19 December 2010

The Christmas "Family Mass"

All manner of liturgical evils are regularly perpetrated under the banner of  "a Family Mass" from Children's Eucharistic Prayers used on Sundays (which just aint allowed) to amateur dramatics during the gospel reading, and the 'decorating' of churches with 'art' and symbols that make them look more like a temporary schoolroom, and more. Sorry, folks, there is no justification for a "Family Mass" 'cause every Sunday Mass is one, celebrated by the whole family of God, the Church. Focussing on the children is just not right on Sunday. It excludes people and infantises Mass in children's eyes. Sunday Masses can't be turned into Masses for special groups, let alone be celebrated under the rules for Masses with children (though they often are). If you really must to do something childish with the kids during Mass, they can have their own 'Liturgy of the Word' separately. At least that saves the rest of us (sometimes only until they return).

At Christmas the "Family Mass" has become the institution.Well not at Christmas really, but on Christmas-eve. Churches are packed on the evening before Christmas. The crib receives its infant (for the first time, though where there is a midnight Mass He ususally leaves afterwards for a break, only to arrive again later). Children from the elementary school (no older child or teenager would allow themselves to be seen dead doing such things) are 'organised' into nativity re-enactments, readings with special effects, prayers, offertory processions with symbols and other bric-a-brac, and any other activity some well-meaning adult thinks up to 'involve' them. The congregation is stimulated and entertained. It makes for a nice feeling. It is all very, very nice.

Before the Pimpernel receives protests about how important all this is for the children let him say that Christmas pageants and nativity plays and whatever is truly creative and involivng are, yes, very important for children. Let them have them all and not only just at Christmas. Let popular religious expression thirve. When people knew what the liturgy was, they called this sort of thing paraliturgy.

These well-motivated and enthusiasticly organised additions are not, however, part of the Mass. The simple solution that no-one seems to have thought of is to have them before the celebration of Mass, as a preparation. Not a bad idea that. You can even applaud your grandchildren after such things with enthusiasm without anyone taking offence.

Attending the Christmas "Family Mass" has the added benefit of having 'done Christmas Mass' nice and early too. The family, or anyone else who pops along on Christmas eve, can have a relaxed evening afterwards and a Christmas day without the burden of having to get to Mass on Christmas day, especially with the family.

What have we done to Christmas day? Kiddy-antics aside, even a solemn Latin Mass on Christmas eve is a bit of a problem. It doesn't break any rules, but the Pimpernel believes that allowing a vigil Mass of Christmas is one real mistake of the new missal. It has more or less destroyed what was liturgically special about Christmas day itself: midnight Mass.

Staying up that late can be a real treat for children, and teach them a lot, without any need to get up to childish antics. "Mom, why are we going to Mass so late?" "Because this is the night on which our Saviour was born, my dear." Not bad that. Or on the morning of Christmas, the sacrifice of going to a Mass as a family, of waiting until afterwards for all the family rituals, presents, etc. to begin, says very clearly that Christ himself is put first at Christmas. "Dad, do we have to wait 'till after Mass?" "Yes, son, first we must thank Jesus and celebrate his birth, and worthily receive him in Holy Communion, because he is the reason why we give presents and celebrate today." That sounds like a true family Mass, and a true family Christmas, to me.

The Pimpernel may be wrong, but which Mass is the 'greatest' Christmas Mass in your parish? Is everyone there the evening before, leaving the few faithful to midnight Mass, if it happens nowadays at all? Are Christmas morning Masses smaller too? Have a look this year.

There is an Archbishop over in England who has very bravely raised the problem of the vigil Mass of Christmas. Read about his stance here with one of his Pastor's comments. Even the folk over at America are asking this question.

A Pastor who changed the Christmas schedule for 2010 at this late stage may not be very wise. But it's never too early to start thinking about how we can celebrate Christmas better in 2011.


