This week’s topic can be, at times, a touchy subject for people on both sides of the equation, however, please bear with me to the conclusion so that we all might gain a little perspective. Children, particularly infants and toddlers, can often be disruptive at Mass by nature of their youth. With five children myself, I have had many experiences over the years with everything from people asking me not to bring my little ones to Mass, to people encouraging me along, and even complete strangers offering to hold my babies to give me a hand.
I was at one Mass where the priest actually stopped preaching his homily until a young mother quieted her baby, which, needless to say, was quite awkward. So, how are we to deal with children at Mass and the distractions they may bring to each of us?
Let’s start with Scripture. You are probably familiar with the scene from Matthew 19:13-14. Children were being brought to Jesus, but His disciples rebuked the people who were bringing them to Him, as if it were not the time and place for children. Jesus’ response to them was very direct. He said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” They were told, under no uncertain terms, to never stop children from coming to Him, because they are an example to the adults of the childlike simplicity required to get to heaven. Beyond that reason, children have as much right as anyone to have direct access to Jesus. In the context of the Mass or Adoration, Jesus is physically present in the Blessed Sacrament and, therefore, children should not be hindered from being in His presence.
Then, in Matthew 14 and John 6, we read the accounts of Jesus feeding the 5,000 by multiplying the loaves and fishes. Many theologians and Bible scholars have taught that the number 5,000 referred only to the men, as women and children were not counted, and that there were actually many more present at the event. This means that children of all ages and stages were dispersed throughout the crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach. Mothers would have had nursing infants with them. Curious toddlers, unable to sit still, would have been present. There was probably even more than one cranky teenager in the crowd. This scene very much resembles what our Mass looks like today.
Additionally, never in Scripture are we promised distraction-free prayer time. As a matter of fact, we are shown just the opposite. Though there are many examples, two instances illustrate this point very well. Before Jesus began His ministry, he went into the desert for 40 days to fast and pray, presumably to strengthen Him for His work. During this time, Satan kept showing up to tempt Him out of His prayer and distract His focus. Jesus repeatedly had to stop what He was doing to rebuke Satan. The second example is when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Passion and Crucifixion. In this instance, His apostles kept falling asleep and He had to get up from His prayer three times to wake them. Our poor Lord was about to face the most excruciating suffering and He could not even get some uninterrupted time to pray about it before it began. The lessons here are that we will be tempted and distracted, but our job is to pray despite those distractions and keep turning back to God as many times as it takes.
From the Church’s perspective, when a child is baptized, the parents and godparents make a promise before God and the community to raise the child in the Faith. There are many aspects to doing that, but it most definitely includes bringing them to Mass every Sunday. The Catechism says, “Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for their children. They should associate them from their tenderest years with the life of the Church,” (CCC #225). “The parish is the Eucharistic community and the heart of the liturgical life of Christian families; it is a privileged place for the catechesis of children and parents,” (CCC #2226). When we are not supportive of parents bringing their children to Mass, or worse, discouraging, we make it very challenging for them to do what Jesus and the Church are instructing them to do and what they promised to do at their child’s Baptism. Also, young parents are often more lacking in experience and confidence than older generations, so a little bit of support and kind words can go a long way in building them up.
Now, none of this is to say that children should just be able to run amok in Mass while everyone else just deals with it. First, as I’ve witnessed most of the time, parents are there to train their children how to behave in Mass. For this reason, it is important that they be encouraged to sit in the pews with the rest of the congregation and not be relegated to the Cry Room for the entirety of the Mass – though some parents may choose to do so depending on their unique circumstances. Going back to the feeding of the 5,000, I find it difficult to believe that there was an area roped off for families with children of certain ages to confine themselves. However, there are certain situations where it is more than appropriate to remove a child from Mass. We have all heard the unmistakable “thump” of a child falling and hitting his head on the pew and we brace ourselves for the scream that will follow very shortly. That would be a great time to head to the Cry Room. It would also be perfectly reasonable to head back to the vestibule with a toddler who cannot sit still so you can still participate in Mass, while giving her a little more freedom to move. One thing I always did when my children were little was to be aware of any people wearing hearing aids and try not to sit too close so our inevitable noises would not be magnified for them. However, if someone with a hearing aid sat near us after we were already seated, I would assume they made the decision with full knowledge and we would not move in that case. Essentially, no matter where anyone falls on the spectrum of what has been described here, Mass will be made better if everyone practices compassion, empathy, and patience – virtues that Jesus teaches us to practice anyway.
Advent begins in two weeks, so here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as we approach Christmas. Jesus came to us as a helpless infant. Yes, He was divine, but He also grew and developed in His humanity, as all humans do. He cried when He was hungry. He learned how to walk and talk as a toddler. His parents had to take Him to the temple and to religious celebrations so that He could learn and participate in their Jewish faith. He fell and bumped His head and He pointed at familiar items in the temple and blurted them out. What was the result? By the time He was twelve years old, He was sitting in the temple and teaching the adults! Let us make our parish a place that is warm and welcoming to the future generations of Catholics. Especially for families who may be exploring or returning to the Church with their young children this Christmas season. With everyone’s help, we can make our church a place where children want to be, rather than where they have to be.