“The most beautiful choir is the choir of [crying] children…”

News.va reports on Pope Francis’s homily for Baptism of the Lord, at which he baptized 32 children:

“Today the choir sings,” he said, “but the most beautiful choir is [the choir] of children” making noise. He continued, “Some are crying, because they are uncomfortable, or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, give them something to eat… they are the central figures…”

Choir directors and liturgists and celebrants out there, do you all agree that crying children are the most beautiful choir??



    1. @Barry Hudock – comment #1:

      Barry Hudock – that caught my attention, too. I suspect there are some Catholic parishes in the US whose policy would be to not baptize such a child until the parents’ marriage is regularized.

      1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #6:
        Jim, it would be interesting to know how common it is. I’m not aware of it happening much. I suspect in most cases, parishes are just happy to have the parents interested enough to bring their child for baptism, regardless of whether they are married or not. In our parish, I’ve noticed that when they announce baptisms, they say the full name of the child and the first names of the parents; I’m pretty sure that’s in the interest of not drawing attention to the fact of sometimes different last names of parents. (Here in rural Minnesota, it’s unlikely that different last names would be because a woman chose to keep her own last name upon marriage.)

        I think that detail about the papal baptisms caught my eye not so much because it goes against common policy in the US, but because it’s a Vatican acknowledgement of one of several significant pastoral realities that most western parishes face on a regular basis that are outside the “ideal” family situation.

      2. @Barry Hudock – comment #14:

        “Jim, it would be interesting to know how common it is. I’m not aware of it happening much.”

        Right – I’m not sure how we would know for certain. I’ve never heard of it happening in my diocese (Chicago) but have heard anecdotes from other dioceses. It depends on how Canon 868.1.2 would get interpreted by the pastor and/or the diocese, e.g. if the pastor concludes that the irregular situation with the parents means that there isn’t a “founded hope” that the child would be raised as a Catholic. (My own approach is, “when in doubt, baptize the baby”.)

  1. I have a cousin who attends one of the large evangelical churches here in town. It’s interesting that while they are renowned for their children’s ministries, they have a very clear policy that crying children should be taken out to the lobby or one of the various nurseries. They even announce this before the service begins. If a child starts crying or being disruptive, an usher will quickly move in to invite them to step outside the sanctuary.

    They practice a model of differentiated worship–children 0-2 go to this room, 3-5 go to that room, etc. on up through high school. Not that numbers prove anything, but they have a weekly attendance in the thousands and are rapidly growing.

  2. There are certainly some Catholic parishes that put a big emphasis on stuffing kids in the cry room. Interestingly, in my experience anyway, these parishes also put a big emphasis on Humane Vitae — or at least a certain portion of it.

  3. Matthew 21:12-17 comes to mind:

    Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
    “My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.’

    The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
    “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself”?’
    He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

  4. Having once been thrown out of a parish church for a child too noisy *before Mass* (an ironic side note: said child is now known as the most stealth of altar servers), he was opening and closing a book with too much gusto. The church wasn’t silent, there was a chatting cantor and organist up front, but we were firmly ushered out. I’m told an older couple complained (not to me). No cry room, so out meant home and no Eucharist for me.

    A good balance is helping parents know where to go when a child is too fussy or too noisy and helping parishioners know to expect some stirrings from small ones if you want them to learn how to behave at Mass.

    As a cantor, I don’t mind the little one singing Alleluia after I’ve stopped, or the fussy little one who just can’t quite hang on until after Communion. I wince when I hear the characteristic “thump” of an overbalanced toddler head hitting the pew, and pray for the parent dashing out the back door hoping to get there before the first scream.

    And one measure of an effective liturgy is that is captures the attention of even the very young.

    1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #7:
      Well said.

      In my experience, parents with young children in hand who visit a new parish are quite attentive to how their family — their *whole* family — is received. As one who preaches and presides in a variety of parishes as a guest, I too am attentive to this dynamic.