  1. This came up recently at our parish. My children are part of Schola Cantorum and will be singing at the "Children's Mass" on Christmas Eve. I asked what that consisted of (we are somewhat new to the parish) and loved that the answer was, "The children sing the music," in the choir loft, way up behind the congregation. They do not come down and sing sweetly for everyone. They do not get applause. They do not have a pageant. I rather appreciated this. :)

    But...this does bring up the Liturgy. We plan to go to the 5:30 Mass the next day (Christmas) as well. Will this be the same Mass as the one from the night before? Hmphf. But, as daily Mass-goers, we're certainly not going to skip Christmas just because we went to a vigil.

    I rather wish we were doing the midnight Mass instead but this will take some rethinking of the children's activities for next year, and I do feel the program is valuable.

  2. Judging by the photo of the "children's mass" it appears that the minority is being presented as the majority, a method common of traditional Catholics. I have been to hundreds of Roman Catholic Churches all up and down the East Coast of the United States for the past 25 years and I have never seen anything like this, or the more extreme examples traditionalists have used.

  3. In the new Roman Missal the childrens Eucharistic prayers are absent. I have heard they are no longer to be used

  4. Once upon a time, many many years ago, when our Bishop said, "Oh, we could never get the Pastors to cut out the Christmas Vigil Mass," I suggested: "Simply declare that ALL COLLECTIONS taken up BEFORE MIDNIGHT MASS will automatically become DIOCESAN COLLECTIONS to be forwarded to Chancery." "Oh my God!" the Auxiliary (who was at the meeting) exclaimed, "there'd never be another Christmas Vigil Mass celebrated ever again!" And everyone around the table agreed. Of course, the Bishop didn't dare do it . . .

  5. There were indults for the celebration of 'Midnight' Mass in the evening of December 24th going back to the eighteenth century and earlier.

    An interesting article, concerning the Eucharistic fast, with details of these various indults, and others) written by Mons. Bugnini can be found in Ephemerides Liturgicae, 1945, pp 64 -69. Due to the War Pius XII gave motu proprio an indult, Cum bellica conflictio, AAS XXXII, p.529 allowing the general anticipation of Midnight Mass in the evening of Christmas Eve. My understanding is that the practice continued in some places after the War ended.

  6. Apart from Holy Mass, is it appropriate to have a Christmas play or Passion play performance in a church? Thank you!

  7. Since the children may well be up at the crack of dawn, so see what S. Nicholas brought them, why not make more of the Mass of the Dawn?

  8. Mindyleigh: the modern missal has a Christmas vigil Mass with different readings and prayers to the other three Christmas Masses (midnight, dawn, and during the day).

    1st Anonymous: there's no traddy makebelieve here. This sort of thing has been going on in my parish church for at least the past fifteen years every Christmas eve. Perhaps I don't travel enough.

    Rubricarius: you clearly know a thing or two, but I don't see the relevance of what you say to this post. But that's just me; others may be grateful for the reference (BTW - Bugnini wasn't Mons. until 1972).

    Anonymous 4: I can't see the problem of this outside of Mass, if its content is religious and its purpose is pious. It seems like much the same sort of thing as a concert of sacred music outside of Mass.

  9. I have been to hundreds of Roman Catholic Churches all up and down the East Coast of the United States for the past 25 years and I have never seen anything like this, or the more extreme examples traditionalists have used.

    I agree with the Pimpernel---I must be living in the wrong cities. I've seen plays, I've seen "gather round the ambo while father gives the homily in monosyllabic words using a muppet," I've seen the twelve-year-old lector. And that's all at what I would consider a fairly normal parish.

    But here's another wrinkle: our fairly traditional parish (not the same one as above) doesn't have a weekly vigil, but we are having one for Christmas. Furthermore, the gregorian schola got kicked to the vigil Mass because the regular choir jumped up and down to be allowed to sing Christmas carols at midnight. (Plus, a lot of schola members have toddlers and think they can't be made to sit through midnight.) So, even though I dislike anticipatory Masses, I'll wind up at the vigil because, mirabile dictu, it will be the more reverent Christmas option. C'est la vie.

  10. There is an interesting list of what the churches of one diocese is doing this Christmas here: