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Friday, September 24, 2010

Redefining Youth Masses

(AoftheAP) Many parishes have instituted diverse liturgies in an effort to increase attendance and appeal to a wider range of personal tastes. Spanish masses, Life Teen masses, family masses, masses with choirs, seasonal themed masses. Some have reintroduced the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, in response to Pope Benedict's Summorum Pontificum.

Despite the increase of choices, many pastors have found that weekly attendance continues to drop, or at best, barely maintain steady levels. This has caused frustration to rise in rectories and parish offices throughout the country, forcing parish councils and worship committees to come up with new ideas and more creative solutions.

One parish, St Mattress of the Holy Springs in western New York, believes they have the answer. They've put a new twist on an old stand-by - the Youth Mass - by having kids lead the liturgy.

"It's edgy, it's daring, it's bold," said Hayley Ruffington-Smythe, Liturgical Engineer at St Mattress. "But I felt that in order to truly reach out and engage the youth of our parish, this was the only thing we could do. We were losing kids just as they were discovering who they are in their soul, and they were migrating to the edgy, daring and bold services at local evangelical non-denominational communities. Our pastor, Fr. Phlüff, challenged the Worship Committee to come up with a way to reel them back in."

At first, many in the parish were a bit skeptical about having children say Mass. Some felt the children weren't ready for such a responsibility, others objected to the idea of listening to a child give a sermon, and one or two people even questioned whether or not this was permitted by Canon Law.

Their concerns were addressed by the Worship Committee. "We were careful throughout the entire process of which children were deemed 'ready' to say Mass," explained Ruffington-Smythe. "They had to have received their First Communion. Receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, while not a prerequisite, was definitely a plus. And they had to have perfect attendance in school. We felt that that was very important."

And the objection of some adults about hearing the homily delivered by a child? "Well, we solved that issue by allowing adults the option to leave the sanctuary during the Liturgy of the Word, to attend a special 'Adults Liturgy', and then return for the Nicene Creed," Ruffington-Smythe said. "It's been working out well so far."

Father Phlüff liked the change. "Well, for one thing, it's one less Mass for me to celebrate each weekend," he said, chuckling. "But it's been working great so far. More kids have been showing up for the Youth Mass. They like the homilies because they can relate to the issues better, learning the Gospel on a level they can understand. And the Mass is shorter, too, because the kids talk so darn fast."

When asked about how none of the kids have attended seminary or been ordained, Fr. Phlüff waved off the observation. "Most of these kids have attended Catholic school, or at least several years of CCD. In my mind, they know just as much about theology and the teachings of the Church as any run-of-the-mill woman priest, so I don't see a problem."

Still, several parishoners, such as Willametta van Uppedy, aren't happy with the change. "I think they should hold off on young kids celebrating this holy meal until after Rome approves women priests. We are owed that respect because of the centuries of oppression women have experienced at the hands of the Church."

Ruffington-Smythe disregarded the objections. "As a woman, I'm offended with her charge that women are oppressed by the Church. I mean, look at me! I'm a Liturgical Engineer - do I look oppressed to you? I have one of the most powerful positions at this parish, if not the most powerful."

Fr Phlüff looked at this change more pragmatically. "We have a priest shortage, in case some of these folks hadn't noticed. And polls show that the younger Catholics are leaving the Church. This solution takes care of two problems at once."

St. Mattress currently has four child celebrants, who rotate each week. One of the celebrants is Taylor Scruggins, a 12-year old boy entering the 8th grade. At 4'7", he requires a platform behind the altar so that he can be seen by the congregation, as well as a stepstool at the pulpit. He told AoftheA he jumped at the chance to lead the Youth Mass.

"It's fun," he said. "Definitely not boring like when I am in the pew. I like giving the sermon, and handing out bread at Communion. Especially when my friends come up. Although sometimes they make faces at me, trying to get me to laugh. The only thing I don't like is the wine. Yuck."

And there's never a shortage of ideas for sermons, either. "Oh, like last week, I talked about video games, and another time, I talked on 'Why We Have To Eat Our Vegetables Before We Get Dessert'. Y'know, like how we sometimes have to deal with bad stuff before we get to the good stuff."

Fr. Phlüff liked that homily. "Taylor put a good spin on the problem of suffering in a way that reached his peers, in a way that I never could have. Which is ultimately the point, isn't it? Making the Gospel relevant?"

As of now, the parish hasn't been approached by the diocese about the revised Youth Mass, and it's been in place for three months. If the bishop were to request a meeting with Fr. Phlüff, he showed no sign of worry. "I'm not concerned about that. The bishop would approve - he's in favor of creative liturgies anyway. Listen, when you come right down to it, I'm following the words of Jesus. He said 'let the children come to Me'. Well, that's what I'm doing. Letting the children come to Him at the altar."