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Children and the Mass: When They´re a Little Less

When we were new parents, there were times we dreaded going to Mass as a family. Now we see these moments as times of grace for all of us.
by Emil Berendt | Source:

How many times has the following happened to you?

Your baby or toddler is crying inconsolably at Mass. You look around and you think the entire congregation is giving you a stern stare. The message written on the people´s faces seems to say, "How dare you bring in a distraction to the serious work of the liturgy!" The celebrant gives no hint of hearing anything, but somehow you just know that his entire attention is on the screams. Convinced that the whole world is looking at your child, you plan a way to furtively sneak to the back of the church.

In searching for a way to deal with this problem, my wife, April, and I have discovered two extremely helpful tools. The first is Scripture, which has molded our attitudes toward bringing children to Mass. The second is the discovery of some "child psychology," which helps us to cope with "Mass hysteria."

The Rights of Baptism.

As we struggled with the challenges of bringing our children to Mass, we found two Scripture passages that helped us to see things from a new perspective. The first is the account of how Jesus loved the children:

[T]hey were bringing children to Him, that He might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it He was indignant, and said to them, "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And He took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands upon them (Mk. 10:13-16).

This scene from the life of Jesus demonstrates that He embraces little people as much as big people. From Jesus´ point of view, children are not a distraction to His "real" ministry to adults. He becomes upset when adults keep children away from Him because He wants to bless them too.

The Church frequently refers to this passage when it meditates upon the meaning of infant Baptism, which welcomes children into the family of God. Children are part of the Church today. By baptizing our children we are giving them the right to worship God with us. These children are full-fledged, card-carrying citizens of God´s Kingdom. Therefore, parents are obliged to nourish their children by bringing them to Christ at Mass.

Those Guilty Feelings.

Even though we came to understand that Jesus calls our toddlers to worship every Sunday with us, we still felt guilty about the occasional commotion at church. Before our children were born, we felt free to leave home early and spend some time before Mass in preparation and prayer. Now, just getting there is a major undertaking. Once we get to church our attention is divided between the Mass and our children. We go potty during the readings, intervene in squabbles during the Creed, and chase kids down the pew during the consecration.

We questioned whether we were spiritually benefitting from the Mass because our attention was elsewhere. But God revealed another portrait of Jesus that allayed our concerns: the story of the feeding of the five thousand:

Then [Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish He looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matthew 14:19-21).

We had read this passage many times, but it was not until we had children that we noticed the phrase "besides women and children." All of a sudden this scene took on a fresh meaning. There were families present! Have you ever been in a stadium filled with thousands of families? There is always commotion somewhere. The movement of people standing up and sitting down is punctuated with all sorts of noises. Yet "all ate and were satisfied," not just the 5,000 men. Jesus made sure there was more than enough for those who today would be sitting in the crying room or on "potty duty."

God blessed us with children and He will never ask us to leave our blessing(s) at the door when we enter the church. We are to come to Him as parents. He understands the responsibilities of being a parent and He will not penalize us for carrying out those obligations.

Practical Considerations.

With these Scripture passages in mind we started to rethink our attitudes about bringing our children to Mass. It became obvious that the children´s rightful place is at Mass with us. True, there are still times when they are disruptive and must be removed for the sake of others who want to pray. But in most cases it is easier to manage children if we acknowledge several facts of life and use them to our advantage.

Children will attract attention, even when they are being good.

People will always notice them because, quite simply, all children are adorable and they do cute things. The expectation that they will attract attention should not be a reason for not bringing them to church.

Embarrassing moments often are funny in retrospect and make wonderful memories. Our daughter is a special girl for our deacon because she was the first baby he baptized. Once, she suddenly darted out into the aisle during Mass and flashed her belly button at him. He noticed it and tried very hard to keep from bursting out laughing. It was only by looking away from her he was able to contain himself.

Children do not see the world from an adult perspective.

It is easy to forget that children are short and often the only thing they see is the back of the person sitting in front of them. We sit in front so that the children can get a good view of the action at the altar. It is amazing how much easier it becomes for them to stay in one place for an hour when they can watch what happens in front of them.

Children also differ from adults in how they interpret what they see and hear. This was brought home one day when our three-year-old daughter pointed at the crucifix and exclaimed: "Daddy, Jesus is wearing a bathing suit!" Children, however, can appreciate the words and actions of the liturgy if it is explained to them at their level.

It helps to tie in everyday home life with what happens at Mass. Children may not understand the readings but they know about bedtime stories and about Bible stories. They may not understand the theology of the Eucharist as a sacrificial meal but they do know what food is. They can relate to setting the table, washing hands, bringing the food, saying a blessing, eating, and clearing the table. Other things they are familiar with are lighting candles, singing songs, and making the Sign of the Cross.

Children are naturally curious.

Children absorb all the wonderful sights and sounds that surround them. Walking through a church can offer innumerable teachable moments. Every object in a church has a reason for being there. Occasionally come to church early and make a game of finding and naming various sacred objects. Look for the baptismal font, the sanctuary light, the dove above the altar, and the crucifix. See what new items you can find. Tell stories about the people, places, or events depicted in the statues, stained glass windows, and paintings. Obtain permission to visit the sanctuary, vesting room, or choir loft.

Once going to church becomes an enjoyable learning experience, it becomes more interesting for the children. Their awareness of their surroundings is expanded and they have a greater variety of things to hold their attention during the liturgy.

Children learn from their parents.

Parents are the primary role models. If you are enthusiastic about going to Mass, the children will quickly absorb the enthusiasm. It is important to keep in mind that by going to church you are not simply going to a large building with pews. You are showing an intense and personal relationship with your Creator that your children will want to imitate. The reason you go to church should not be "for the children´s sake," but to meet Jesus. Therefore, it is the parents´ responsibility to first meet Christ in the Mass before they can model this relationship for their children. This relationship with God is simply the most important gift parents can offer their children.

It is imperative to make Sundays special. Dress up a little and make it a point to have the family spend time together. In our house, we create a sense of anticipation by reminding our children during the week that it will soon be Sunday. We also relate the Mass to things happening during the week. For example, during the mealtime blessing we remind them that we also talk to God at church.

When we were new parents, there were times we dreaded going to Mass as a family. Now we see these moments as times of grace for all of us. This is the time when we nurture the habits our children will bring into their adult lives. Someday, in the not-too-distant future, they will make their baptismal vows on their own. Not long after that, they may have their own families.

By coming together for Mass as a family today, we are discovering what it means to be followers of Christ in the family of God.

Emil Berendt lives in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

This article is reprinted with permission from the March 1998 issue of Lay Witness, the publication of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF). For CUF membership information, call 1-800-MY-FAITH, or see the website below. 

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Post a Comment
Published by: Claudia
Date: 2013-05-31 03:03:41
Loved this article...unfortunately our experience was a totally negative one. After bringing our little granddaughter to a church where we're fairly new members ( and many small children attended) ... We were told by the priest that we should leave and pray to see if we should reurn there. Apparently a very active and involved member (his words) found our little one too distracting.

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