Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Children and Mass - A View from the Other Side of the Pew

Earlier today I read a post which spoke about distractions at Mass along with a few other issues. Nothing wrong with this post - I understood what the author was trying to convey as it's something we all experience from time to time.

And then I read the comments. I don't know why I did this. I should have known better but as a mother I wanted to see how people viewed parents who bring their children to Church. It was like stepping into a mine field! The poor author must have been shell-shocked when he saw the number of comments he received after simply speaking about his distractions during Mass. I am writing this in hopes of giving folks a slightly different perspective on children and Mass. Some of the comments, including some from fellow Catholics were beyond lacking in charity, they sickened me. My heart fell to my stomach before I was even halfway through this section. To be honest, it left me reeling and wondering if some of these folks need a reality check and to know that what they may see at Mass is often only a small portion of what can be a much larger picture.

I am one of those "self-absorbed creeps" who bring their child to church and struggle to contain their child's behavior during Mass. As the mother of a child whose "brain works a bit differently" I have to contend patiently with "hand flapping", "body swaying", singing at the wrong times and various other behaviors which some folks have deemed "inappropriate" by, and let me stress this, their own standards. Not God's standards certainly - having created children He certainly knows how their minds work. When my daughter was small, before I understood the difficulties Mass presented for her I used to reprimand her each week. We practically lived in the back of the church. I was trying to keep my child's behavior from "offending" a few people so I rarely got to hear an entire Mass. I didn't understand at the time that "stillness" was beyond her capabilities and the problem was with ME not her. After months of reprimanding she became afraid to go to church, and after a Mass of swaying and odd noises, before I could say a word she would look up at me hopefully and say, "Did I do a good job? Was I good at Mass?" Later, I began to understand that she was trying, in her own little way, to be on her best behavior during Mass.

"Mama, I said all the prayers and sang all the songs! Did you see?! Did you see?!"

 I had not "seen" at all - I was too busy feeling embarrassed and angry  watching my daughter sway back and forth for 15 minutes to notice how she was pouring her little heart out to God in prayer and song. My prayer at the time was, "Please Lord! Can't she behave at Mass just once!"

Then God showed me an inner "picture" of myself and I was struck dumb by my selfish prayer and "unlovingness". I was the one not "behaving" well at Mass. I was the one "lacking", not her. What I was lacking was love. God was pleased with her prayers and her unique way of worshipping Him. Even as I write this tears are welling up in my eyes at how I could be so blind as not to notice her efforts and that I could focus so much on her (what I perceived to be)  flaws, rather than to understand that God loved her special way of praying to Him.

I look at her differently now. When she flaps her hands I imagine the wings of her angel softly flapping with her and when she sways and sings to herself even after the hymns are over I am reminded of the unending hymn of praise which always surrounds the throne of God.

For those who are offended by my child's behavior I can only suggest this:

It may do some good to search your own heart. The things which irritate us so much often come from an area of our own hearts which are closed off and lacking in love. One thing I am certain of is that God WANTS his littlest ones at Mass. They are his delight. Yes, if a baby is screaming the church down, by all means, bring him to the back until he is calm. But let's not nitpick, either. In my life I have noticed that most of the time when I get completely frazzled by the actions of another the fault lies within me. We cannot change others but we can change ourselves. It seems likely to me that a crying baby is music to God's ears. What is crushing to Him, are the silent ones who are never even given the chance to let out their first wail. Rather than praying that parents not bring their babies to Mass and asking them to "please remove your children" when we get irritated, why don't we pray for an end to abortion and end the silent screams that are piercing the heavens day and night. These have become a continuous echo in the ears of God. Do not ask God to spare your own ears....rejoice that there are still children left to disturb them.


  1. It made me cry when you described what your daughter was goimg through. God love her.

  2. " When she flaps her hands I imagine the wings of her angel softly flapping with her and when she sways and sings to herself even after the hymns are over I am reminded of the unending hymn of praise which always surrounds the throne of God."
    How nicely put. And so true too. There is a big difference between a rowdy , ill behaved child and a good child loving the Mass and trying to learn the responses and stuff.

  3. Fr. Tony (the rather well known priest from New Orleans) was leading a Mass with probably close to 1000 people at a Los Angeles religious convention that I attended, when a baby started crying. The mother got up to leave so that the baby would not be disturbing the rest of us. Fr. Tony stopped in the middle of a sentence and said to her (it was surprising that he even saw her in that huge crowd), "You may calm that baby by walking it in the aisle, but do not take that baby out of my Mass. Jesus never sent little children away, and neither will I." You could have heard a pin drop! It is the kind of thing you never forget.

