What are fair expectations for children’s behavior at Mass? Are there objective standards, or is it all subjective according to the parent’s circumstances and judgment? What are the consequences, intended and unintended, of bystander comments and corrections to parents and young children who are struggling to be quiet and still at Mass?
In a report out in late 2023, the Catholic Church has seen massive declines in attendance: “In 2022, a near-majority of Hispanic Catholics, or 47 percent, reported attending religious services at least a few times each year, down from 65 percent in 2019. For white Catholics, the drop was even sharper, down to 45 percent in 2022 from 73 percent just three years earlier.” The reasons vary, but a case can be made to encourage those who are still attending religious services to bring their children and to raise them in the Catholic faith, even if that means some occasional disruptions to the quiet and the stillness of Mass.
I experienced a zero-stillness Mass personally just the other day. My three-year-old son squirmed away from me and darted across the back of the church. I lumbered after him in the way only a middle-aged mom can so as to minimize the noise of her boots and maximize the chance she won’t need Motrin afterwards. It was a speed shuffle. I realized all too late that my instinct to pause and genuflect as I crossed the center aisle of the church left me at the distinct disadvantage as he had already passed through the doors and into the vestibule. He went left, so I went right, and met him in the very back of our beloved 150 year-old parish, alongside the doors that still let in a bit of the gusting winter air outside.
It was early Sunday morning, and I was solo-parenting with five kids at church.
At the moment of our reunion in that drafty old vestibule, I scooped him up. I peeked at the altar to make sure my two boys serving had their cassocks on straight. I wondered if my two daughters in the pew were still . . . well, in the pew where I had left them. Just then an older woman leaned forward from her vestibule perch near the collection for the pro-life movement to ask his age, name, my name, and whether or not he was developmentally disabled. I shifted his squirmy forty-pounds to my other hip. I answered the first few questions but trailed off as she continued. His running was irreverent. Other children in the back were not running. And it seemed to displease her enough to ensure that I knew it.
I smiled until I couldn’t and spent the next thirty-five minutes of Mass trying to avoid the vestibule—the one place that existed at the back (back) of the church for small children.
For the parents of small children, this scenario might ring a rueful bell. The awkward line between wanting to bring your young children to church and not wanting the exhaustion that accompanies it: physical (taking them out of the pew when they cannot contain themselves), emotional (wondering how many looks or comments you will get about said lack of containment), spiritual (desiring to be able to hear the readings and enter into interior silence while coping with the containment).
For those who love children as their nieces, nephews, friend’s kids, and godchildren who have witnessed said containment exercises, thanks for your sympathies and patience. For those who think children should only (or mostly) be in the cry room or left at home, I’m sorry to inform you that you are simply wrong.
Here’s where the controversy about children’s volume and movement at a sacred place really comes to a head: when and where and why.
The first question is subjective. When does a child’s behavior warrant leaving the pew during the Mass? And the second question is locationally specific. Where is it appropriate to relocate with a child who is struggling? The third question is the most universal. Why do children belong at Mass, and why should they be included, not in a “children’s liturgy” or relegated strictly to the cry room, but in witnessing the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
To hone in on these particulars merits examining the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the USCCB’s statement on “Let the Children Come: The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Children,” and Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Children.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church § 2223, we are taught that it is parents who are the primary educators of their children, including discipline, instruction in prayer, even to “teach their children to subordinate the ‘material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.’” Parents need to determine if their child is crying, shouting, hitting a sibling, or ripping their mother’s earrings out at too high a volume and for too long of a duration to stick around the pew. The duration of disruption depends on the child’s age, ability to get the hint about violence in the pew, and where they’re seated at church. Front row versus back row, lasting ten seconds or two minutes, etc. It’s up to the parents to use their best judgment without outsider glares, comments, or criticisms.
In a directive on confession and children, the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops addresses beautifully Jesus’ love for children, his desire to bless them, and his concern for their spiritual development. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, when his disciples tried to stop people from bringing children to Jesus to be blessed, he said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt. 19:14). Blessings and spiritual development are available to babies, small children, and older children in the context of the Mass. If children are constantly taken out and kept out of Mass, how can they just show up for First Confession or First Holy Communion and be expected to have any context for what Jesus’ death, resurrection, and mercy mean for them? Stepping out to calm a child down or correct them and then returning to the pew (rinse repeat) shows them (over time) how to enter into prayer at Mass. Relegating a nursing mom to the cry room or bathroom or an overstimulated child to the basement sends the message that they do not belong.
But most importantly, why should children be at Mass in the first place? Do they belong? Shouldn’t they just show up when they’re older or can be still and quiet? Pope Saint John Paul II reminded children that they are important when he wrote in his Letter to Children:
Jesus and his Mother often choose children and give them important tasks for the life of the Church and of humanity. I have named only a few who are known everywhere, but how many others there are who are less widely known! The Redeemer of humanity seems to share with them his concern for others: for parents, for other boys and girls. He eagerly awaits their prayers. What enormous power the prayer of children has! This becomes a model for grown-ups themselves: praying with simple and complete trust means praying as children pray.
Now if you’re thinking, JPII, you haven’t seen how wild the kids are at my parish! “Praying as they pray” would look like ripping pages out of the hymnal and dumping Cheerios everywhere! (Were you watching my kid at Mass?) I’m not advocating for some zoo-circus free-for-all approach where anything goes. But if we discourage parents with small children and/or neuro-diverse children from coming because their children don’t matter or disrupt us “too much,” we’re committing a three-fold robbery.
We rob the congregation of an opportunity to grow in patience and charity. We rob the parents and children of the opportunity to worship, however fractured that worship looks. And most keenly, we rob Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of the joy of gazing upon the parents and children alike from the Blessed Sacrament. He longs to see us and be seen by us in the Eucharist.
If a situation is repeatedly troubling you, instead of offering unsolicited questions or corrections to the family, talk to your pastor. If you feel unwelcome because of your child’s special needs, talk to your pastor. If you’re about to throw in the towel and stop bringing your child to Mass, talk to your pastor.
My request is simple: instead of fighting over whether or not children should be in the pew, in the basement, or even in the building, could we all pray for a deeper conversion of our own hearts to believe Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament? Could we pray that our own hearts desire him more? Could we pray that our pastors have the prudence necessary to help families and disturbed congregants alike?
I’m praying for you; please pray for me.