People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them, and when the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belong to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
As quoted above from Luke 18, in Matthew 19, and in Mark 10, Jesus not only invites children to him, but proclaims that to be childlike is preferred. When my wife and I were married, we were members of the University Catholic Center (UCC), the Catholic campus ministry serving The University of Texas at Austin, where I was also employed. We knew that the 9 a.m. Mass was the Mass with the most families, e.g. kids. We would watch how the various parents handled their children. Some, seemingly, let the children run free and wild. Others would remain overall calm and quiet in their seats. Still others would get a little noisy and the parents would step out into the atrium outside the chapel with the little ones. All in all, we didn’t think anything of it.
A little less than a year later, we welcomed our firstborn into the world. Now, we have two daughters—a 20-month old, Olivia, and a 3-month old, Catalina. Since Olivia was born, we’ve attended three parishes on a regular basis—the UCC while I was in pastoral ministry, St. Ignatius when I migrated to administrative church work as it was just across the street from our condo and a third parish that was much closer to the house we moved into last summer.
We thought we were awesome parents. In Olivia’s first few months, she was excellent during Mass. Not a squeak—never one of those kids you hear belting out a cry in the middle of Mass. Yes, we were awesome parents. Why couldn’t all of these other parents just figure it out like we so obviously had.
God has a great sense of humor. Karma isn’t a Catholic idea, but man, God borrowed it for us on this one.
My wife has written on her column with Busted Halo about the humility of parenthood. When Olivia hit a year-old, we had to use seemingly a dozen different tactics to keep her occupied. As Vanessa writes in the blog, we avoided the cry room. In our experience, in a handful of different parishes in Austin and around the state while visiting family, the cry room is most used as a room for the kids to run wild while the parents look fried. We wanted to limit Olivia’s exposure to this lawless territory.
While we were a little self-occupied that we had to give Olivia this or that throughout Mass, no one ever said anything to us or gave us any looks. We would take her to the back foyer/narthex every so often so we could stand and rock her without being obvious, but again, always civil. Then it happened one Sunday.
We were at the “third parish” closer to the house. We arrived early for Mass. Another parent of a one-year old shared her experience that sitting in the front row helped as the little one would see what’s going on up front and pay attention to that, so we opted to try it out for a Sunday. Olivia was doing decent until about the 2nd reading when she wouldn’t settle down enough for me to be comfortable inside the church proper. I take her to the cry room. This week, all of the kids back there are being managed by their parents, so fantastic. Homily time, Olivia had a complete melt down. I couldn’t calm her down and she was throwing one of the worst fits in her little life. I was embarrassed. I wanted to take her outside of the church building, but it was too cold outside. Our jackets are in the front row. I just need to try to keep her quiet until the offering, I tell myself. If I can’t figure out the root issue by then, we can grab jackets and go outside for a few extra minutes.
We never made it.
A gentleman who was sitting in the rear of the church near the glass wall separating the cry room came into the cry room. He started into me about how Olivia was ruining Mass for everyone. Why wasn’t I taking her outside? I should be able to keep her quiet. She’s way too loud to be at church. I told him that I’m honest to God trying and, if she is causing such a distraction, to please tell my wife. First pew, obviously with more jackets than she would be wearing with kid stuff. I can’t take her outside without her jacket and taking her into the church to get it would only make things worse. He waved off that suggestion and forced his jacket my way.
Maybe I overreacted, but as a very sleep deprived father with a uncomfortably pregnant wife who has some random guy yelling at him that his little girl is ruining the miracle of Mass, I couldn’t do it. I threw his jacket back that way, left the church and ran across the way to another building on the church grounds. I didn’t have a plan as much as I was embarrassed, pissed, and hurt all at once. Vanessa went back to check on us at the collection and an usher told her we left. She found us, but Mass that Sunday was already “ruined” for me. We left. We tried going back to that church for a couple of months after that, but I couldn’t do it. Still angry, still afraid of what would happen the next time Olivia was too loud. We went back to St. Ignatius.
There are plenty of theories on how parents should handle children with Mass. Leave them in the nursery until their old enough to handle it—5-years old or so being the most common age I’ve heard related to that theory. Always sit in the cry room since they’ll probably cry at some point anyhow. Always sit in the very back of the church (or as close as possible to an exit) so you can leave quickly. Sit somewhere that you can leave easily if needbe—the end of the pew near a side aisle—so you can leave if needed, but only if actually needed. Sit in the front row so they’ll constantly have the action of Mass drawing their attention. Split the family up so one parent is at home with the kids while the other parent goes to Mass, then switch.
I base my theory on Jesus calling the children to Him. Our girls were baptized as soon as we could logistically after birth and they’re members of the Body of Christ. My wife and I are “co-pastors” of our domestic church. Even if they don’t understand at all what’s going on at the altar, they are being called to Jesus who is fully present there. What kind of pastor would keep their church from coming to the One who called them? They need to be there.
Being a parent, your experience of Mass will most likely change quite a bit. I went from serving in some sort of liturgical ministry 75% of the time for nearly a decade to 20+ months out of service. Instead of actively hearing and listening to each reading and the homily, my wife and I share notes on the drive home and often re-read the readings later. It’s a whole new set of challenges—including, yes, not leaving needed child supplies in the front pew and planning fussiness-based contingency plans, but there is grace there.
In conclusion, that baby a few pews over or the toddler behind you may be pretty darn annoying. But, before rebuking, think about the parents—the majority are trying to do the best possible—and remember that Jesus is calling them to be there. Pray for the little ones and their parents. Think of how you can supportively help you and them. Hold yourself back before you push someone away from Christ.
Editor’s Note: Originally published at Austin Catholic New Media.