  4. Mary, thank you so much for this post. So much. We are really trying to find our feet in this area right now with William being two and not being exactly the quietest boy around. How do people propose teaching a child to be quiet during mass if they don't want them there? We do our very best to keep W. quiet and try to teach him about proper mass behaviour but he's two. He doesn't quite get it yet. In the past few weeks I have found myself getting a place where rather than mass being something I enjoy and that refreshes my soul, I dread going because as you said of the "embarrassment". I DON'T want to make mass stressful or have children who dread going...this is such a hard topic.:) So what did you do with your daughter? Can you email me?:)

  5. Hi Mary,

    First of all; there is nothing wrong with "hand flapping, body swaying, singing at the wrong times and various other behaviors". I do it all the time and no one seems to mind. Although people do move to other pews and leave me alone; which is a bonus to me.

    Seriously though ... you should be proud of this post Mary. It shows you're a very caring and loving mother and God will thank you for it.

    Children are a gift from God. The way we bring them up is our gift to God.

    You chose to bring up your daughter into the church by taking her to Mass with you. This is laudable. The obvious thing to do (for others) would have been to leave her at home or not to go to church altogether.

    By taking her to Mass at a young age there's a good chance that as she grows up she will continue to go to church and to follow your Faith. And what a great gift you have given God!

    In our church years ago, we used to have a special Mass on Sundays for parents and children. The lovely priest we had then (a model for my Father Ignatius in my stories) used to give his sermons for the children, and when we recited the Lord's Prayer he used to ask all the children to come up and sit around the Altar on the floor and he used to pray the Our Father with them. The area around the Altar was packed with children everywhere, and when the prayer was over they used to run back to their parents in the pews.

    The Mass took longer than usual and at times it was very noise; but Jesus was there and He was pleased.

    As for babies ... this priest had a room with a huge glass partition up front by the Altar. He fitted loud-speakers in the room and parents with babies were invited to go there and follow the Mass whilst not disturbing others. He filled the room with toys for the babies to play with on the floor.

    Thank you Mary for speaking up on this subject.

    God bless you and your family.

  6. Mary, what a beautiful post. I don't know how children are supposed to learn how to behave in church without BEING in church. Thank you for sharing from your heart.

  7. Ros,
    It is particularly difficult for some children to understand what others consider "appropriate"
    behavior especially if they have no awareness of it. During the sign of peace people often reach their hand out to shake my daughter's and most of the time she just stares at the hand and ignores it :) I can laugh about it now because I have a better understanding of the why? of it but during her earlier years I just felt humiliated. I still can't believe that I used to get angry with her and think that she was just being rude especially with all the physical signs pointing otherwise. This child has been a great gift and has taught me a lot about loving unconditionally. When I read the comments section of that post on distractions I felt sick at heart. My child is not an animal (remarks like these disgust me to the very depths of my being) - she is a beautiful young lady who works very hard (to the best of her ability) to "behave" during Mass. The simple truth is that her idea of good behavior doesn't necessarily mesh with others' ideas of good behavior. The thing is, she participates at Mass and in many ways she participates more than those who criticise her. I was a bit concerned when it came time for her first Communion (I considered holding her off another year or so) but the Lord prepared her beautifully (and so did we!) and she was wonderful! I was very proud of her :)

  8. Autumn,
    She tries really hard and has made tremendous progress. She may flap and sway forever, I just do not know. What I DO know is that she is receiving a solid faith base and is learning about God. She prays, sings, goes to Confession and receives Communion. She hold doors open for people, shares with her friends, and loves hearing about saints. She has made remarkable progress in almost every area :)

  9. Elizabeth,
    I loved Father's statement and I won't forget it either. He's right, Jesus would not have sent the children away and even rebuked the apostles when they tried to do so. Thank you for sharing this story with me!
    My daughter is very bright so I think this is what causes some people consternation when she does not speak to them or ignores them. They believe she is doing it deliberately but the truth is that she is not "hearing" them as we might hear them. Even I have difficulty getting her attention at times. I have tried to learn to see things through her eyes to a degree. I have had to learn to recognize the difference between real disobedience and the things she just can't help. Not an easy task :)

  10. Colleen,
    I have yet to meet a two-year-old who can sit quietly for an hour at Mass :) I'm not saying they don't exist...I'm just saying that I have yet to meet one. And yes, I'll e-mail you tonight. I understand where you are coming from - there was a period when I dreaded going to Mass too. I have to say, I made a number of mistakes and I wish I had known now what I knew then. Thank for commenting!

