It happened again last Sunday, as it has happened other Sundays. A young couple arrives—usually late—with an infant and toddler in tow.
After making a commotion in the back of the church, taking off coats, extracting the toddler from his buggy, and assembling an array of child-care accessories, they walk to a seat in front of the church—almost as in solemn procession—during one of the readings, thereby becoming the center of attention. For the duration of the Mass, the baby fusses, and the older child, unattended, runs back and forth up and down the aisle.
On another occasion, a mother, by herself, takes her baby to Mass. For the entirety of the Mass—without a break—the baby cries and protests (as a tired or hungry or otherwise uncomfortable child will do). Those sitting near the two (including yours truly) cannot even hear what is going on at the front of the church. Any possibility of praying or hearing prayers evaporates.
The mother tries to quiet the child, an attempt that completely fails. It gets so bad, the presiding priest looks with some concern over at the source of the noise as he comes down to receive the gifts.
In both these cases I ask myself: Why does one family have to hold an entire assembly hostage? What makes people so inconsiderate or starved for attention? Why can’t parents take more responsibility for their children? Why isn’t parish leadership doing something to provide alternatives for parents and children? It’s amazing how much attention—the wrong kind of attention—an agitated child, especially one who starts crawling around under the pews, can attract.
I realize that most parents do pretty well with their children in church, and most parishes do a pretty good of job of working with kids. On many Sundays the noise level never exceeds reasonable levels. Children cluck and chatter within limits, and when they get loud parents take them for a walk. These are not the people I have in mind.
I’m thinking of situations where infants, toddlers, and young children actually disrupt a liturgy. These situations happen enough that business as usual is no longer acceptable. We need to come up with more creative alternatives and take full advantage of them. Parents with young children need to do a better job of handling their children when it comes to church. And parishes need to do a better job of providing constructive opportunities for families.
Since the Second Vatican Council, one of the norms for Catholic liturgy has been that “all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). Parishes that do nothing for families on Sundays other than open the front door of the church—and parents who do nothing beyond futilely hushing their children—work against what liturgy should be: getting the most out of it and not being an obstacle to others’ participation.
The task, then, is to involve children and adults without depriving people of the experience they deserve and without dividing families.
Part of the problem grows out of the fact that families at the Sunday assembly find themselves caught between forces beyond their control that both draw them to church and make it difficult for them to participate.
On the one hand, many parishes have lots of families with children, especially those who want to attend the main Sunday worship as a family. Indeed, the church has a special responsibility to welcome children.
Jesus had some powerful things to say about children and other “little ones.” The gospels tell us that Jesus not only welcomed and blessed children, but also that children were signs of how we are to receive the kingdom of God, of our brothers and sisters in faith whom we are not to lead astray, and of the power of being the least. The Catholic tradition also teaches that families are the building blocks of society and the church. For all these reasons the church needs to welcome families.
On the other hand, most families, like just about everyone else in our society, have too much to do. We are all extremely busy, and it is sometimes a struggle for families just to get to church at all. Moreover, Sunday Mass is an adult experience. We should no more expect children to connect to Sunday Mass in an adult way than we should expect them to understand a Dostoyevsky novel.
Other factors, however, are within the control of families and parishes. It seems in some cases we’ve taken “It takes a village” too far. Some parents act as if the whole world is responsible for raising their children, and therefore the whole world should take a parental delight in their kids’ behavior. Don’t you think it’s just darling how my child is screaming? Isn’t he or she adding something precious to your meal/movie watching/public-transportation ride?
This behavior may be part of a larger social trend in which people no longer see any reason to be polite and to observe boundaries between private and public behavior—as though all the world is your living room. It’s almost as if parents forget at times that their adult lives cannot continue unchanged once they have children.
Children are not lifestyle accessories; they require special attention, including in church, where behavior seems to worsen. Parents seem feel that if there is anywhere they can let their kids act without limits, it is church. After all, they’re paying for it.
