Children at Mass
Few things can exercise Catholic minds as much as decorum, or the perceived lack thereof, at Mass. This is, in itself, a good thing: it shows that the faithful regard Sunday Mass not only as a weekly obligation but also as a mystical encounter with God which demands proper reverence.
The latest round of correspondence on the subject in our Letters to the Editor column and comments on Facebook regarding children in church are a manifestation of that.
This current discussion was sparked by the recent letter of a mother who had an unhappy run-in with a fellow parishioner about the conduct of her children during Mass. Should children be in the main part of the church during Mass, even at the risk of distracting other congregants?
We cannot possibly judge the merits of this particular case without knowing both sides of the story, but it is good that the question of children at Mass has been raised.
Should children be in the main part of the church during Mass, even at the risk of distracting other congregants?
Many churches have made available “cry rooms” as a refuge for parents of infants and restless toddlers. For some parents these represent a good solution: their children can make a commotion without troubling others; and it saves parents the bother of trying to calm the child or receiving the reprimanding glances of fellow congregants.
But for some parents, the physical separation from the congregation and the altar can be a spiritual burden. Is it fair to ask them to bear it?
At the same time, is it fair to congregants to be distracted from their meditative engagement with the Mass by restive children? Addressing parents in a parish in Rome in December 2014, the pope described the tears of children as “the best sermon” (which should not tempt homilists to whine themselves).
There are no definitive “right” answers to these questions. But, it seems, Pope Francis sides with the children (and thus with their parents). Indeed, the Holy Father believes that the sound of a baby crying in church is edifying.
Addressing parents in a parish in Rome in December 2014, the pope described the tears of children as “the best sermon” (which should not tempt homilists to whine themselves). In this, Pope Francis — who takes obvious delight in it when children break protocol at papal Masses and take a seat next to him — emulates Jesus.
His advice is to simply let children be children, even at Mass: “Children cry, they are noisy, they don’t stop moving. But it really irritates me when I see a child crying in church and someone says they must go out. God’s voice is in a child’s tears: they must never be kicked out of church.”
In this, Pope Francis — who takes obvious delight in it when children break protocol at papal Masses and take a seat next to him — emulates Jesus.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke recall Jesus’ reaction when the disciples are trying to prevent children being presented to him.
“Then people brought little children to him, for him to lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples scolded them, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children alone, and do not stop them from coming to me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of Heaven belongs.’ Then he laid his hands on them and went on his way” (Mt 19:13-15). Those who feel distracted by children at Mass may offer their irritation up as a prayer of thanks for the occupied pew, and to ask that in these children the faith will blossom.
Practically minded people will delight in it that children and their parents, who usually are still relatively young people, are at Mass in the first place.
But there also is a responsibility that rests with the parents. Where possible, they might sit in an area of the church where the fewest numbers of congregants will be at risk of being distracted. Some things, such as feeding children sweets during Mass, for example, should be avoided.
And even in that regard, Pope Francis has strong views. While he would certainly agree that there is no necessity to feed older children during Mass, he has explicitly encouraged mothers to breastfeed their children, even during Mass.
In doing so, he has responded to a mostly Western stigma that is still attached to this most natural act of motherly love taking place in public (in many of our churches, it’s a normal sight). And in doing so, Pope Francis has indicated a preferential option for children at Mass.
Those who feel distracted by children at Mass — and at some point or other, that will include most Mass-goers — may offer their irritation up as a prayer of thanks for the occupied pew, and to ask that in these children the faith will blossom.