Easter necessitates exuberance for the resurrection of the Lord and the gift of new life. But some parishes fall short of this joyful acceptance of new life when it comes to families with young children.
During the last Easter before the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife agreed to sing at two Masses. Our parish is 45 minutes away, which meant that our infant would be away from home for four hours. Anyone with small children can readily appreciate the difficulty of such an endeavor.
Sadly, the parish did not appreciate this sacrifice.
Like many parents with little ones, we devised a contingency plan. If our son was ready to tap out, I could have him fall asleep while I drove around, and if that didn’t work I would just take him home.
There was one important variable: The parish’s parking structure can cause major traffic jams, which for an unhappy infant would turn Easter joy into a nightmare. We knew the regular “parking ministers” and trusted they would accommodate us in the main parking lot where a quick exit would be feasible.
However, on Easter morning the parish administrator usurped “parking ministry.”
I dropped my wife at choir practice and proceeded to the main lot, where the administrator stopped me and abruptly directed me to a nearby parking structure. I pleaded that my wife was singing at two Masses and we needed an exit strategy for our child. The administrator abrasively told me to park in the structure or leave the parish grounds.
Truthfully, I was tempted to leave and never return, neither to Easter Mass nor to the parish, period.
For a parish whose motto is “All are welcome,” the administrator was not living up to this mission. Nor was this welcoming the new life of Easter present in the gift of young families.
How many of us with young children have experienced inhospitable treatment from our parish, such as dirty looks for arriving late, leaving early, taking the child outside, or having a crying child? Some families have been scolded and even told to leave.
Parishes wonder why some families have not returned since the pandemic. All it takes is a mirror to examine the possible reasons. Some families with small children feel unwelcome in the house of God. After months without dirty looks and snide comments, they have decided not to go back to a place that is the antithesis of the gospel.
How might parishes adopt a more welcoming stance toward young families?
A parish examination
Every parish encourages its flock to make a regular practice of the examination of conscience. But it would be hypocritical if the parish leadership is not doing this to realize how individually or collectively it might be missing the mark in being a “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7).
Every parish ought to take a hard look at its relationship with young families: Are they truly welcome? Do any persons or practices in the church community drive families away?
A place to enter into prayer is the passage where Jesus invites the children to come forward (Matt. 19:13–14).
Take an honest look with the Lord: In which ways is the parish imitating Jesus by being a welcoming place for families with young children? How is the parish acting like the disciples who rebuked the people who brought the little children to Jesus? In what ways is the Spirit calling on the parish to imitate Christ in this passage?
What behaviors and attitudes must change among the leadership? Which persons are not suited to be ambassadors for families and thus should no longer represent the parish? What values and practices must be instilled for the parish to be a place where families can attend without fear of rebuke?
A parish examination can dispose the parish clergy, staff, and council to make interior and exterior changes that can better reflect the welcoming heart of Jesus. This includes being open to feedback from young families about their experiences in the parish.
In the spirit of the synodal way, parishes ought to have listening sessions dedicated to families with young children. However, this must be done creatively, since families do not have time for meetings given nap times, eating schedules, and child care availability.
A feedback forum could be hosted through Zoom. Additionally, parishes could solicit written, audio, and video contributions so families can honestly express what might be working and not working in their parish experience and suggest improvements. Providing a flexible and convenient means for families to share constructive feedback demonstrates that their input matters and that they are valued members of the parish community. However, this will all be null if these suggestions are not put into practice.
Pope Francis as a model
Every parish should look to the Vicar of Christ as a model for leading the faith community. Pope Francis demonstrates a wonderful praxis toward young families.
In January 2022, during the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Pope Francis baptized 16 infants, children of Vatican employees. Toward the end of his homily, the pope counseled the parents to keep the babies warm during Mass, since the Sistine Chapel can be cold in the winter, and to allow the babies to feel at home. He encouraged mothers to nurse the children as needed and the community to welcome cries from infants as their participation in the liturgy.
If a parish priest spoke in this way and put these words into practice, I guarantee there would be no shortage of young families in that community.
Pope Francis emulates the Jesuit principle of cura personalis (care for the whole person). This addresses not only a person’s spiritual needs but their particular circumstances, attending to their physical, mental, and emotional care. Parishes that are willing to apply cura personalis toward families with young children express hospitality toward them and communicate that they are seen.
Parishes must recognize that parents with young children have it hard enough as it is. They should conform to Christ’s practice of welcoming the little ones. By imitating Pope Francis’ style of caring for the particular needs of families with small children, parishes can authentically become houses of prayer for all of God’s children.
This article also appears in the April 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 4, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: iStock.com/Dmytro Lukiian