A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
A Christmas Play After the Homily

ROME, 30 NOV. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our parish has a Christmas play during Mass after the homily but before the prayer of the faithful. Is this allowed? My priest tried to find the answer this year but had difficulty. But I think I found the answer in the Lectionary of the Mass for Children No. 52 which says that plays should not happen during Mass. I know that this happens at a lot of parishes in America so an answer would be great! — G.G., Pasadena, California

A: First of all, not finding an express prohibition in liturgical documents does not mean that something can be done. Many, if not most, liturgical abuses are not named because nobody can possibly foresee all that the human imagination can conjure. Specific reprobation on certain abuses arrives only after they have come to the attention of ecclesiastical authority.

Usually it is sufficient to recur to general principles in order to know if something is allowed. For example, there is the elemental principle that no priest may add or remove anything from the liturgy on his own initiative. Another principle applicable to our case is found in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 75:

"On account of the theological significance inherent in a particular rite and the Eucharistic Celebration, the liturgical books sometimes prescribe or permit the celebration of Holy Mass to be joined with another rite, especially one of those pertaining to the Sacraments. The Church does not permit such a conjoining in other cases, however, especially when it is a question of trivial matters."

If there are severe restrictions on joining the Mass to other rites, including officially approved rites, the exclusion of non-liturgical elements such as Nativity plays would certainly be included.

Our correspondent's use of the Introduction to the Children's Lectionary has a certain validity in view of the fact that since the norms for children's liturgies allow for extensive adaptations, the fact that something is forbidden for this kind of celebration means "a fortiori" that it is not allowed in regular Masses.

It must be recognized though that the Introduction to the Children's Lectionary is not a universal document. It was produced by the U.S. bishops' conference and, I believe, has yet to reach its definitive form. It is interesting that the Italian bishops' conference also included a ban on dramas, slide shows and the like during Masses with children in its own directory.

Perhaps a more useful universal source would be the Directory for Children's Masses issued by the Holy See in November 1973. The adaptations refer to Masses where the vast majority of participants are children ages 6 to 9. These norms do not apply to assemblies of older children.

I will offer selections of what I believe are relevant texts. The full document may be found at a Web site called www.catholicliturgy.com.

"Chapter III, Part 1. Offices and Ministries in the Celebration

"22. The principles of active and conscious participation are in a sense even more significant for Masses celebrated with children. Every effort should therefore be made to increase this participation and to make it more intense. For this reason as many children as possible should have special parts in the celebration: for example, preparing the place and the altar (see no. 29), acting as cantor (see no. 24), singing in a choir, playing musical instruments (see no. 32), proclaiming the readings (see nos. 24 and 47), responding during the homily (see no. 48), reciting the intentions of the general intercessions, bringing the gifts to the altar, and performing similar activities in accord with the usage of various peoples (see no. 34).

"To encourage participation, it will sometimes be helpful to have several additions, for example, the insertion of motives for giving thanks before the priest begins the dialogue of the preface.

"In all this, it should be kept in mind that external activities will be fruitless and even harmful if they do not serve the internal participation of the children. Thus religious silence has its importance even in Masses with children (see no. 37). The children should not be allowed to forget that all the forms of participation reach their high point in eucharistic communion, when the body and blood of Christ are received as spiritual nourishment.

"23. It is the responsibility of the priest who celebrates with children to make the celebration festive, familial, and meditative. Even more than in Masses with adults, the priest is the one to create this kind of attitude, which depends on his personal preparation and his manner of acting and speaking with others.

"24. Since the Eucharist is always the action of the entire ecclesial community, the participation of at least some adults is desirable. These should be present not as monitors but as participants, praying with the children and helping them to the extent necessary …

"Even in Masses with children attention is to be paid to the diversity of ministries so that the Mass may stand out clearly as the celebration of the community. For example, readers and cantors, whether children or adults, should be employed. In this way a variety of voices will keep the children from becoming bored.

"Chapter III, Part 5. Gestures

"33. In view of the nature of the liturgy as an activity of the entire person and in view of the psychology of children, participation by means of gestures and posture should be strongly encouraged in Masses with children, with due regard for age and local customs. Much depends not only on the actions of the priest, [29] but also on the manner in which the children conduct themselves as a community ....

"34. Among the actions that are considered under this heading, processions and other activities that involve physical participation deserve special mention.

"The children's entering in procession with the priest can serve to help them to experience a sense of the communion that is thus being created. The participation of at least some children in the procession with the Book of the Gospels makes clear the presence of Christ announcing the word to his people. The procession of children with the chalice and the gifts expresses more clearly the value and meaning of the preparation of the gifts. The communion procession, if properly arranged, helps greatly to develop the children's devotion.

