Monday, September 19, 2011

Kids at church

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.


Unknown said...

The whole sense that "children should be seen and not heard" in a Catholic Mass contributed to my leaving the Catholic church. I've always felt that the Church could have done a much better job in the ongoing education of the children. Kids who "go to" Mass with their parents from birth don't really "get it". Sure, they know all of the prayers and what to say when. They probably know when to stand up, sit down and kneel too. But I would argue that in most cases, a couple of good Sunday school classes would go a long way for most Catholic kiddos.

Enbrethiliel said...


My sentiments exactly, Sheila! That announcement would have made my blood boil, too--and I don't even have a child!

There's a thread on another blog I could show you in which one commenter went off about young children at Mass. Now, I don't mind "reverential silence" at all, but I think she made a virtual idol out of it.

A couple of days later, the blogger wrote a post about the time St. Therese of the Child Jesus was distracted by an old man rattling his dentures (or something like that) and chose to offer up that "symphony" to God. It took ALL my self-control not to write in the combox:

"It's a good thing the old man with dentures wasn't toddler who was still teething, or St. Therese might have dropped kicked him out of the church!"

Not that I have all that much self-control, as I ended up writing it here! ;-)

I also came across another post in which a blogger said that if he wanted to bring snacks and (quiet) toys for his children when they were at Mass, that was his business, a radical idea called "parenting," and that he wouldn't let anyone else in the pews tell him he couldn't do it. (Of course, it's a little different when it comes from the pulpit. =S)

CatholicMommy said...

My heart aches for your family and community, such that it is. So sorry this has been your reception! Come up to NY, you can come with me and we'll let the boys be wiggly. :)

some guy on the street said...


There seems to be a widely prevalent misunderstanding of just what reverence and prayer are --- which translates into a misunderstanding of what the Mass is, as the Church's most perfect prayer. And this in turn translates (as you note very well) into a misunderstanding of just what people are supposed to do at Mass, as well as how they're supposed to pray outside of it, too. Meaning, if one finds he can't pray at Mass, in the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, simply because there's an uncomfortable infant or toddler about, just what are they going to do for prayer out in the busy noisy world where the distractions seem more pressing than our neighbors' children?

I suspect there's an antagonistic feedback between this sort of misunderstanding and the abuses of liturgy where there's a visible or sonorous job for ~everyone~ (outwardly "active" rather than "actual" participation); the pressure to keep them quiet being but a different expression of this sort of confusion.

As it happens, your parish might be thankful it hasn't got other kinds of noise to worry about (unless they do...?) In our very urban diocese here, there's no shortage of construction work and festivals (yes, both, on Sundays... not the same Sundays) and even poor distressed souls wandering in off the street, who with whatever mental illness or withdrawal can't keep themselves quiet. It's an exciting place, sometimes!

(btw, captcha:"hylig"... like "Heilig" as in "Heiligen Vater, Papst Benedikt XVI...")

Joseph Mazzara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tawny said...

Sheila this totally nails our issues with this parish as well. I read this to Andy too and we were like 'yes! yes!' through the whole thing. Prolife means that after you cheer for the in-utero baby you have a little born baby, then a noisy toddler, and they are just as precious as the in-utero baby. Life is noisy, and disruptive, and usually sticky, but it should still be just as valued and welcomed.

I also feel concerned that this type of attitude towards children really undervalues parents' spiritual well-being as well. I have found myself in many Masses in a state of pure stress of Lu's noise level rather than paying attention to what is going on or to my own spiritual good. I realize this is partly the sacrifice of parenthood, but parishes like this who stare coldly at a parent with a noisy child places no value on a parent's spiritual health.

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister!

Anonymous said...

Is there no other parish you could attend?

To another commenter: A lot can be absorbed at Mass. It happens deeper than the intellect. It shouldn't be the only place they learn the faith. I suppose it doesn't really hurt at this age to miss it.

Our parish had all the (somewhat older) kids leave for a children's liturgy of the word, and we all sang a song about let the children come to me. Watching all those bouncy, enthusiastic children bob up and down on their way did my heart good. Children are homily, too.

Anonymous said...

I think that there is a fine line between proper church behavior for children and demands that are just ridiculous. the 2 year old isn't going to do what the 5 year old is capable of, and expecting a mother/father to spend their entire Sunday mass outside so that they might as well not attend mass at all, is nonsense.

My parents dealt with it this way and it worked rather well, they also regularly take their grandchildren to Mass and have perfectly well behaved kids, at Mass:)

First off-we sat in the front- and I don't mean the middle of the front- 1st pew in the church at most places. That meant the 2 year old or 5 year old or 8 year old and or 12 year old sat in the front pew. It's unfair for parents to think that children are going to pay attention, be still, or listen, if all they can see is the back of an old ladies head or another child in front of them. Here the distractions of "outside" are removed and so are most of the other people in the church.

