Monday, June 4, 2012

"Hey, Parents - Leave Those Kids At Home": On Children At Mass, Part 1

"Jesus and the Children," by Lucas the Elder Cranach
There seems to be a great deal of debate as to whether parents should bring their children to Mass. We've always found this to be a surprising discussion, but it does seem to generate a great deal of dialogue.  We've encountered arguments opposed to bringing children to Mass from the pulpit and on blogs, espoused by both priests and parents.  The intensity of these attitudes vary.  Many take a defensive position and merely describe leaving youngsters at home as a viable option.  Others take on an almost dogmatic tone. Our focus, our vocation, is the domestic church and the principle reason for this blog.  We wanted to explore this issue and also provide a bit of encouragement for those weary parents who do decide to take their children to Mass.

All of the arguments against bringing young children to Mass seem to assume two basic points: 1. The children do not know what is occurring, so it is unimportant for them to be there, or  2.  Children are distracting and therefore harm the environment for others.

"Christ and the Children,"by Franck Kirchbach
We'll begin with the first argument. How could a child know what is occurring at the sacrifice of the Mass?  For the sake of argument, let's say that we are speaking of younger children, a one-year-old for instance. While it may be true that the child cannot rattle off the doctrine of transubstantiation, we would still like to say that knowing is an activity which requires development and an engagement  with the object of knowledge.  In order for the activity of knowing to be realized (especially knowledge of something like transubstantiation), the object of knowledge must become familiar and intimate. We believe that this familiarization begins much younger than the "age of reason."  My one-year-old is a blossom of potential flowering realization. Simple actions like pointing to the Eucharist and whispering Christ's name in her ear can awaken the mystery of this knowledge.

But lets put even this aside and pretend she does not know and simply does not have the faculty to know what is occurring at the mass.

So what?

What is essential is that Christ is present in the Eucharist. He is not abstractly present; He is not symbolically present. He is there, in person, actively engaging the congregation, whether they are asleep or awake, distracted or deep in prayer, married or single, young or old. He is there whether we know it or not. Even if we assume, then, that the toddler cannot understand anything about the Mass, we still hold that it is good for them to be in the Real Presence of Christ. The absolute, physical presence of God has an impact on those present. We have witnessed this effect on atheists, Protestants, fallen away Catholics, ourselves, and our babies firsthand.

Crazy medieval people
This may sound superstitious and overly simplistic to the modern mind.  If we were to meet a nice medieval Catholic, no doubt we would dismiss them as being merely superstitious. We enlightened moderns know that the medieval Catholics (as well as many modern "cultural" Catholics), were nothing but naive and superstitious, whereas our religious practice is based primarily on knowledge and intention. Images of excessive flogging and fanatical plague victims come to mind. But we wonder sometimes whether the traditional Catholic was much more invested in the things themselves then we are.  Perhaps they were much more imbued with a sense of sacramentality, something that seems alien to the non-Catholic culture in which we find ourselves. We believe that children, perhaps even more than most adults, also have this gift and ability to grasp the sacramentality of the Mass, whether or not they are able to understand it theoretically (who really can, after all?)  

The second argument folks make is that children are distracting to neighbors. In fact, not only do children distract other members of the congregation, but they also distract their weary parents who, in order to be good parents, need that quiet time at Mass. We can sympathize with this point a great deal more than with the first argument (which seems to us to be simply dishonest).  Often enough, our children are fairy tale creatures, and their ways are inevitably loud and draw attention as we desperately attempt to tame the beast.

This argument loses a lot of its validity if you cede the first point.  If you agree that Christ's true presence must have an impact on your children, then what you are really saying here is that you value the impact that the Eucharist has on adults more than on children. In this scenario, leaving the kids at home would be to sacrifice the benefit of the child's Eucharistic encounter for the greater good of an hour of quiet, calm parental meditation on the mysteries of the Mass, without having to worry about restraining the toddler and maintaining a distraction-free atmosphere in the church.

"Christ Blessing the Children," by Nicolaes Maes
 Honestly, we think this second point reeks of a particular breed of clericalism.  In this view, families are merely visitors, outsiders to the Church.  The only beneficial way to encounter Christ's Mass is the way that priests and nuns do - individually and in absolute silence and lack of distraction.  The father who argues that it is important to for him to go to mass without the distraction of his child has missed the whole point.  His child (his family) is his vocation, this means, his path to God.  His covenant with God is his marriage.  He will gain no benefit as a father  if he tries to leave his family behind and pray like a priest.  His religious path is in celebration of his family. We are meant to encounter Christ personally, always in community, and the family is a vibrant, primordial and essential dimension of this community.

