Suffering the Little Children

The Pastor of The Church of the Nativity, here in the Baltimore area, takes this Sunday’s reading from Nehemiah as an opportunity to offer some thoughts on the presence of small children in church, noting that it was only “those children old enough to understand” who were present when Ezra read out the book of the Law to the people, and seeing this as a biblical precedent for the view that children too young to understand the readings or receive communion (and who might possibly be distracting to adults, including the homilist) are best not included in the liturgical assembly.

Elizabeth Anscombe, one of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th century and mother of seven, had some rather different thoughts on this matter. I have my own thoughts on this as well, but simply put this out there for PrayTell readers to weigh in on.

27 comments

  1. I trust I will not be too simple. We are a pro-life church. When we advocate for the unborn, we can also remember to praise the parents for their children.
    It is easy to enjoy the young among us and it’s our duty to thank the parents for bringing their children to the faith. The result of pro-life decisions should not be called distractions.
    I think a nursery during the liturgy is a very rich support that some churches can provide. However, it is merely an option. Parents need every bit of praise and help we can offer to support them as they teach the faith to their little ones.

    1. Practical accomodation should be offered to parents who decide that the little nipper needs to be turned loose to run off restless energy — an adjacent narthex or hallway into which audio of the celebration is piped.
      But surely the key point for the rest of us to bear in mind — including self-absorbed homilists — is that squalling infants sound to us just like we sound to God.

  2. My Bishop, in his most recent Apostolic Exortation on the family, expressed how I feel about it:

    “81. Your domestic church, as you continue to grow, educates your children powerfully. This begins when families introduce their young children to Jesus in the Eucharist. I want to especially encourage you to bring your young children to Mass. Your presence is wanted and needed among us in the family of the Church. While the squirming or crying of children may seem bothersome, these certainly do not block your reception of God’s grace. “If the Church is not crying, it is dying.” Present at Mass during these early years, your children are learning the rhythm of relationship with the Lord and His Church.” – +Thomas J. Olmsted, 2019

    The document can be read in its entirety here:
    https://family.dphx.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018-Complete-My-Joy-Apostolic-Exhortation-English.pdf

  3. I work at a parish that has experienced growth of late… most who join are young families moving into the area. They often choose this parish because their experience of it is that it is a very family/children oriented place. Honestly – as the person who does some of the first welcoming, hearing this frequently feels like a tremendous grace! We have a family who have been here awhile now, maybe 8 years? They joined because they felt truly welcomed along with their severely disabled child who made some noise periodically.

    As my pastor has often said during mass, and was noted in another comment – the cries, that is what we sound like to God.

  4. Listening to the reading this weekend, I was struck by the description of the assembly. If all the people, the men and the women alike, were there, who was home with the children too young to understand? I had visions of houses with infants abandoned in cradles and toddlers wandering the streets. Since that is patently ridiculous, if all the women were there, so were all the children. Perhaps the meaning to be wrung from this passage isn’t that we shouldn’t bring children into the church until they are old enough to understand, but that they are old enough to grasp out for and onto God from the very start. For are we not to love and worship God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. Frankly, it’s more than any of us can understand.

  5. I am going to take what is obviously an unpopular stand here and say that, in this instance, I completely agree with the pastor of the Church of the Nativity.

    This comes from my experience. I and my siblings were never taken to church until we were old enough to participate. And participate we did when we finally went, which was considered something wonderful — we were proud to go when we were old enough to go. I never had the experience of being bored at church. There was so much to do! Singing, saying the prayers, kneeling and standing and sitting, making the responses, all in concert with everybody else. All of us continue to go to church every Sunday and more, and we have been very involved — for life.

    My point is this: Absolutely nothing was lost by keeping us home at an early age. No loss of faith in the real presence, no lack of interest in God or church. In fact, the reverse. And something was gained for my mother in the process, because she did not have to supervise us the whole time but could pray and attend to her own experience of the Mass — a unique blessing.

    I am uncomfortable with Mrs. Anscombe’s suggestion that we should be explaining the liturgy to children during the Mass the whole time, and especially at the consecration. This interrupts the wonder and contemplation that naturally occurs. It would have killed my interest to have somebody tell me “look, Jesus is now present!” Good heavens. Catechesis should happen before or after the liturgy, istm; the liturgy is liturgy.

    1. While I cannot evaluate Miss Anscombe’s parenting practices (she and her husband raised seven children), I can note that she did not propose “explaining the liturgy to children during the Mass the whole time, and especially at the consecration”; what she wrote in the piece Fritz gave us was “If the person who takes a young child to mass always does this (not otherwise troubling it), the child thereby learns a great deal.” “[N]ot otherwise troubling it” is a significant limitation.

    2. I was going to tell my own story that mirrored Rita’s. When I asked my mom how I behaved as a toddler in church, she said that until my 2 older siblings and I were about 5 years old, my parents largely went to Mass separately, so the other parent could stay home with the youngens. Certainly an option in the 70s in rural Minnesota when a town of 1000 still had its own priest with 3 Masses. My parents had to make a decision that worked best for them.

      The challenge for parish ministers is to support the parents however they can, in a space that’s welcoming as possible, with an assembly that’s as welcoming as possible. If it’s welcoming a family with everyone in tow (even if it means showing up late every Sunday)? Great! If it’s only welcoming a portion of a family on a portion of Sunday? Great!

      I’d like to think I turned out all right. I’ll let others be the judge of that.

  6. You get into a theological problem if you keep the rug rats and curtain climbers out of church. The Catechism says Baptism incorporates us into the Church and makes us sharers in her mission. Once they are in, istm, they have as much right to be there as we do.

