Before I was a mom, I experienced more than enough times where the parish priest would stop mass and glare at the parent of the rowdy or upset child until they took the child out. I was always so embarrassed for those poor, usually exhausted and defeated, souls who had all eyes on them as they climbed across their neighbors to get out as fast as they could. My heart always broke knowing that they now had one more reason to give in to the temptation to just stay home. It hurt to know that they felt unwelcome.
When our oldest daughter was about 8 months old, we attended mass at a parish close to home, but not our regular parish so we could say hello to a priest friend of my brother. We had forgotten Lillie’s binky. She was a total binky baby. We were in trouble. This was going to end badly. I scrounged through the overpacked diaper bag (with not one single rouge pacifier to be found) and came across a small baggy of cheerios. THANKS BE TO GOD! We had something to keep her remotely quiet. Mind you, this was only parenting ONE child. There were two of us and one of her. We still weren’t sure that we would survive the hour long service. Whew…we made it to the homily. I was mid cheerio insertion when the newly ordained priest proclaimed, “…children should hunger for The Eucharist as infants,” going on to explain that babies should never be fed in mass. Ummmmm…cue hot flashes and immediate perspiration. Needless to say, we made it a point to attend our registered parish and utilize the free childcare that was provided. Oh, and pray for that particular priest to settle down a bit.
Listen, I get it. Children can be distracting. Children can be loud. Children can be whiny. Children can… Come to think of it, adults can be distracting. Adults can be loud. Adults can be whiny…and so on. The bottom line is that we are all beloved daughters and sons of God. We are all His children. I am sure He has even heard my whining from time to time in my prayers.
Bringing your (small) children to Holy Mass can be really difficult. Let’s go ahead and sprinkle in some special needs to make things more interesting. Believe me, I know from experience. I have had children have full on meltdowns over where they were sitting, which I am sure is a normal thing. One child loses his mind when he doesn’t get to physically touch the collection basket as it goes by. The same child went through a really fun phase where he did not want to participate in the sign of peace. If anyone even looked in his direction, he would throw himself either into the aisle or under the pew. If someone attempted to touch him or give him any form of the sign of peace, forget it. There’s no coming back from that. The end of the world has arrived and he is going to make sure everyone is fully aware. And thanks to past trauma, we have a couple of munchkins who can become self injurious right there in the pew. We’ve done the “cry room” thing. We have taken them outside, praying that the parish had speakers to at least hear the mass. We have taken turns and gone to separate masses in hopes to actually hear the homily. Obviously, our situation is unusual. Based on the sheer number of children outnumbering the two of us, the cards are stacked against us, but God is so kind and loving, we have been able to figure out some things that work for our kiddos.
Church clothes are different than play clothes. Our daughters know that they have to be in a nice dress. Our sons know that they are to wear nice pants (no jeans), a collared shirt, and special (church only) shoes. I gave up on tucking in the shirt and wearing a belt when the belts became weapons. When we get home, they change out of their church clothing and get into something more comfortable to play in. Distinguishing the difference, even in clothing, was a game changer. They know that on Sunday morning, they are getting dressed up to go to something very special. They knew that it wasn’t time to be running around and getting rowdy. Think about what you would wear to play in a football game, or go to dance…you would dress differently according to what you are going to attend.
We used to bring toys to mass for the littles. This was fun until they figured out the game of throwing said toy at the gentleman in front of us or when you don’t realize that the toy made noise. Toys are for playing. We aren’t at mass to play. For our children, it needs to be black and white. There is no in between. Also, have you ever heard the sound of a small matchbox car on the (non-carpeted) floor during the Consecration? I have. It’s no joke.
A few weeks ago, a woman sitting behind us leaned forward and tapped (and not lightly) two of the littles on the shoulders and loudly whispered, “Can you boys keep it down, I am trying to pray to Jesus?!” The boys had just returned from a quick and quiet trip to the restroom because one had mouthed to me that he had to poop…and given his history of accidents, I allowed the out of the ordinary potty trip in the middle of mass. They genuflected reverently on exit and on return to the pew. I made eye contact and insisted that the boys were fine and to please not speak to them. She continued. “We paid a lot of money for that room in the back (the cry room) and that is where you need to be with your children.” I asked her if she meant, “…the room in the back for grumpy old ladies?” George, who’s expectations of the children at mass is very high, switched on the protector mode and sternly told the woman to not speak to us and leave us alone. She continued. He may have told her where to go. Yikes. Now shaking, I quietly asked the usher for help. The head usher offered to move her to another seat, which she quickly refused. The woman told him to move our family…all 17 of us instead. She explained she was going to “…have Father make an announcement about children.” I chuckled to myself when she said that because our associate pastor was presiding. This particular priest goes out of his way at every single mass to thank parents for bringing their children to mass. I was so upset that tears started to silently flow. I tried to stop them, but couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine what would make her feel the need to be so unkind. By this time, other parishioners in our section and the one next to us had noticed the commotion. Many shook their heads in disbelief. Several mouthed “I’m so sorry.” As I headed up to receive Holy Communion, the tears continued to roll down my cheeks and I hoped it wasn’t noticeable. It was. I knelt to pray, after receiving Jesus, I begged God to help me calm down. After the final blessing, Fr. A and Deacon B processed down the aisle stopping to fist bump the very boys that had been involved.
I shared our experience with a few people over the next week but didn’t plan to share publicly because it was done and over with. Honestly, I was so glad that it happened to us and not someone hanging on to their faith by a thread! I never expected anything to come from it other than some therapeutic venting.
The following weekend, I got a message from a friend who had listened to my lament. She explained that she had been to the vigil mass that Saturday evening and mentioned the prayers of the faithful being extremely ironic after the aforementioned incident. The next morning at church, I heard it…for the members of our community, that we would be supportive and welcoming to families with children joining us in prayer. Whether or not, our situation was the reason for the specific prayer, I may never know. I will say this…it was never more clear that this parish is our home.
As for the nameless woman, I have forgiven. I know there has to be a reason that she felt the need to be hurtful. Hurting people hurt others. I pray that she receives love and kindness from those she encounters…and of course, healing.
I struggled with whether or not I should share this encounter publicly. After reflecting on how the members of our community took it upon themselves to reach out and show love to me immediately after mass, and hearing the prayers of the faithful, I knew I needed to share the good news. I see you, single mom, trying to hold it together with three kids under three. I see you, first time parents, who are sweating, while trying to keep their hungry infant in silence. I see you, stressed out daddy with all of your children flying solo because your wife is in the hospital. More importantly, the parishioners of your parish see you…young and old…and they want you there. You are welcome. You are wanted. You are needed. Now stop sweating and realize that it gets better…just keep on keeping on. How can you get better at anything without consistent practice? I promise it will eventually, you will hear the homily and your children will too. If this is an epidemic at your parish…or even an isolated incident, consider suggesting something be said. When one member of the Body of Christ is missing from the table, it is not ok. Let us all take more time to be welcoming…to be inviting…to be patient…to be encouraging…to be kind…to be Christlike.
And just so we are crystal clear…here’s a tasty nugget to put in your pocket for the next time you encounter a young family at mass.
At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (MT 18: 2-6)
I picture that this is where Jesus would have just dropped the mic and walked away…but I like to think of how things would have gone down today.