Ironically, one of the hardest times and places to be a Catholic family can be Sunday morning at Mass; at some parishes, anyway.
The Catholic Church is a pro-life church. We’re a community that believes in the sanctity of all human life. We’re a church that (doctrinally, whether Catholics obey or not) teaches that contraception is wrong, and the purpose of marriage is the procreation and raising of children.
We’re a church that knows the family is the domestic church and the first cell of society. The family is of such sublime importance that when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, He was born a child into a family.
So why is it that families are often disdained for daring to show up at Mass with their young children?
This letter was sent — anonymously — to the pastor of the parish that the “Smith” family attends. The Smiths are good friends of mine, and they shared this letter with me. They are a dynamic Catholic couple with 11 children. They know and live the Catholic faith — all of it — joyfully. Their children are intelligent, well-mannered, kind, helpful, and full of life.
The author(s) of this letter also sent a copy to Mr. Smith at his place of work – again, anonymously. (For the record, let me say that I find these actions very cowardly.) If these disgruntled parishioners are so offended by the Smith family that they feel the need to write a letter of complaint, they should have the maturity and the guts to own up to it by signing their names. The letter reads as follows:
It was such a blessing for us when you became pastor of our church. You have done so much for the parish, the youth, and the congregation in every way. We have learned from you the importance of attending Mass. You have stressed in your homilies the solemnity of the Mass and how all of us should show reverence and respect for the priest and the celebration of the Eucharist.
Our children are taught to behave correctly at Church and sit quietly in their seats and we would never allow them to leave the pew and become a distraction to the congregation.
Why then is it allowed for 6 or 7 members of the Smith family to parade up and down constantly during Mass? Under the pretense of quieting a restless small child they are distracting and disturbing to all the rest of us. This child is obviously unhappy to be there and be carried back and forth by the various members of this clan. They have a huge family and can certainly do what all the rest of us parents do and leave the child at home with a caretaker or stagger how they attend Mass.
They are exhibitionists and restless. If my children behaved in this manner every week you would certainly be aware of us and caution us as parents to find a solution. Why are these 6 or 7 adults allowed to do this every week? We have never seen such behavior at any other church we attended. We know they have sons who serve at the altar and contribute time to the parish. However, this is no excuse.
Please talk to them and stop this circus so we can all benefit from the celebration of Mass the way we should with people remaining in their seats and honoring God. We are not alone as many of our friends have pointed out these people and their disturbing practices.
We are very unhappy members of your congregation who support the parish and would like to look forward to Mass and not groan when we see the Smith clan there.”
Clearly, the anonymous complainants do not like that the Smiths have a “huge family” and that they have the nerve to bring all of them, even the little ones, to Mass. Babies and toddlers, it seems, are to be left at home. If that’s not possible, then Mom and Dad simply cannot attend Mass together. The family must be split so someone can stay home with the dreaded restless toddler.
I see a few points to consider here.
One, there are two opposite laws of physics at war here: First, toddlers do not sit still. They are made to move and make noise. Second, the greater the force applied to try and keep the toddler still and quiet, the more the opposite effect will result.
Of course, 9.5 out of 10 moms and dads will recognize this and remove their squirming cherub as discreetly as possible. Out in the vestibule you’ll likely find several parents just walking with their little ones, trying to still participate in the Mass through doors and windows. I’ve spent many a Mass that way myself over the last 14 years.
It’s far better than the Cry Room. What a wretched invention! A barely-ventilated, cramped, isolation chamber where the unwelcome child and parent must be banished behind thick glass for the sake of the community. (That’s how it feels, folks.)
Two, in all seriousness, is a restless, even a fussy child, really the worst thing that could happen during Mass? Does it really violate the sacredness of the liturgy? Is it reverence we truly want, or just a sterile, library-like quiet?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting it’s fine if Mass resembles a preschool playroom. I don’t deny that getting up from the pew and walking out can create a visual distraction. Is it such a deal-breaker that the little ones are simply not welcome at all?
I crave the holy hush and reverent, prayerful atmosphere as much as anyone. In fact, I’ll bet you money no one craves it more than the moms and dads of young children.
Is it really such a grievous offense to hear the natural noise of our children being children? “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them,” Jesus said. The Gospel actually says He became “indignant” when the disciples tried to shoo the children away.
Those families with young children are the future of the Church. Those moms and dads showing up on Sunday with their progeny in tow are fulfilling the demands of the Church in bringing up their children in the faith. Do you really want to tell those families that the kids are only welcome if they are seen and never heard?
It’s no easy task to get everyone ready and out the door for Sunday Mass. (You might want to read Michelle Fritz’s perspective on that effort.) That mom wrestling with a fussy toddler is just as hungry for the grace of the sacraments and an encounter with Christ as anyone else. She can’t simply turn the child off or put him away for an hour.
Children will never learn how to behave in Mass if they’re never in Mass. The ability to quietly sit still comes with time, age, and development. Do not expect a 2 year-old to behave like an 8 year-old or even a 5 year-old.
The fact is, I’ve seen plenty of adults chatting away in the pews before Mass, as though they were at the food court in the mall, to really believe that the momentary noise of a little child is a grave offense to their sense of Eucharistic reverence.
The faithful Catholic families I’ve known make heroic efforts to keep their children from being a prolonged or too-loud disruption during Mass. They are not oblivious or inconsiderate to their fellow parishioners. Frankly, they need to be cut some slack and given a reassuring look rather than an angry glare.
One final thought to consider: If your parish has more funerals than baptisms, then your parish is dying.