I’m not going to pretend that taking children to Mass is not filled with peril and adventure…and terror and mortification…and nightmares and sometimes nosebleeds…It’s all of that and much, much more. I’m the lucky mother to two wonderful teenaged sons who listen, sing and participate at Mass—currently without any coercion. But, getting there wasn’t always easy. Some of the most frustrating and embarrassing moments of my parenting career thus far have been Mass-related. My kids have screamed, cried, yelled out loud that the priest was “doing it wrong”, made loud comments about people sitting near us, thrown up the whole length of the center aisle—pretty much any embarrassing thing a kid can do. Not being able to really attend to Mass myself because of the parenting that needed doing was like being in a dessert without water. I believe that many Catholic parents can relate.
But, parents: take heart! It gets better! Do not be discouraged—and if you are hesitant about taking your kids to Mass, please consider the following:
- Your children are members of the Church.
Your kids have as much right as anyone to be in Church. They are members of God’s family and members of our parish family. They may remind you of your crazy uncle at times…shouting random things, falling over like they’ve gotten into the kickaboo juice, banging things and yelling at strangers…but that doesn’t mean that they don’t belong. In fact, if you got married in the Church, part of your preparation and your promise was that you’d be open to God’s gift of children and to raise them in the faith and practice of the Church. If anyone has a problem with that, feel free to remind them (kindly) that your promise to God and one another completely outranks their mild annoyance to a little extra activity in the pew. The family is the domestic church, and all of our members need to be represented at our most important gathering.
- Most of the congregation has been where you are.
Every single person in Church is the result of, and probably participated in procreation. While some may have forgotten what it’s like to be little, or that they were in your shoes at one point, most appreciate your effort. For parents whose children are slightly older than yours, your squirmy little guy is a reminder of days gone by. They will chuckle a bit, and probably say a prayer for you, because they were there not too long ago. You see those kids who are sitting still (for the most part) and giving the illusion of listening? They sit like that because their parents came back even though their scheming toddler planned and executed a cunning diversion and escape that resulted in her first ever appearance in the sanctuary during the homily. Maybe she was just checking out where she’ll be a lector one day. Good for her. For any reasonable person, having your infant or toddler interact with them with smiles and showing off their favorite stuffed animal is a treat. Many are separated from those times because their children are grown, others because their grandchildren are far away. If they aren’t being completely disruptive, let them be. If they are crazy loud, take them out for a few minutes. But, come back! They’ll get the hang of it sooner than you think. Just make sure that you take stock of your feelings—separate your feelings of embarrassment from any unreasonable expectations of your small one.
- People (especially kids) learn best by doing.
It’s a fact that people learn most effectively by practice. There’s a lot to learn in our faith, and there is no better teacher than the Mass. The words of the prayers, the readings, the homily (God-willing), the words of the songs, the sitting, standing, kneeling, walking together in procession, the seasonal decorations, the sacramental symbols that we use, the smells and bells—all of these engage the senses and teach us about what we believe. And when we carry it over into the practice of our homes, the impact is even greater. You can bet that most of the people in the pews need some practice along with your kids, because none of us has got it 100% right.
- They bring life to our celebrations.
Yeah, I know, they also bring noise. But, noise is a sign of new life. Kids were not built to conform to adult standards of behavior. How many times have you been at Mass when a toddler (the most infamous brand of children) yells something at the exact best time during a homily to the delight of everyone there? How many times has a small child burst into a sudden fit of clapping and cheering after a really well-done hymn—what we would like to have done but aren’t allowed (and rightly so, it’s not entertainment—but when a child does it, it’s acceptable)? Babies cooing, crying, and even yelling are proof that they are there—that parents are with us seeking to pass their relationship with God on to the next generation.
- You get the distinct pleasure of having your child’s developmental stages played out in public.
I mean this one facetiously, but actually, there’s some truth there, too. From the immobility of early infancy, to the horrifying antics of toddlerhood, to the snuggliness and wonderfully incessant questions of young childhood, to the indignant “don’t touch me, look at me, hold my hand at the Our Father or kiss me at the sign of peace” of adolescence, to the moment that you are on the Communion line and realize that your child looks like an adult from behind and how very much taller he is than you…it’s an adventure. And it’s one that your fellow parishioners delight in sharing with you. They remember when he was first baptized. They can’t believe she’s old enough to make her First Communion. They share in your joy as she receives a blessing as she heads off to college and reminisce about when you used to have to take her into the gathering area during her tantrums.
A little side-story: My older son was two months old and I was struggling and exasperated at Christmas Eve Mass. My husband was cantoring, and I was wiped out. One of our parishioners came to me and offered to hold the baby. He was looking forward to having grandkids, and could use the practice. For years, whenever we saw each other he would talk about that time—he really had saved my sanity—but it meant a lot to him, too. Arthur (his name was Arthur) had been there throughout pretty much my son’s whole childhood and was like a spiritual grandfather to him.
The parish family is a witness to your fidelity and you are a witness to them. Yes, your kids will embarrass the heck out of you. But, they do it in the context of a loving community who will remember fondly those stages with you (because you WILL look back on these days and laugh—no matter what it feels like right now).
- The chances of them growing up to be adults who participate in their faith increases.
Making Mass a standard fixture in your weekend plans is one of the factors that increases the likelihood of your children developing Church into a life-long habit. When you go weekly and become part of the faith community—participating in parish activities, volunteering together, sharing your thoughts together on the readings and homily, and making faith part of your home life; you are giving your kids a foundation of faith that nothing else can replace. When Mass is a regular part of family life—not just an expectation, but a celebration of gratitude for everything that God has given you—it’s not a burden. It’s a foundation for a relationship with God, an understanding of a need for a community of faith and an opportunity for your family to grow closer together in the joy of knowing God’s love and care for each of you. The Sacraments have meaning (besides some sort of milestone), religious education has context (and therefore makes sense) and you have an extended family of people who share your values and beliefs.
So, parents, be strong. You’re going to have some really bad days. But, stick it out because it’s worth it. What you gain is a happier, more connected family—not necessarily right away—but in time everything will settle down and you’ll look at your gaggle of children all in a nice line in the pew, adults peppered in between them because how much self-control can you really expect for a whole hour, and you’ll begin to see the fruit of your faithfulness. But, don’t try and put your arm around the adolescent—he’ll push it right off like you’re dead to him. And you’ll smile because you know that you did it to your mom, too, someday she’ll have one just like her, and that child will do the same thing—it’s all good. Right now, you have an hour where you’re all together, focused on saying thank you to God for all that God has given you, strengthening your family and fostering a foundation of faith for the future.