On social media last week, a photograph of a pre-school aged boy dressed in meticulously fashioned, child-sized, liturgical vestments crossed my feed. It was posted by his proud mama.
Before him was a make-pretend altar outfitted with a crucifix along with an assortment of toy liturgical objects – a holy water cruet, chalice, and paten, etc. He even had a ciborium filled with what appeared to be crackers that he evidently used as props for the Blessed Sacrament.
Most if not every reader of this space has seen, or perhaps even participated in, scenes of this sort. Many have also come across YouTube videos – like the one below – showing liturgically vested kids offering a playtime version of make-believe Mass.
The video above comes from the YouTube channel of Brandon Vogt, the Senior Publishing Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. The caption reads, “Video of our five-year-old son, Isaiah, celebrating Mass at home.”
The kids themselves are precious, to be sure. Even so, as far back as my Novus Ordo days, child play involving Eucharistic props and mock Masses has struck me as inappropriate.
Is it really OK just because it’s make-believe?
This question, it seems to me, isn’t terribly difficult to answer, provided one is willing to view the situation through the proper lens, namely, Christ, who deigns to make Himself present to us in the Most Holy Eucharist.
It concerns whether or not – in light of the unparalleled sacredness of Holy Mass and the infinite dignity of the Blessed Sacrament – it is fitting for children to perform, with mom and dad’s assistance and approval, make-believe consecrations and pretend holy communions using cookies and crackers and whatnot.
I shared my disdain for kids playing Mass, along with some brief comments of explanation, on Twitter a few days ago. I knew that my opinion would be unpopular, but the firestorm that ensued was over the top! The negative reactions, some of which I will cite here, far outnumbered the “likes.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Despite being overwhelmingly emotional, some of the comments were highly instructive, confirming beyond any shadow of doubt exactly what I had suspected:
Those adults who are charmed by kids acting out theatrical performances of Holy Mass, with make-believe consecrations of cookies and crackers, have largely lost sight of the difference between the sacred and the profane, or more specifically, the unparalleled sacredness of Holy Mass and the infinite dignity of the Blessed Sacrament.
Most of the dissenting comments were some version of “they are so cute” and “you are such a meanie!” The relatively few that had any real substance fell into one of the following three categories:
– It’s natural for kids to imitate adults and engage in role play.
– Lots of priests did this as children. Some saints and even Pius XII did too!
– This is a good way for kids to learn the Mass.
At this, let’s consider these objections more closely.
It’s natural for kids to imitate adults and engage in role play.
Yes, this is true. And yet, there isn’t a responsible parent alive who does not place restrictions on just how far they will let their children take it. For example, when little mister doctor begins doing physicals on the girl next door, or the boy next door for that matter, it’s time to reign it in, despite the children’s innocence.
The point here is obvious: natural doesn’t necessarily mean appropriate.
Attention seeking is also very natural for children. Kids love to perform for mom and dad, and there can be no doubt that whenever… let’s call him little Fr. Bobby… does his play Mass, he is the star of his family’s show, the center of attention.
Little Bobby loves the Mass! That’s why he loves to perform it!
Sure, but it is also the case that he, like all kids, loves delighting his parents thanks to the praise and attention he receives in return.
Is it possible that little Bobby’s parents occasionally (perhaps frequently) conflate the two, to the point where love of Holy Mass takes a backseat for all concerned, the parents included?
There can be no doubt that those parents who outfit their little boy with all of the wares necessary for him to “celebrate the Mass” (as Vogt put it) derive great satisfaction from their child’s performance. If honest, most would be hard pressed to deny that it provides them with a sense of accomplishment for having raised such a devout little boy.
I do not mean to suggest that the parents of little Fr. Bobby are driven primarily by self-interest, or that dance-mom-syndrome is always at play. Even so, it would be naïve to imagine that the parents’ own pleasure never enters into their decision to help their little boy perform make-pretend Mass.
One also notes that attention seeking isn’t the exclusive franchise of children.
Sometimes (as in the example provided above), the parents will even go so far as to mic the child up for a highly produced video of his Mass performance, one that can include multiple camera angels, emotive background music, and even a series of outtakes. Once released to the public via YouTube and other social media platforms, there’s a chance it may even go viral!
Now, does this strike you as appropriate? Does it seem to contribute more to the formation and edification of little Fr. Bobby, or does it mostly serve to benefit the parents and their desire for attention?
Ironically, many of these parents are the same who routinely observe, and with good reason, that the post-conciliar liturgy is overly earthbound and all-too-often performance driven. And yet…
It must also be noted that imitation, role play, and attention seeking are just as normal for girls as for boys.