For those of you who are still with us, take this as an analogy:  I have often been frustrated when I try to exercise.  My two girls lay in wait for me to get in push-up position.  One of them gets on my back, the other one likes to slide under me and hang by my neck.  How much better a Papa would I be if, instead of wrestling them off and confining them to their room, I simply loved them and got an even better work out by exercising with the challenge they provide. If I saw their presence not merely as a burden to my own progress, but as an opportunity.

There are so many more reasons to bring your children to Mass - so they can hear the Word of God and have the prayers of the Mass engraved in their hearts, learn to sing at Church, see their parents praying together (or working together to do so!). One of our happiest moments as parents was when we overheard our oldest daughter "playing Mass" in the bathtub at the age of 2. And it isn't only beneficial for children. The adults in the congregation are also surrounded by Catholic families who give witness to the domestic church. At the same time, having quiet time with the Lord is important, and parents who feel a longing for that should find a way to work it into their life, whether that is by attending Adoration for an hour every week or by going to daily Mass without the children once in a while. However, we do believe that attending Sunday Mass together is fundamental to the domestic church.

Families who make the decision to go to Mass together need to know that what they are doing is important and worthy. During our two-year stay in Belgium, where the Catholic population is anything but vibrant, we witnessed firsthand the cold and empty Mass without any children, Sunday after Sunday, and it is anything but spiritually uplifting. Belgian Catholics would come up to us after Mass like we were celebrities and thank us over and over again for bring our noisy baby to Mass. The priests would beg us to sit in the front row next time. In a time in which so many Masses are void of children in so many countries, this entire movement is immensely baffling.Yes, it is hard to bring young children to Mass. But parents who feel in their hearts that it is the right thing should be encouraged to follow that desire.

"Christ Receiving the Children," by Sebastien Bourdon
Mass will never be the same after you have children. As parents, we can either accept that or fight it. It certainly isn't easy to bring young children to Mass. We find that the most important thing is to try to place yourself in their shoes and work with them where they are. It's hard to know how much to demand of a one-year-old, and we spend many Sundays taking turns walking the back of the church. When our oldest hit the age of two, it helped to have some religious books, lacing cards, stickers, and holy cards to help her get through Mass. But in the end, there is no magic trick. In those moments of desperate pacing and social anxiety, it helps to listen to the words of Christ Himself: "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will outline some practical strategies for attending Mass with toddlers without resorting to Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder.


  1. Yet another post with which I totally agree! You are such a kindred spirit. I have an essay of a comment to write, in support and affirmation of your various points, but don't have the required time at present. So, I will endeavor to share my thoughts later. Great work, good lady.

  2. Thank you, Katie Rose! We anxiously await your essay!! :)

  3. Okay, the babies are in bed, so I can proceed. Before I begin, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I should state that I am trained as a Level I catechist for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. My opinions, therefore, are going to be deeply formed by the educational/catechetical philosophies of Maria Montessori and Sophia Cavaletti. In fact, you could save yourself the trouble of wading through the following comment and simply read Cavaletti's excellent work, "The Religious Potential of the Child", as well as Montessori's "The Absorbent Mind."

    With that said, I will begin by laying out one of Montessori-Cavaletti's primary principles, namely, that from the ages of 0-6, children are in the sensitive period for religion, meaning that their entire beings are open to it and absorbing it in a way that they will never again be able to replicate; they are keenly attuned to their environments and absorbing all that they encounter as if little sponges. Children are naturally religious. They believe easily in God and accept readily the doctrines of faith. They are naturally inclined to prayers of thanksgiving and adoration, as they discover with ever increasing wonder the gift of their very beings, their bodies, their families, and the world. In addition, because they are so naturally tactile, they delight in the sacramentals and apparatus of our faith--the candles, the Holy Water, the postures like genuflecting and kneeling, and so forth.

  4. Part II:

    Before I say more, I will illustrate the above assertions with a few personal examples. My son, Edmund, is two-years old, and, to dispel any notions that he is an unusually pious and meditative child, you should know that Edmund has to routinely be carried out of Mass because he is too squirmy. He is a very active little man. Even so, Edmund easily memorizes the prayers and songs he hears. I often sing the "Salve Mater" to Edmund before bed, yet because he appears to not listen, too busy plying me with requests for another story and drink of water, I was amazed recently to hear Edmund correcting my husband's Latin, when he stumbled a little over the lyrics. As if by accident, Edmund absorbed the "Salve Mater"; it helps, of course, that he is also in the sensitive period for language. In addition, Edmund loves to genuflect and does so very deliberately and for a few seconds at time. All I had to do was demonstrate a genuflection very carefully and pronounce the word "genuflect", and he got it. Finally, he is incredibly drawn to candles, so, as a reward for respectful behavior during Mass, we tiptoe into the Adoration chapel and light a taper together. It is amazing to witness the extreme reverence and care with which Edmund lights the taper (with significant help from me) and kneels with it before the monstrance.