"Chapter III, Part 6. Visual Elements

"35. The liturgy of the Mass contains many visual elements and these should be given great prominence with children. This is especially true of the particular visual elements in the course of the liturgical year, for example, the veneration of the cross, the Easter candle, the lights on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and the variety of colors and liturgical appointments.

"In addition to the visual elements that belong to the celebration and to the place of celebration, it is appropriate to introduce other elements that will permit children to perceive visually the wonderful works of God in creation and redemption and thus support their prayer. The liturgy should never appear as something dry and merely intellectual.

"36. For the same reason, the use of art work prepared by the children themselves may be useful, for example, as illustrations of a homily, as visual expressions of the intentions of the general intercessions, or as inspirations to reflection.

"45. In the biblical texts "God is speaking to his people ... and Christ is present to the faithful through his own word." Paraphrases of Scripture should therefore be avoided. On the other hand, the use of translations that may already exist for the catechesis of children and that are accepted by the competent authority is recommended.

"46. Verses of psalms, carefully selected in accord with the understanding of children, or singing in the form of psalmody or the Alleluia with a simple verse should be sung between the readings. The children should always have a part in this singing, but sometimes a reflective silence may be substituted for the singing ….

"47. All the elements that will help to explain the readings should be given great consideration so that the children may make the biblical readings their own and may come more and more to appreciate the value of God's word.

"Among such elements are the introductory comments that may precede the readings and that by explaining the context or by introducing the text itself help the children to listen better and more fruitfully. The interpretation and explanation of the readings from the Scriptures in the Mass on a saint's day may include an account of the saint's life, not only in the homily but even before the readings in the form of an introduction.

"When the text of the readings lends itself to this, it may be helpful to have the children read it with parts distributed among them, as is provided for the reading of the Lord's passion during Holy Week."

In spite of the flexibility allowed for children's celebrations it is significant that there is no opening at all for extra-liturgical dramatizations during Mass. It follows therefore that there is even less support for such an initiative during regular Christmas Masses.

This does not mean that there is no space for such plays in the church. It is almost always better to hold such events in the parish hall, but if this is not possible they could be held in the church building before or after Mass.

* * *

Follow-up: The Profane at Mass [12-14-2010]

Somewhat related to the question of dramas during Mass (see Nov. 30) is that of particular folk traditions. An Ohio reader asked: "Our parish had its … 25th annual polka Mass. The band consists of trumpet, saxophone, trombone, accordion and vocalist. They play 'Roll Out the Barrel' and other polka tunes to which the words of the liturgical hymns are substituted. I believe this to be sacrilegious …"

We have written before about the so-called polka Masses on April 20 and May 4, 2004, and maintain the same position.

This inquiry leads me to note one aspect of Catholic tradition with respect to the music used in church. This characteristic could be called the "rejection of the profane" and means that the Church is wary of accepting any music that the faithful easily associate with non-religious music.

This is not a novelty. Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) forbade the deacons from singing lyrical psalms and limited them to the simple tones of the Gospel. He said, "The cantor serving the altar irritates God with his customs even when he fascinates the people with his melodies." An 11th-century monk thundered against the fad of early attempts at polyphony and solo singing: "What compunction, what tears are born from these tropes when someone elevates the voice like a buffalo while in church. Monks have not entered this solitude to stand before God inflating the neck so as to sing melodies, rhythm arias, agitate their hands and jump from one foot to the other."

The birth of polyphony, at the same time deeply Christian, was not without dangers. Some composers used popular songs as musical themes for the composition of Masses which then took the name of the song. This is why there is a Mass called "bacciami amica mia" (kiss me, my dear). The Council of Trent attempted to contrast such tendencies in its 22nd session by decreeing: "That form of Music must be removed from churches in which anything impure or lascivious is mixed in, either from the sound of the organ, or through song … so that the house of God may truly be called a house of prayer."

It must be recognized that some musical forms are inherently profane either because they are tied up with irreligious or immoral contexts or simply intimately associated with the secular sphere. So long as the music invokes the non-religious original, then "baptizing" the lyrics is simply insufficient.

On the other hand, sacred and profane with respect to music often depends on time and circumstances rather than any inherent quality of the music itself. Certain secular tunes can with time lose their exclusively profane context and eventually be used as religious hymns. The lyrics to the popular Christmas carol "What Child Is This," composed in 1865, are much better known than those to the original Tudor love-song "Greensleeves." The so-called Ave Maria of Schubert was originally a German translation of Sir Walter Scott's "Lady of the Lake." It was only later adapted by other composers to the full text of the Hail Mary.

Thus, while some flexibility may be allowed, the church is not the place to introduce experimental music which may grind on the sensibility. The primary function of liturgical music is to assist divine worship and to be a prayer itself. The forms of music should contribute to this goal.

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