So, what do these parents do when little sister Susie slips into Bobby’s chasuble, absconds with his toy sacred vessels, and begins dressing the coffee table … I mean … the altar, for Mass?
The parents in this case have only two choices: Either they participate in Susie’s liturgy careful to heap upon her all of the same attention and accolades that her brother receives whenever he plays Mass, or they can attempt to explain to her why girls cannot play the role of a priest pretending to consecrate the Most Holy Eucharist.
Could it be that the entire scenario is best avoided in the first place, a strong indication that it’s never appropriate?
Lots of priests did this as children. Some saints and even Pius XII did too!
This is a failure of logic: Since so-and-so did X and he turned out holy, X must be appropriate and pleasing to God!
A rather common example in our day: “We went to Medjugorje and it changed our lives! We returned to Mass and Confession. Surely, Our Lady is there and God approves! Right?”
No, not necessarily. The only thing proven by stories of kids playing Mass and then becoming priests, or saints, or popes, or simply just holy laymen, is that God dispenses His grace generously, sometimes despite inappropriate circumstances and bad decisions, not because of them.
As for the Pius XII story: I hadn’t previously heard of this, so I did some research. I discovered an Italian website with excerpts taken from a bio of Pius XII wherein his little sister relates the following:
At the age of about twelve years old, mum and dad, having noticed these inclinations, bought him [Eugenio] items needed to erect an altar and clothes needed for the Mass. I remember that he dressed up and recited all Mass prayers, I used to act as an altar girl, omitting only consecration words.
Yes, you read that correctly. Young Miss Pacelli acted as an altar girl. The year was 1888. That aside, pay close attention: Omitting only consecration words...
It is clear that she is speaking of the future pope and not herself. Evidently, an abiding sense of awe before the Most Holy Eucharist prevented the twelve-year-old child (perhaps thanks to boundaries set by his parents) from performing a make-believe consecration and pretending to confect the Blessed Sacrament.
Were the Pacellis being humorless sticks in the mud who hate children, or is it far more likely the case that their sensus Catholicus prevented them from crossing that line?
Toward the conclusion of his 1947 Encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII wrote:
We are moved to write that your children, who are also Ours, may more fully understand and appreciate the most precious treasures which are contained in the Sacred Liturgy: namely, the Eucharistic sacrifice, representing and renewing the Sacrifice of the Cross, the sacraments which are the streams of divine grace and of divine life, and the hymn of praise, which heaven and earth daily offer to God. (MD 205)
Here, the Holy Father is referring to all of the faithful as “children.” As we continue, ask yourself whether or not the activities under discussion redound to an increase in appreciation for the most precious treasures which are contained in the Sacred Liturgy: namely, the Eucharistic sacrifice.
This is a good way for kids to learn the Mass.
I don’t doubt that these boys learn a number of things about the Mass in the process. Not all of them, however, are true and good. Put another way, what they do not learn is problematic.
For example, they do not learn that Father is not a performer at Mass, much less is he the center of attention. In fact, it is entirely obvious that little Fr. Bobby experiences the exact opposite every time he acts out play Mass for the family.
These children also do not learn that certain sacred things (liturgical vessels, other liturgical instruments, the altar itself) are so uniquely special and so far above the profane that ordinary laymen do not dare touch them unless they are serving as acolytes.
As for the Eucharist itself: Does little Fr. Bobby’s experience confirm the reality that handling the Blessed Sacrament is reserved entirely for consecrated hands?
As it is, these kids are using props – crackers and cookies and the like – to mimic consecration of the Blessed Sacrament!
Let that sink in: These sweet, innocent children – with the warmest approval of mom and dad – are making pretend of the Most Holy Eucharist with common snacks!
One shudders to think of what must be taking place when the camera is off as the special little boy performs make-believe Mass for his family:
What happens when the costumed child presents an animal cracker to his “congregation,” Behold the Lamb of God…?
What then, mom and dad? Do you play along, dutifully responding, “I am not worthy to receive You…” whilst gazing upon a cookie?
What does the pious child do next?
“Body of Christ…”
What are mom and dad to do then?
Should they respond, “Amen,” an acclamation of faith that means to say, “it is so”? Should they then go about pretending to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, with all due reverence, of course, since they wouldn’t want to give little Bobby the wrong impression!
Or should they tell the boy to save the consecrated cookies for after dinner so he can gobble them up with a cold glass of milk before bedtime?
Can anyone in their right Catholic mind believe for even a moment that this madness is for the boy’s edification?
As for the parents: In what way does this behavior serve as a manifestation – before the eyes of their children no less – of their own appreciation for the most precious treasures which are contained in the Sacred Liturgy: namely, the Eucharistic sacrifice? (ibid.)