Also my mom never said we couldn't bring anything to Church- I remember growing up attending daily Mass and mom would make us "butter breads" :) children under 5 could eat them :D But the same principle applies- ridiculous crunchy foods or juice packs would be silly- but those honey nut cherrios go a long way.

The song book gets boring pages of text that even the child genius doesn't want to read- another thing my mom would do is make a "Mass books" all the funeral holy cards were pasted into a journal type book with lots of blank pages between and we were allowed a few colors or pens. We were then allowed to sit on the kneeler or in the pew...and color...if we wanted to show our picture to our mom...we would show her and she would smile and whisper back a compliment and that would encourage us to happily continue coloring. My parents would actively use the "boring" books - to sing, or follow along so as to encourage us to do the same. We were able to get through a 1 hour Mass- to the end without any difficulty at all. . . .

-claire. . .

Anonymous said...

I have a niece that attends Mass with us and has since she was an infant. She hasn't been taken out of the Church for fussing since before she was one. This is not because she is a girl or a "quiet" child--she can outrun, out tease, out shout, and out play most children her age. But since she was very little she has been taught "what" to do in Church, and "how" to be.

Finally my parents found that talking about Church with us both before and after we went helped us understand why we were bothering with it in the first place.

I remember a recent conversation my niece had with my mom a weekday morning a few months ago when she was putting on her shoes for Mass.

"But Grandma, I don't want to go to Mass...I don't feel like it"

"Well, sometimes we have to do things we don't feel like doing, it makes Jesus so happy when you are there, you show him how much you love him and He loves you very much"

"But I don't want too."

"I know, and sometimes Grandma doesn't want too- but we love Jesus and this is how we show Him" :D

"Now do you want to bring some paper to mass to color?"


Conversation over- we do this- and you are too :) But most importantly- my niece was in this moment "taught" and she was given the opportunity to understand - at her 3 year old level of course ,why she does this.

Now I'm not saying that children can be reckless and loud and obnoxious- and if there is just something that can not be helped except for taking the child out then that's how it must be. But one must remember that "going outside" can not become a reward for bad behavior. In little boys esp. it is very easy to learn that "If I behave in this way, I can go outside and can play where it is fun"

A lot of parents make that mistake- they wonder why the child acts out so quickly- it is simply because they have learned how to get what they want- the child is not trained the parent is. The parent has been trained to reward the naughty, loud child for rude behavior.

So much depends on the child- but don't expect a child to sit in a pew behind people--and not see or understand and yet be perfect. Active parenting is necessary even in Church- so let the child hold the book,sing with the songs, and color to their hearts content. The benefits of grace for everyone will be 100 fold.

:) well as you can see i couldn't resist commenting on this had other "church" ideas that worked too and worked well--esp. for her sons...but these are the ones that i can remember at the moment :D

-claire :)

Salixbabylonica said...

Oh, Sheila, I know just how you feel. Mass with toddlers is so frustrating. At the parish we currently go to, my sister was actually barred from returning to her seat after she had slipped into the vestibule to calm a toddler because "it's disturbing to the people in the pews." Basically, once you leave, there's no going back. So why, exactly, go in at all? For, oh, I dunno, the next decade or two? Cause that's how long a "good catholic" of normal fertility and health is going to have toddlers.

The whole experience seems engineered to make it impossible to focus on the actual mass to even my limited capacity as a mother. The cry room is so small it might as well not exist, the vestibule is always full of the same family who is out there every Sunday, letting their kids, who look ten or twelve sit on the floor, color and play. Now, clearly, your children are capable to sitting through a mass quietly, so why don't you leave some room for those of us who can't? Very odd. Plus, I always end up next to the teenagers who are chatting during the consecration and get so caught up in thinking annoyed thoughts about them that I don't pay any attention either! Arrgh!

And don't even get me started about the end-of-pew-sitters. What are they thinking? Do they not see the baby? I suppose they all expect me to just get up and leave at the first peep and spend the entire rest of the mass outside, standing, since CLEARLY I'm not at all tired and wouldn't want to come back to my seat once he's calmed down. Whenever I get one of those people next to me, it's such a struggle not to fall so far out of charity with my neighbor that I feel myself indisposed to receive.

Sheila said...

Yes, yes, yes. What a huge response -- I just knew I wasn't the only person who thought this way!

There's tons of tips, tricks, and ideas to get kids to behave in Mass, but on the other hand, it is always a work in progress. People who don't have kids, when they're disturbed by a whisper or a wail, should try just shaking their heads, saying "Bless their little hearts," and thanking God for the ability to stay in their pew and attend Mass. We parents are doing our best and I would really like to see a little more understanding.

As I said, though, we normally have no trouble, because we go to the Spanish Mass. It's right after nap, so the kid is pretty mellow, and the truly awful guitar band is fascinating to him. And, of course, he is never the noisiest kid there -- but no one cares.

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