    I offer these examples as reasons why children should most certainly be welcome in Mass. You are absolutely right, Mrs. Altars, that it is difficult to small ones to sit still for so long, and we too often spend the Liturgy of the Eucharist walking in the back of the church. And, extended silent prayer after receiving Holy Communion is almost never possible. Certainly, we mothers have to learn to make our prayer time incredibly efficient and potent because our minutes of silence are limited. Yet, I also agree with you that even with these difficulties, the Mass is such a rich vehicle for catechesis, as well as an objective good for their souls to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Really, you said it all very well in your post.

    Please pardon this lengthy comment, but I have one final point. In view of this natural religiosity of small children, we do them such a disservice when we offer them Disney princess and Marvel superheroes. Because they are naturally inclined toward, and desirous of, the perfect love, justice, strength, wisdom, and so forth who is God, they think that the cartoons offered to them are the God they seek and accept them as such. This is why children believe with such wide-eyed wonder in Batman and Little Mermaid, and it makes me so sad. Our children deserve better than what Disney can offer (and I mean "our" generically because I know that you are raising your daughters with the True, Good, and Beautiful.) They deserve the perfection of Christ, of His saints, and of the Sacraments.

    I look forward to your forthcoming post and so very much appreciate this blog. It is lovely to think deeply and converse well. Grace and peace to you!

    1. Thank you Katie Rose, for your response and insights. I've been interested in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for some time and will have to ask you more questions about it! It is so true that this age is a religious one. Our 3-year-old has similar habits as the pious (and squirmy) Edmund,including the extended genuflection, and it is just so beautiful to see. It makes all the time spent pacing the back well worth it.

      We agree about the cultural influences as well. Although we haven't banned all of them from our home, they certainly have no place at Mass and do have the potential to distract (and even mislead) children. They do indeed deserve better. And what many people may not realize is that they are also capable of better. They are thirsting for it in fact!

      It is indeed wonderful to converse about these things. Thank you for your insights, and God bless you and yours!

  5. My kids are going nuts in mass lately. It is really difficult sometimes. I can barely think let alone pray when they get going. I must say, I love going to the occasional mass alone or without kids/with just older kids.

    I think the point (not yours) about other peoples kids being distracting is wrong though. 90% of other peoples kids noises are easily ignored. It is usually ones own kids that distract them.

    I went to a large church last sunday that was built in a modern, more Protestant style where everyone looks at everyone else in a circle, and with 10,000 EMHC's. There was a humid and stuffy "cry room" complete with pews (no kneelers). I felt like I had to use the room because it was there. I figured if the kids cried in the main pert of church then people might wonder why i didnt use the room. I think this is the reason there should not be these cry rooms. It sends the message to parents: "get your noisy brats in there! we dont want you here!"

    Kids will cry and scream. It is much harder on the parent than anyone else. Both parent and child need to be at mass.

    1. God bless you, David. Why do those cry rooms always have to be humid and stuffy? That's what I don't understand about cry rooms; they're so unpleasant! I would rather deal with pacing than sit in a cry room. But more on that to come...

      The point about children being more distracting to parents than other congregation members is so true. Remembering that really helps us keep our heads about us during Mass.

      And yes, personal prayer is essential for parents. Making space for that has made all the difference for us as a couple.

  6. The most powerful article I've ever read totally demolishing the cry-room is this: Crying children call to mind the mystery of the Mass.

    In other words, the crying reminds us the SACRIFICE OF CALVARY is literally in our midst just as literally as Christ is present. The Cross was a place of tears, and now whenever I hear children crying it is God's way of reminding me I'm at Calvary. David is right, the real distractions are bad music and liturgical abuse, unless we want to associate those with the stripping of Our Lord, the hanging of Judas, and the darkness and earthquake that took place on Good Friday.

    1. Wow, thank you so much for sharing that link, Nick. What a powerful piece, especially coming from a priest. We need more priests like this. Absolutely beautiful.

      We also like your ideas for bad music and liturgical abuse. By the grace of God, even these things can be an opportunity for uniting ourselves with Christ. God bless and thank you.