On the average Sunday, our family goes to the Spanish Mass in the afternoon. The time works out better for us, the place is less crowded (read: room for Marko to squirm and us to take him out as needed without being boxed in) and the service is usually a bit shorter. It's funny how "a good Mass" has stopped being one with a a good homily, good music, and few distractions, and has turned into a Mass with awful music, a homily in a language we aren't fluent in, and a baby who actually behaves!
Anyway, yesterday was not an average Sunday. We had afternoon plans, so we went to the 8:30 Mass instead. This is not the super-formal, super-crowded, Latin Novus Ordo (that's the 10:30), but a fairly standard English Sunday Mass.
Our church is pretty well-populated, though, and we were running a little late (we woke up at 8 a.m. and had a toddler to get ready!), so when we arrived right before Mass started, I couldn't find a seat. There were a few teeny spaces in the middle of the pews, but people WILL NOT scoot into the row for families to sit on the aisle, and I had no wish to be boxed in. (Coming early doesn't help though -- when we do, and take the aisle seats, invariably some old guy comes along and shoves us down to the middle. I have no idea what the secret is that allows people to get those coveted aisle seats!)
I thought of standing in the back, along the wall, but that area was packed with parents with babies. So I went back out into the vestibule (there is no cry room) and stood with about 30 other parents and their assorted babies and toddlers, and John joined me there.
Personally, I think it's okay to let your toddlers run around and play if you're in the vestibule. Ideally I like to keep Marko on my lap in the pew, and then when he gets antsy, take him out for five minutes of running around in the vestibule, then back in (with his sitting-still ability recharged) as long as he can handle it. But I couldn't do that here. It was really crowded, and the doors to the outside were wide open. That meant it was very cold, and also that Marko would head right for those doors the second his feet touched the ground. I took a deep breath and resigned myself to the fate of trading off a 25-pound child for an hour-long Mass ... a child who has no desire whatsoever to be held.
It was at that moment that I heard the announcement. "Good morning and welcome to St. X. We would like to remind those families with young children to please help to preserve our reverential silence by taking them out when they become disruptive. Please stand and sing," etc.
I was ticked off. First of all, who needs an announcement like that? Everyone knows that if your baby is screaming, you take them out. I've never seen anyone at that parish do otherwise (except maybe that the Spanish Mass ... people are way more laid back about noise there, hence our faithful attendance). However, there is always a short moment between the moment the child starts to scream (which can be quite sudden) and the moment you are breathing a sigh of relief outside the sanctuary. But everyone at this parish knows that this moment must be avoided at all costs, because Father (and everyone else) will stop everything and glare at you until your child has been removed.
So everyone with kids just hangs in the vestibule the whole time. Usually one parent sits up front with the older kids, and one (usually the mom, it seems) wrangles the babies and toddlers in the back. Or they attend Mass separately so they don't have to bring the kids at all.
There's just such an emphasis placed on "reverential silence" that people are afraid to bring their kids into church at all. Considering that there are probably more kids under five in this parish than adults, I really don't get this. It's not like I was enjoying any reverential silence, sequestered in the back with all the other families. What if at some point the church is empty, while every single parishioner is in the back with a toddler? There will be plenty of reverential silence in the sanctuary, but if that's all you want, why invite people to come to Mass at all? The priest can say it by himself and we can all stay home.
I mean, it seems a little hypocritical for a church to forbid contraception and then be unwelcoming to children. I tend to expect a pro-child, pro-life church to be, well ... pro-child. Not just pro-unborn-child.
In the same spirit of anti-child "preservation of dignity," donut hour has been cancelled because the kids kept "running wild." Um, that's what kids do, I thought! Especially at donut hour. I have watched kids run wild at donut hour all my life, and no harm ever came of it. Likewise, the moms' group can't meet at the parish hall, because (in addition to a requirement that ALL the moms do child abuse prevention training, WHAT?!) the kids would mess up the hall.
And there are no family activities at the church. There is CCD for the kids, youth group for the teenagers, and various adult groups. I wanted to go to a discussion group one evening, but was warned, "You'll have to get a babysitter for him," with a significant nod toward my son. Sorry, it just isn't worth the trouble and expense. At the same Mass yesterday, there was an announcement toward the end about the parish women's group. It has gone inactive and the priest was bemoaning the fact that every church our size has a women's group, and we need to start it back up. I will tell you why the women's group isn't active anymore: kids aren't welcome. That's never been explicit, but I think if I go to the first meeting, I'll find it's true.
I know it's common in Protestant churches to have age-segregation for all activities: kids' church, nursery for the little ones, youth service for the teens, and so forth. But this really isn't part of the Catholic tradition. Since our services are about sacraments rather than simply instruction, that you attend is always more important than how much you get out of it. To attend Mass, all you have to do is show up. That's why going to a Mass in a language I don't understand still counts. And that's why Catholics throughout history have brought their babies and young children to Mass. Through observing the adults and watching the priest, week in and week out, by the time they're old enough to receive Communion, they have a fairly good idea what it's all about and how they should behave.
When I was in Italy, this was more or less the way it went. Families attended together and sat together. They were pretty noisy sometimes! Sometimes people would move around during the Mass, sitting in this side chapel during the Gospel and that one during the offertory. I even saw one lady bring her dog! I'm beginning to think "reverential silence" is an American invention. From what I hear about the middle ages, it wasn't quiet in their churches either.
When I hear "Don't bring your child to Church," what I understand is, "The ability of childless people to attend Mass undistracted is more important than your child's formation in his faith." When a baby is baptized, the whole congregation has to promise they will assist in the formation of the baby in the faith. Apparently people have forgotten this, and think, "That child is their responsibility; it has nothing to do with me. I don't want to have to be reminded that that child exists."
Mass is not just the possession of those who are capable of being quiet, sitting still, saying the responses, and singing with the choir. It's the possession of all of us: the deaf grandpa who is always a beat behind, the autistic child who is rocking back and forth or making an occasional yelp, the boy in a wheelchair with a muscle tic, the crying baby, the nursing mother, and, yes, the toddler who wants to read the missalette upside-down.
I can see a difference in Marko's behavior when he is in church. He sees that everyone is relatively quiet and looking at the priest, so he settles down and looks at the priest too. He wants to sit when we're sitting and stand when we're standing. Outside in the vestibule, he just doesn't get it. We're in a fun place to play and not letting him play. Pretty soon he's so disruptive that we end up in the parking lot. On this particular Sunday, as the priest launched into yet another announcement and Marko showed that he was still unwilling to come back into the vestibule from outside (every time we carried him over the threshold, he became a thrashing, yelling monster), we just left. No blessing for us.
I just wish I felt welcome as a parent at our church. Or that my son was welcome. All the moms at our playgroup (which is not affiliated with the parish, even though most of us go there) agreed with me that it would be nice to have a "children's Mass" every Sunday. It would be at a good time to work around naptime. It would always run short instead of long. And we would all be allowed to sit in the pews with our disruptive children. It would be a bit loud and distracting, but that's par for the course for parents. At least we would be able to see and hear, to sit down, and to stay warm.
Or, you know, people could stop being so crotchety and start suffering the little children to come to Him. It's not exactly a new idea.