These days Americans also have great difficulty in paying attention to anything for any length of time. Whatever the reason—maybe because television and other instant and fast-moving technologies have conditioned our attention spans out of us—both adults and children lack the ability to be attentive.
Another problem is the particularly Catholic temptation toward settling for passivity and perfunctory ritual. Our Catholic sense of the importance of external observance—repeated gestures, set prayers, sacramentals—does have a certain wisdom. Not every worship experience must be supremely uplifting, and sometimes just showing up is all you have or need.
But to go to church simply to go through the motions and feel you’re in the club creates a climate in which Catholics accept anything, including disruptions and less-than-adequate participation.
And because of the tradition of reverence for the Mass, Catholics, God love them, will sit there and take just about whatever the church dishes out to them. Haranguing homilists or those with nothing to say, off-key singers, surly ushers, horrendous sound systems, and obnoxiously loud families—Catholics take them all in stride.
It’s almost as if we never got past the old rule that Catholics only had to be present at Mass between the Offertory and Communion as long as you communed, paid your membership dues, got your morsel of personal salvation, and went on your merry way.
Catholics also operate under the “here comes everybody” view of church. In this view, an unruly assembly is a symbol of the blessed imperfection and humility of God’s gathered family of faith.
While this view of God taking us as we are is basically a healthy one, Catholics can take it to an extreme by making it the norm.
So what can we do besides being more responsible, attentive, and active adults and parents?
First, we can better prepare both ourselves and our children for liturgy. I once heard the church designer John Buscemi say that the gathering rite for Mass begins not in the back of the church when the procession lines up but at home: families getting ready, dressed, collected, and in the car. In a similar way, church has to be part of family life beyond what goes on in the building.
By this I am not recommending holy water fonts by the front door of the house and Sacred Heart statues in the bathroom. I do mean leading a sacramental life of love for God and one another in the context of families: living in such a way that what happens in church is a celebration of what we do in the rest of our lives and a source of nourishment for our continuing to build the kingdom of God.
Of course, if we are not in the habit of preparing ourselves for Mass—looking at the readings, reflecting on where we are in the liturgical calendar on a given Sunday, making special some particular aspect of the Mass, to take some examples—we will not readily get into the habit of preparing our children.
Once families get to church, we need to provide and take full advantage of children’s liturgies—including calling young children out of the main assembly for children’s Liturgies of the Word—and family liturgies.
For example, the presider could address the children at the beginning of Mass, making them feel special and previewing their separate time. The children would process out, to music and with congregation standing (just like the RCIA’s dismissal of catechumens), and the assembly would welcome them back.
Parish leaders need to strongly encourage families to attend these liturgies, even at the risk of initially alienating parents—and, yes, their financial support—who don’t think family worship should be separated from the regular weekend celebrations.
We need to use the resources already available to us: the Children’s Lectionary, Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children, the Directory for Masses with Children, and other resources. Our liturgies with children have to focus on prayer and the use of symbol rather than trying to entertain.
Our worshiping assemblies need better hospitality. Many communities have wonderful hospitality ministries that make all people feel welcome, but many do not. We need ushers who are both gracious and willing to intervene. Parishes must also provide good child care facilities so that parents can confidently leave their small children while they participate at Mass, or at least have a place to take them when they won’t stop fussing.
How children react is also often a barometer for how well we celebrate as a church; I have been to churches where babies start crying only after the sound system is turned on or the sopranos start singing. Families have a right to liturgy, just as we all do, and communities have a responsibility to welcome them. But families also have a responsibility to participate in ways that do not disrupt those around them.
I know people on both sides of this issue can tell horror stories of disruptive children, neglectful parents, and glaring, confrontational parishioners. A little patience goes a long way. But we owe it to ourselves, our children, and our worshiping communities to find better ways for all to participate.
Image: Flickr cc via Peter Laborne