Children at Mass: Integrating Gesture and Movement
the children’s movements need to be fully integrated into the ritual itself..."
the gestures used in the sacred liturgy need to be dignified and relevant..."
movement and gestures in the liturgy should never be viewed as ‘performance’ and so must always find a place within the ritual itself..."
The Directory for Masses with Children (1973) includes among the ‘human values that are present in the Eucharistic celebration’ the ‘experience of symbolic actions’ (DMC 9). Children are particularly adept at using symbolic actions, from the tiny child who plays ‘boo!’ with un-scary people to older children who are capable of more complex actions. Incorporating symbolic actions into children’s liturgy certainly enriches the experience for them but must be achieved in a manner which does not reduce the actions to entertainment, which tends to elicit applause. Movement in the liturgy has been justly criticised when it has drawn the focus away from worship towards personal performance.
The Directory was an official response to the call by Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) for provisions to be made for ‘legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples’ (SC 38). Among the norms presented for the reform of the sacred liturgy, there was a call to ‘promote active participation’ where the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bearing. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence’ (SC 30). Another response to the call for adaptation was the provision of Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children where the specific needs of children were taken into account in an unprecedented way. Recent musical settings of the acclamations in these Eucharistic Prayers have greatly assisted children in responding during this important part of the Mass (see for example Michael Mangan’s Mass of Jubilee and Patricia Spencer’s Mass of Spirited Praise).
To be faithful to the directives of the Second Vatican Council, any development of gestures and
comportment needs to be planned with sound liturgical principles.
Firstly, the children’s movements need to be fully integrated into the ritual itself. Gestures and bearing need to be appropriate to the ritual moment. Suitable moments include the psalm response, the gospel acclamation and the Eucharistic acclamations. The Holy Holy for example is a moment of high praise and the singing can be enhanced for the community through movements.
Secondly, music and gesture must be appropriate to the age and experience of the children so that they can respond with complete confidence. Patricia Spencer’s Mass of Spirited Praise integrates clapping into the sung responses for the second children’s Eucharistic Prayer. The entire assembly of children and adults is enlivened by this action.
Thirdly, the gestures used in the sacred liturgy need to be dignified and relevant. For instance, at the Eucharistic response Jesus has given his life for us, the gesture of hands reaching forward (as if receiving communion) is a known, accessible and relevant movement that can be done carefully and with great dignity.
Fourthly, the symbols used must be accessible and worthy. While gestures themselves are symbolic, they can also involve other symbols as for example when the bread and wine are carried forward to the altar.
Fifthly, movement and gestures in the liturgy should never be viewed as ‘performance’ and so must always find a place within the ritual itself. They should never replace silence or stillness. Thus one might need to avoid symbolic movement during the period of silence after communion when there is no ritual action into which gestures can be integrated. The Directory for Masses with Children makes special mention of the catechetical preparation of children for first communion as an occasion for encouraging their liturgical participation (DMC 12).
A few years ago our parish tried to engage the first communicants in the Eucharistic Prayer as the central focus of Jesus’ saving act through movement and gesture. The catechesis for the communicants prior to the celebration emphasised their place in the saving act of Jesus and primacy of the Eucharistic Prayer. In the second children’s Eucharistic Prayer, the sung responses begin during the Preface. The children moved down the aisle in procession at this time, only moving when the responses were being sung. They stood silently while the priest said the prayer. The children reached the sanctuary when the Holy Holy began and the entire assembly sang and clapped the music while the children moved onto the sanctuary carrying a long piece of white fabric, lifting it high in praise.
In A Sense of the Sacred (2005), Kevin Seasoltz notes that liturgical language and gestures need not be executed to accomplish a task but rather to reveal meanings and express dispositions. This certainly was emphasised when the children used gestures and music together, directing the attention of the community towards God’s saving action at the altar. The white fabric, evocative of resurrection, spoke of the unity of all the baptised. The open-ended circle, completed by the altar itself, suggested that Christ’s sacrifice completes our relationship with God and with one another. In the circle of first communicants around the altar, the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the bread and wine becomes a presence in the world through our relationship with each other. While this articulated theology is beyond the understanding of children, a powerful and well-integrated image is absorbed in a symbolic manner. The liturgy always exerts its own inherent power to instruct, but it occurs in the manner of symbols, moving us, in the words of Aquinas, from things we know to things we do not know. The gestures clearly embodied the praise given to God within the Eucharistic Prayer. All the children were gathered around the Lord ’s Table as full members of Christ’s Body taking part actively with the people of God in the Eucharist.
When we came to the acclamation, We praise you, we bless you, we thank you, the children placed the white cloth on the floor and used a gesture for each statement – lifting their arms and faces upwards in the gesture of prayerful praise, placing their hands across their chest and bowing their heads for blessing, and making a wide gesture of open hands to give God thanks. At the Great Amen, they lifted the cloth again in high praise, singing with the whole assembly. They processed from the sanctuary back to their places as they sang the Our Father with the whole congregation. The General Catechetical Directory (1971) of the Congregation for the Clergy says that catechesis must promote an active, conscious, genuine participation in the liturgy of the Church, not merely by explaining the meaning of the ceremonies, but also by forming the minds of the faithful for prayer, for thanksgiving, for repentance, for praying with confidence, for a community spirit, and for understanding correctly the meaning of the creeds. All these things are necessary for a true liturgical life (25). We attempted to engage the first communicants through bodily gesture in an understanding of the meaning of the Eucharistic Prayer, to form them in a different way of understanding the prayer. For their final thanksgiving Mass at the end of the year, the children repeated the movement and gestures they had used previously. That they remembered and engaged in the liturgy in a dignified, thoughtful and joyous manner indicated that they had embraced this aspect of their catechesis in a profound way. The experience of symbolic ritual actions invited the children to participate at a heightened level and interpreted the mystery from a new perspective.
This way of approaching movement and gesture in the liturgy is rather different from speaking of ‘liturgical dance’ which causes anxiety on the part of many. In some cultures and contexts liturgical dance is totally appropriate but in our Western cultural experience dance is more associated with the secular than the sacred. The 1994 Instruction on Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, Varietates legitimate, uses the word dance but makes a broader point: among some people, singing is instinctively accompanied by handclapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements on the part of the participants. Such forms of external expression can have a place in the liturgical actions of these peoples on condition that they are always the expression of true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication, and not simply a performance (42). Children naturally move and clap while singing and this can bring them to a more profound experience of the liturgical celebration than remaining silent and still the entire time. When I am a cantor in our vibrant parish, my spirits are lifted when a small body comes to the front simply to dance joyously to the music of the community’s praise of God. Bodily movement in the liturgy, when it is a natural and Spirit-filled form of response and a true communal gesture of worship, can be a powerful way of engaging children more deeply in the Eucharist, and especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, our moment of highest praise of God for Jesus’ saving act.