every encouragement to live out Gospel values within the Parish and wider society.

  4. John Collins says:

    Thank you for sharing your years of experience and commitment to young people and Parish … When can you move to my parish .. Ops sorry OUR parish .. Keep the Gospel alive and active ..

  5. I fully endorse Rosaline’s comment. Well done Noel for being open to the Spirit in the children and young people and releasing so much life and love.Thank you for trusting,for taking risks,for your faith and commitment,and to all those involved.Just reading this piece brought a smile to my face!

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