      In some parishes, especially those with more traditional approach to worship, a crying child might cause older members look at one another and shake their heads in disapproval, as if to say “Can’t those parents control their children? If I’d done that as a kid, my mother would have had me out of the sanctuary before the second cry.” The younger parents see this reaction, and get the message: children are to be seen and not heard — and more often than not, those families who are visiting are not seen again.

      In other parishes, the older members respond to a child’s cry with the loving smile of a grandparent. More than once, I’ve had an older member say something like “It’s so great to hear a noisy kid. It’s a sign that the church isn’t going to die when us old folks do.”

      For my part, I make it clear to parents of young children that I personally am not bothered by a crying child, whether it happens during a hymn, my sermon, a reading, or at some other point in the liturgy. They do, however, need to be attentive to the needs of the people sitting near them. A single outburst is generally not a problem, but a kid who is noisy throughout the entire homily or a full choir anthem is something else.

      As a presider, I have found that trying to pretend the outburst has not happened is not helpful. Instead, I’ll usually pause to let it pass, and perhaps make a small remark to acknowledge the break and get back on track.

      Similarly, it makes little sense to try to integrate extended periods of silence into a regular Sunday liturgy where young children are present. An ordinary parish is not a monastic community, and expecting the same approach to silence is…

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #8:
        “Similarly, it makes little sense to try to integrate extended periods of silence into a regular Sunday liturgy where young children are present. An ordinary parish is not a monastic community, and expecting the same approach to silence is…”

        I have a different take on this. As John Cage (in)famously pointed out, if “silence” is defined as the total absence of sound, then there is no such thing in human experience. There is *always* sound. The “silence” a community with children produces will never be like that of a monastic community, but it will still contrast with the other, more sound-filled moments of the liturgy. It’s that contrast which matters, and I think it’s worth doing.

      2. @Christian McConnell – comment #11:

        My parish is 20 feet away from a train line, no silence is ever guaranteed to be THAT silent.

        We maintain a period of silence after each reading, after communion, and after the homily. Yes, there are stirrings, but even the toddlers can generally manage to maintain. Formation is a gradual process, ideally it should happen in the setting of the liturgy and we need to acknowledge that.

  5. With small children it may be easier to opt for a said low Mass which will not last too long. I used to be very aggravated by noisy children at Mass, until one 4 month old died a cot death. (SIDS) Since then I always remember Sam and thank God that this hollering child at least is ALIVE. My recollection and state of prayer is not so special that it is beyond distraction.

    And not all choirs do sound or look as though they are alive.

  6. I come at this discussion as a pediatrician and mom of active 5 and 3yo boys. Our boys can’t sit still for 60min of a children’s movie, which makes a 90min mass (full of many silent moments) virtually impossible. We’ve been attending mass nearly all Sundays since the boys were born, and we always sit in the front. The reality is that some children have a very difficult time sitting still. Our pastor’s philosphy is mixed — he has commented that sitting still for one hour a week shouldn’t be too hard, but has also said that our congregation should be patient with young children. At least half of the congregants are patient, but we get at least a few glares of “we wouldn’t have gotten away with that behavior in my day.”

    Children differ in terms of their behavior. Many families don’t come back after baptisms because they feel unwelcomed. Based on the Catholic families in my peds practice, the more active and vocal kids are staying home. Among friends, many tend to leave their more active children at home, bringing along the children who can sit still and color or read during mass.