  11. Victor,
    You always make me laugh! A whole section of the church to yourself sounds nice ;)

    Our church, unfortunately, does not have a "crying room" though I have seen these in some of the newer churches and think they are a great idea. This way those with families that have young children still get to hear and participate in the Mass. The children also get a chance to learn about the Mass - they absorb a lot when they are young even though we may think they are not listening.

    God bless you too, Victor!

  12. I used to get angry with the way my children behaved in Mass. I don't any longer. I just believe that as long as we continue to bring them, they will eventually start learning and paying more attention and loving Sunday mornings as much as my husband and I do. It's been a few years since I've spent the entire hour trying to control their behavior. They all know the songs and prayers, now, and enjoy singing when it's the appropriate time *wink*. Our busy boy, Nick (7), still asks a few times if it's time to leave, and he'll sway and want to lay in the pew (because he's sooooo tired, etc) but for the most part he's the only kiddo who fidgets around. I feel blessed that we've made it years in Mass with 4 children - and no major hiccups! :) Hang in there - it gets easier as they get older!

  13. Mary,
    You have a point there! How can kids learn if they can't go? I learned how to behave at church by going when I was a child. My parents brought all five of us and the church was always filled with young families. No one seemed to mind back then if a baby cried and we knew most of the people around us. If a new mother was overwhelmed there was always someone who cared willing to help out.

  14. 4kids1mom,
    I just visited your site and read about your experiences concerning children and Mass. Great post! And exactly how we need to approach the issue - with patience and diligence. Thanks for the link, too. I am certain that many families run into the same difficulties concerning Mass!

  15. There is no question that someone like your daughter is engaged at Mass. She's not napping or pretending. Great post!

  16. Carnival,
    Yes, she's definitely engaged at Mass - her favorite parts are the readings, the singing, and Communion. During the Homilies on the other hand... Lol! I've noticed that she seems to get a sudden urge to use the ladies room soon after the Homily begins :)

  17. Interesting concept you shared here Mary. Blessings.

  18. So true Mary! It is so important to bring our children to Mass, but it is so difficult some times! I used to get very discouraged about my kids' behavior too, but really they never learn unless they keep going. and going and going and going..... er, do they ever learn? I have finally just started focusing on worshiping God instead of trying to correct them all the time, and hope they will follow suit :) Some times it works, some times it doesn't. *Sigh*

  19. Mary this is such a comforting post. I remember those days when my kids were little and I'd be standing with them in the back of church crying out to God, "Don't you want me and my children to be near to you? Don't you want us here at Mass? Why is this so difficult? Can't you make them behave for one hour?" Motherhood is difficult to be sure.

    Thanks too for your kind words on my post about the thorns. My deep and frequent anxiety leads me to many ugly places in my mind. Your words of assurance brought me peace.

  20. Kathryn,
    You wouldn't believe what my daughter did when she was a tot! We were in the back of the church (as usual) and while I was trying to pray the Our Father my daughter cupped her hands stuck them in the Holy Water font and drank it before I could get to her! I was horrified! Do you know how many thousands of people have stuck their hands in there?!! The folks who don't think children should come to Mass would have a field day with that story :) Maybe I should post it (evil grin). Still, I know that bringing her was the right thing to do. Even when she was 2 she would ask me to sing the Psalms and hymns to her before bed at night so I knew she was learning despite how things looked. Their brains are like sponges when they are little and they pick up a lot (both figuratively and literally, lol). Thanks for commenting :)

  21. Thanks, Anne! Yes, it's tough being a mom :) Take a peek at the comment above! Lol! I used to do the say the same things to God and I only had 1 child! You and other folks that have larger families probably have to go through this with more than one child at the same time if they are close in age.

    I'm glad my words brought you a little comfort. I recognize this constantly having God on the heart and mind because I am like this too. It makes it easy to see in others. Even when you are suffering you are thinking about the Lord. This touches me and adds a depth and beauty to your posts that reaches out to people.

