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Go Make Disciples of All

Music and children's faith development

I remember the hymns we sang at my first communion. "Soul of My Savior," while not a favorite in most parishes today, still rouses strong and pleasant memories for me. "Tantum Ergo" and "O Salutaris Hostia" taught me as a young child to love the "bells and smells." I find great comfort when these memories of early faith are awakened through experiences of prayer.

Think back to an early encounter you had with God. Does a hymn come readily to mind, connecting you with your faith?

Music transforms

Gabe Huck and Gerald Chinchar tell us in their book Liturgy with Style and Grace (Liturgy Training Publications, 1998) that "more than any other means of human expression, music can convey any human emotion, conviction, humor, remembrance. Music is universal, an important part of every life" (24). Parents communicate with their babies through the music of nursery rhymes and lullabies. Children interact with adults and learn about their world through song. Remember learning your ABCs? What songs transport you back to high school? It is interesting that Alzheimer's patients often remember the songs of their early years better than anything else.

Music touches us on a deeper level. Putting music into the context of faith helps children and adults experience the presence of God in their lives, nurture their interior selves, and experience transcendence. Children are naturally graced with rich imaginations and unrestrained creativity and energy. Stories and songs help form us as the community of God.

Children learn
through their senses

Children learn about what we are celebrating primarily through their senses, bringing this sensory experience to their developing cognitive understanding. Young children, especially, feel their way through liturgical feasts and seasons. The colors in the church, the joyfulness of the music, the candlelight, the processions, the silence — all of these experiences speak to children and form a connection with God even before it can be explained to them.

For example, during Advent, our parish prepared for Jesus's birth with a prayer service celebrated with our religious education children. I taught the children to sing three hymns: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Magnificat," and "Soon and Very Soon." Our Advent theme was "Come, Lord Jesus," with Mary as our model for waiting and trusting in God. Because "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is a very calm, almost melancholy hymn, I explained that we would sing it as our gathering hymn to prepare us for prayer and put us in the presence of God. We read the story of the annunciation and interspersed petitions and prayers with the hymns we learned. We sang the Magnificat, Mary's song of praise, as our Gospel response. "Soon and Very Soon" closed our prayer service. Once the children sang this spiritual, I did not need to explain the joy it expresses in anticipation of the Savior.

I could see in the bright faces of the children that they had gained a new understanding of Advent. Through the hymns we sang, they internalized that it was as hard for Mary to wait as it was for them. "Soon and Very Soon" allowed their jubilant enthusiasm to spill over. The birth of Christ should call us all to rejoice with heart, soul, mind, and voice!

Select singable music
for children

Music must always be within the capabilities of the children you are teaching. Ask yourself the following questions before you teach a new hymn to children:

  • Is the melody comfortable to sing and easy to remember? For children, a hymn's pitch should never be too high or too low. Avoid melodic extremes because children's voices are not fully developed in the lower and higher ranges. The rhythm should be catchy and clear. Upbeat hymns are easier for children to learn because they get physically involved with the music. When a hymn is slower and more sustained, you will need to explain that singing this kind of hymn takes more energy and concentration.
  • Does the text help the children understand what you are trying to communicate about the faith? The music itself should communicate a deeper meaning to the children that may touch their spirit. Using gestures with music helps young children focus and engage more of themselves in prayer.
  • Have you chosen music that fits the liturgy and the season you are celebrating? Good liturgical judgment is very important because appropriate music helps children live the cycle of our church year: we do not sing Alleluias during Lent; we sing "Come, Lord Jesus" during Advent; we sing hymns about water and the Spirit during the Easter season.
  • How well do you know your parishioners? Always evaluate music for children by using broad pastoral judgment — that is, choosing what is best for the whole parish. Children performing cute songs for the assembly might be entertaining, but it ignores the dignity of prayer and the faith life of your entire community, of which the children are a part.

Through music, children participate in our worshiping community, and their participation positively transforms the spiritual life of the entire parish. Through music, children better understand the love of Jesus and God's presence in their lives — and so do we. ML

author imageCecelia P. Regan is the executive director of the department of formation and leadership and the diocesan director of the Office for Catechesis in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J. Previously, she was the director of religious education at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Old Bridge, N.J., where she ministered for 20 years.