    The problem is that these negative experiences turn children away from church and faith. Our son says Sundays are his least favorite day because they involve church. He seems to think faith is reserved for those who can sit still and be quiet. The children praised at mass are those who are quiet and sit still. He has actually said “why do you make me do? they don’t want me there. They don’t even want me in the communion line (with the rule to no longer bless children).” This is turning him away from prayer at home, as he’s starting to equate Christianity with silence and sitting still. Each Sunday morning involves a tantrum and carrying him to the car, despite his dislike of going to Church. If mine were the only experience, I wouldn’t complain. As a pediatrician, I hear this from parents all the time. It’s easy to say families don’t go to church because it’s not a priority. It’s important for us…

    1. @Melissa Maykuth – comment #18:
      A very good observation, thank you for sharing. While I understand all of the liturgical reasons against it, I am interested in the model of differentiated worship for young children, i.e. ages 0-2 go to this room, ages 3-5 go to that room, etc., while the older children and adults attend Mass. There is no obligation to attend Mass for children before their First Communion. Would the children not be better served by ministerial programs, even para-liturgical programs, designed for their age and developmental maturity? A bible story, a craft, and a game may do more to foster their faith and positive experience of church than being forced to sit still under threat of punishment. Plus it would greatly help families with younger children to attend Mass regularly, rather than everyone staying home because of a toddler who can’t sit still.

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #25:

        I couildn’t agree more with you. When we have these conversations, it tends to turn into “I don’t mind babbling babies, etc” (and that’s what Pope Francis’s comment was about too). I’m more concerned about Catholic culture that expects three year olds to sit still for 90 minutes, when those kids can’t even sit still for a fast moving children’s movie. All the time, I hear “they’re such a good Catholic family — look how well-behaved they’re children are.”

        Active children are smart, and sense when they aren’t welcome. It’s not appropriate for them to be disruptive, but the alternatives aren’t great — take them out of the sanctuary (rewarding their behavior in their minds), spanking (I can’t support spanking to encourage good church behavior), or taking away rewards like treats after church.

        I’m concerned that this culture has further repercussions. Active children think they aren’t welcome and leave the church when able to make that decision, single parents don’t feel welcome because one parent can’t control the behavior of 2-3 children on their own, and parents of noisy/active children with disabilities don’t feel welcome. A lovely family is joining our church after years of active involvement in their protestant church — the mom’s comment was “The Catholic church sure manages to make moms feel bad and make children feel unwelcome.”

  7. I love celebrating funeral masses in the Latino community. There is always the cry of a child, or some child breaks free and runs in the isle. It’s a sign of life in the midst of pain and loss. I sometimes comment on this with gratitude. Usually people smile and seem more relaxed. Welcome the children.

  8. In our baptism prep sessions, we encourage young couples to bring their children to mass. Our parish does have a crying room, which I rather regret as a number of young families seem to feel obligated to go there. (When my own children were young, we utilized it on occasion, but it was sort of a house of horrors, from a worship point of view). Our message is that young families are welcome and that the parishioners will make them feel very welcome in the pews – we have a lot of the grandparent types that Peter Rehwaldt mentioned above. This is all part of a larger discussion in which we encourage young parents to think about concrete things they can do to integrate faith and spirituality into their family life.

    FWIW – there is a sort of mini-controversy going on around here: a family brought a baby to a (very expensive) fine dining establishment, and the child cried the whole time, apparently disrupting the experience of everyone else. The chef/owner apparently is now considering banning children. Parents do need to manage their children’s behavior in public and, as age-appropriate, train them in proper public behavior, whether it is in a restaurant or at church.


    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #22:
      When I was stationed in Germany, I learned that it was considered inappropriate to bring children to eat in anything more upscale than McDonalds. But it was perfectly fine to bring your (well-behaved) dog, even to fine restaurants.

      The on-base chapel, and churches in town, pretty well frowned on Fido.

  9. While presiding once and while ago, a toddler in the fifth or sixth row was becoming more and more boisterous, finally Dad scooped him up to take him out of church, and as he strode down the aisle the little boy cried out “PRAY FOR ME” . Loved it.

  10. Choir directors and liturgists and celebrants out there, do you all agree that crying children are the most beautiful choir??

    Only if their screams don’t move in parallel fifths. 🙂

  11. About fussy tiny ones. I find that playing peep-eye with them will help keep them quiet. Sometime I think they just want to know that their presence is noticed and welcome. Like the rest of us.

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