No, I didn’t deliver scarily early. That’s a picture of James at his baptism—was it really nearly three years ago now? Time flies, but I digress.
I recently witnessed an exchange of (somewhat heated) thoughts over the idea of children in church. The vehemence, passion, and conviction that volleyed about as this topic was discussed really got me thinking. What does the Church say on this matter? What would Jesus say? And what do I think about it?
My experience with children in church has run the gamut. I have been to congregations where parents with young children have been asked even before entering the sanctuary to escort their children (and even teens!) to a separate “children’s church” or Sunday school class.
By contrast, my current pastor is fond of saying, “If I can’t hear at least one child cry during the Mass, I wonder what’s wrong!” In Father’s opinion, every parish should be packed with children. After all, as he says, “The future belongs to the fertile!”
There is something to be said for the solemnity many parishioners crave in worship, and especially during the sacred celebration of the Mass. There is a great deal to be said for respecting our elders (who did not grow up in our fast-passed, media-saturated, multi-tasking culture). We are all called as Christians, whatever our age, to honor each other, to respect each other, and to modify our behavior in such a way that we do not hinder the worship of the brother or sister beside us.
But what of the children? As baptized children of God, there is a place for them at the altar. Jesus insisted that his squabbling disciples let the little children come to Him, even going so far as to say that we must learn to be like those children if we wish to see Heaven!
So, Jesus wants the little children in His presence—He wants them in the Mass. More than that, He tells us we are to learn from their open, joyous, often irrepressible natures.
Yes, you say, but what about the noise? What about those children whose parents refuse to discipline them? That awful little boy who is always kicking my pew? Who pulls the kneeler down into my shins and never apologizes? Who pulls my hair with his Goldfish-encrusted fingers during the homily? Surely, Jesus doesn’t want us to imitate them!
Well, no, I would hope He wouldn’t want us to emulate that sort of childish behavior. After all, He calls us to be childlike not childish. I have a few points to make on this.
- Love each other. For whatever reason, you may find yourself seated near a fellow worshipper who disturbs your worship. It may be a tantrum-prone child. It might be an adult with severe mental retardation who cannot help drooling or making noises during the service. It may be an elderly man who insists on asking his wife to repeat the Gospel reading rather loudly into his ear. You may be frustrated by this behavior. But the answer is not to remove the people. The answer is to love them, as Jesus has loved us, despite all our weaknesses and all our short-comings.
The next time you are seated next to a frustrating parishioner, may I suggest that you say a prayer for them—and say a prayer for yourself, for God to increase His grace in you that you may love deeper, grow in patience, and be sanctified through this experience.
- Spare the rod, spoil the child. Whatever your views on corporal punishment and your personal interpretation of the Proverb, I think we can all be agreed that God intends us to discipline our children.
Now, we want worship to be a positive experience for our children. If they are constantly being ushered out into the hall for every minor misstep to be spanked or shamed, how long will it be before they loathe coming to church and come to view God as someone who demands compliance more than love?
I’m not saying that a child’s behavior during Mass never merits punishment. I’ve seen some pretty saucy behavior—occasionally even from my own children—in the pews. But, we should keep in mind that it is discipline we are called to administer, not necessarily punishment. We need to train our children in the view that worship is special and sacred, and that they have a part to play both in the worshipping and in helping to create the proper atmosphere for others to worship. Don’t be afraid to explain things to your children. A two-year-old can understand that “When you talk during service, other people have trouble hearing God” or “It’s time to listen to Father, now.”
- Intervene in love. It may be the case that you find yourself, one Sunday morning, sitting beside Dennis the Menace. The little holy terror snags your hair, throws his dinosaur at your head, pelts you with Cheerios—all without apology. Meanwhile, his father sits stone-faced, pretending not to notice, and his mother smiles indulgently, “Boys will be boys.”
There is no excuse for such behavior. And there is no need for you to sit idly by, being abused by this young menace. Instead, pray. Find love for the child and his parents. Then, at an appropriate moment, feel free to explain to the child that his behavior is unacceptable. Hopefully his parents won’t get their hackles up, but if they do, lovingly find a way to tell them that while you appreciate their family’s presence at Mass and the chance to worship with them, you are having trouble focusing on the Lord.
Should they still bristle, well, as the saying goes, “You can’t please everyone.”
But then, we’re not called to please everyone. We’re called to love everyone. And God first and most of all.