It seems to me that one has to suspend such thoughts in order to justify gazing upon a cookie and addressing it as “Lord” and “Body of Christ.”
Some will no doubt wail, as if to enter a reasonable plea of innocence, Oh, but it’s only make-believe!
Would these same parents approve of little Fr. Bobby placing a Nilla Wafer in a makeshift monstrance and leading the family in make-believe Adoration and Benediction?
I genuinely hope not, and yet, I would ask those parents honest enough to say that they would draw a line here: What exactly is the difference between this and cookie communion?
Please understand, I am not trying to shame all of the little Fr. Bobby parents out there. Rather, I am attempting to sound an alarm that, God willing, will serve as a wakeup call, drawing their attention back to where it belongs.
I will admit that I am all but certain that dance-mom-syndrome does at times, even if only rarely, enter into these situations, with mothers motivated in some measure by the fervent hope (and perhaps even the unshakable belief) that her little boy has a vocation.
That said, I am pleased to assume that the vast majority of these parents are likely sincere people who think that they are doing good. And yet, it must be said that, having gotten caught up in the good feelings and the “cuteness” of it all, they have lost sight of what truly matters.
The more comments I read from my Twitter detractors, the more obvious it becomes that many have a deeply flawed appreciation for the difference between the sacred and the profane, and this phenomenon isn’t just confined to the Novus Ordo cult.
One commenter, a woman who describes herself as a traditionalist that breeds like a rabbit, chimed in saying, “It’s exactly like playing fireman.”
I couldn’t have made the point better myself!
Imagine, a Traditional Latin Mass-going mom who thinks that Fireman Billy using the garden hose to spray the shed out back is exactly like little Fr. Bobby pretending to consecrate graham crackers, “Take this all of you and eat of it…”
Granted, it likely is about the same to a child, and that too is the point – a full-grown “traditional Catholic” parent should damned well know better, making it her business to see to it that her kids do too.
Another woman on Twitter shared the following stunning defense of kids playing Mass:
I provided private nursing care for a retired priest years ago and he told me the boys of his generation all did this. He said they would give the dog and other kids necco candy as communion.
She was keen to add a laughing-to-tears emoji as well.
So, giving “communion” to the dog is funny? Make-believe or not, the joke escapes me entirely. It is also beyond my comprehension how this kind of behavior in any way contributed to the children’s love for the Eucharistic Christ and reverence for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I can hear the rejoinder now: The boys probably did this on their own, apart from their parents’ supervision.
Certainly, kids do all sorts of things without mom and dad’s approval, or even their knowledge. That includes playing Mass.
Under discussion here is how mom and dad should address such situations when they arise.
Should a little boy wanting to act out the Mass in imitation of the priest be discouraged, his imagination extinguished? Certainly not! He should be encouraged, but only within reason, in ways that are befitting the sacredness of the liturgy and the Blessed Sacrament.
Rather than turning his inclination to imitate the priest into a full-blown theatrical event, which invites all of the horrors described above, the parents would do far better to treat it as an opportunity to further instruct their son about the heavenly nature of the liturgy. This might include an explanation as to why the sacred objects used for Holy Mass are in a special category of their own, making them unsuitable as playthings.
If such conversation is beyond the child’s comprehension, all the more reason to refrain from encouraging him to engage in make-believe consecrations and communions.
Now, it must be said that every child is different. For example, a child (or adult even) who is developmentally disabled may be moved to imitate the Mass and yet not really have the capacity for meaningful liturgical instruction. For that child, supervised role play may be entirely appropriate and highly beneficial, but also within reasonable boundaries.
It is my conviction that there is no scenario whereby a kid pretending to consecrate cookies or some other prop, making a plaything of the Blessed Sacrament, is befitting Our Lord’s glorious presence in the Most Holy Eucharist. None.
There are many ways in which a little boy might imitate a priest that does not include make-believe Masses, fake consecrations, and pretend Holy Communions.
One Twitter commenter, who in an attempt to defend the little Fr. Bobby show, related that his son even gives sermons.
If limited to such activities, this can be a fruitful way of helping that boy learn the faith, while also allowing him to imitate the priest that he obviously admires, in a positive way. The boy’s desire to imitate need not be treated as an all-or-nothing proposition.
Is it ever really necessary or fitting to assist, encourage, outfit, or otherwise support a child in performing faux consecrations of cookies and crackers? Would his formation be hindered if the parents disallowed such activities out of esteem for Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist? Or would doing such be a wise investment in his future?
If there is any such thing as sacred ground upon which none of us should ever tread, making a play of Holy Mass and the Blessed Sacrament is it.