    Anxiety, depression - yes, I know all about this, my friend. It's like LIVING in the Garden of Gethsemane. When I had MG, I battled with depression and anxiety often. Chronic illness can have this effect. The blessing in this (though, of course, it never SEEMS like there could possibly be anything positive about suffering) is that not only does it teach us complete and total dependence on God, we also bring consolation to the Heart of Jesus when we offer these things up united with his own suffering. Anne, many people would take issue with my words, but even though I received a healing, I still realize that suffering is saint making material. I could talk for hours on this subject alone. Maybe I should post about it because I feel so strongly about it.

    Sorry about the long comment. I keep you in my prayers (but you know that) :)

  22. I am a priest who was thrown out of a church in Dublin, along with my pregnant mother, when I was a few months short of three. It was a weekday Mass during the Christmas season. It seems I shouted 'Ba' at the Child Jesus in the crib! The priest then ordered us out, aided and abetted by an older woman. (I knew another little boy who took the Baby Jesus home and who became a priest!)

    As a priest for nearly 44 years, I figure that the priest had got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. But he never apologised. However, when recounting the incident my mother always added that four years later, when that same priest was in the parish where my mother had grown up, he attended my dying aunt, a younger sister of my mother, and could not have done more for her.

    Occasionally here in the Philippines I have found the noise of children dropping coins on the floor irritating. Once or twice when a child was clearly causing some disruption I have gently asked if the parents could look after him. This never caused offence. And small children wandering into the sanctuary have never been a problem for me. It's a situation that's not difficult to deal with.

    After my brother was born - we had moved to another parish then, nothing to do with the incident - it was my father who took me to Sunday Mass while my mother went to another one. I became aware too that he went to Mass every day, as he did until the day he died. That was one of the most formative influences on my life, and still is.

    The incident was rather traumatic for my mother, though it didn't stop her from going to Mass. My only recollection of it is of walking home. Years later, while home from the Philippines, I was asked by the vice superior in Ireland, to preach at all the Sunday Masses on a particular Sunday in Lent in the church I had been thrown out of. He knew nothing of my connection with the parish. I had a great opening line! But by the final Mass I had experienced a kind of vicarious healing for my mother, long since deceased.

    God bless you.

  23. Father,
    I have read your articles for the Association of Catholic Women Bloggers (I write there also) and have enjoyed them very much!

    I had to smile while reading your comment :) After reading this it gave me some hope - perhaps I have a child with a vocation to the religious life on my hands! Lol!

    I'm glad you wrote in about this because I have been conversing with a mother of a toddler who recently was asked to leave Mass because her child was not quiet enough and naturally she felt very hurt because the child was not doing anything unusual for a child of that age and she was trying her hardest to keep him reasonably quiet. I'll have to show her your comment! It may make her laugh if she sees that even a budding priest was thrown out of Mass! And the boy who took baby Jesus home and became a priest :) The priest who through your family out was likely just having a bad day as you have said here. That he attended your aunt with such kindness shows his true side.

    It's funny that you were asked to preach at the very same church you were thrown out of! What a great story! It must have made your mother smile in heaven :) Thank you for writing in and sharing this story, Father. I read it with great delight!

    God bless you, too!

  24. Wow, what a powerful statement! And a unique perspective, as always.

    God Bless you.

  25. Sigh. I am glad I go to a church where our pastor welcomes the children at Mass. We do not have a crying room because he does not want the children separated. We have some people who complain but most do not. Every time I hear a child cry, I think - what a joyful noise unto the Lord!
    When my boys were small, we would sit in the front pew so they could see everything that was going on. They always thought that Father was watching them! If parents bring children to Mass from the very first week of their life, then children know how to behave at Mass and how to participate. But children will still act up. They are children, after all. I just keep thinking of Jesus saying - bring the little ones to me.
    Mass is for worshiping and giving thanks to God, in community. It is not for a private prayer service of total peace and quiet.
    Bring on the children! They keep us young and make Jesus smile.
    Great post and thanks!

  26. You are not going to believe this but my word verification was - raket (as in racket?!?!? as in noise???)

  27. Thanks Michael :) Better to have noise than complete silence. A world without children is a sad thing to contemplate.

  28. Colleen,
    This is good to hear! I believe even babies should attend Mass - they receive grace simply by being in Jesus' presence :) When I was pregnant with Michaela I went to Communion as often as possible so that she could receive Jesus too! After she was born we brought her regularly though I was often in the back trying to keep her calm. Bringing your children makes Mass a part of their life and they take in more than we think.
    Funny word verification! They do make a racket at times!