    1. “Baptism incorporates us into the Church and makes us sharers in her mission.”

      Then why are they excommunicated till they are 7 or so?

  7. We stole an idea from a neighboring parish and put a couple of rocking chairs at the back of church with signs saying they were for parents of fidgety children. We ended up with some grateful parents and a pretty clear sign that children are always welcome.

  8. Where there are several masses it is generally possible to avoid small children.
    In my experience children are taken out if they are seriously distracting, but we do have a box of Bible story books for children that parents are welcome to use.
    Personally, the only time I find it difficult is when parents with noisy children bring them to sit by we musicians to distract them – we sit in the body of the church, among the congregation, and our mikes can amplify kiddy noises through the PA. A quiet explanation of the problem after Mass is enough to ensure it isn’t repeated.

  9. I read this, and then for some reason a thought came to mind: I wonder what Amy Welborn would think and if she’s commented on it?

    And indeed, she has today, in her incisive way – which is not to say all would necessarily agree, but that one can profit from considering her takes, as it were. Some readers may wish to see what she has to say. I will post a link in a reply to this.

  10. This post and its comments seem to imagine two scenarios: incorporating young children into the assembly or sending them to a separate children’s ministry while their parents and older siblings attend Mass. If your parish policy is the former, I assure you that many young families will exercise a third option: not attending Mass at all for a few years while their children are young, or perhaps many years while they have successive young children in the house. Pious thoughts about the church “crying or dying” will not prevent many of your parishioners from staying away or attending a different church that offers a nursery and engaging children’s ministries on Sunday. If you want to attract and retain people from the margins of church membership, perhaps it’s not helpful to seek the advice of “one of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th century” who brings a completely different perspective than that of the target demographic.

    1. Actually, one of my difficulties of the whole Rebuilt program is the notion of “target demographic.”

      Also, at Nativity as I have experienced it, parents who have not put their children into one of the children’s programs (which you must sign up for in advance) are (politely) encouraged/invited/told via pre-Mass video announcement to stay with them out in the atrium and watch on video feed. This is, please note, before the child has made a peep.

      1. Point taken, but if you replace “target demographic” with “the group of unengaged Catholics they are trying to reach” my point still stands. Nativity has succeeded at converting thousands of lukewarm C&E Catholics into actively engaged, committed disciples. That is their “target demographic” or their mission field. You or I or this Catholic philosopher you mention lack the perspective of the un-churched or de-churched, and we can all benefit from seeking out their perspective. Perhaps this or that aspect of the Nativity approach is questionable, but let’s not overlook their tremendous growth in an area where steady decline is the norm.

      2. Anscombe converted to Catholicism as a teenager, so she certainly had the perspective of the unchurched, though it is true there was certainly nothing “typical” about her (later in life she smoked cigars and wore a monocle). But I find in the Rebuilt literature a lot of assumptions about the “typical” unchurched person (e.g. that traditional Catholic language or practices are off-putting to them). Perhaps I am reading too much in here, but I feel like the message put out is “if you are weird or eccentric or have noisy, ill-behaved children, please try somewhere else.” I guess there is no arguing with success, and Nativity is a resounding success by many measures, but I worry that those measures are not the ones operative in the parable of the lost sheep.

    2. I suspect I’ve made a similar comment here before, but I was surprised to find our family considering your third option. I’m a mom of three active boys, and I’m a pediatrician, which means I get to interact with a variety of temperaments and energy levels. We often hear that crying babies are welcome, and that we should help families to feel welcome. But the reality is that once our boys started walking, they would scream if we tried to hold them in place. If we left the sanctuary because they were screaming, they got their way and we helped them learn that making noise got them out of mass. From about 9 months old until 5 years old, it felt like we lost either way. Yet parish leaders kept saying that their presence will help them grow in their faith. And if it was miserable for the parents, then we were told to offer up our suffering to God because the struggle of holding squirming children was making us stronger in our faith. I honesty think parishes like ours self-select for families with quiet and calm temperaments. Those with active children leave and go to churches with nurseries and liturgy of the word for part of the service.

      I used to think that the deeply ingrained Catholic culture of struggling with children at mass worked. That some day, the beauty of the liturgy and our faith would dawn on our kids. Unfortunately, I feel like it hasn’t worked for two of our three. By four years old, our oldest said that he didn’t want to pray to God, because God only loved children who were quiet at mass (this was hardly our intention, but he picked up on nonverbals from others). He was always happy to go to church services with friends, but hated Catholic services. In talking with others, I know we’re not the only family who has experienced this.

      1. Re: “We were told to offer up our suffering to God because the struggle of holding squirming children was making us stronger in our faith.”

        “Woe also to you scholars of the [liturgy]! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.”

    3. “If you want to attract and retain people from the margins of church membership, perhaps it’s not helpful to seek the advice of “one of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th century” who brings a completely different perspective than that of the target demographic.”

      I’d add that many things I’ve heard on bringing children to mass includes an expectation that a mother and father will be there. With so many children being raised by single parents, I wonder about how hospitable we seem when we expect a single parent to manage 2-3 young children on their own?

      1. I should add to my comment above that I think it is great for parishes to provide childcare for parents of small children who want it, or for a parent to leave small children at home with the parents going to Mass in shifts. There are all sorts of families/kids and different people need to find what works for them. But I think that one of the options that should be available in every parish is keeping your kids in church with you without feeling like their presence there is disturbing to people.

    4. Fritz – I agree completely. The more I thought about the blog post and the response, the more I was bothered that so many in church leadership seem to see a one size fits all, when in fact family life is more nuanced. Some children are happy to color quietly in the pews. Some love the bells and smells. Some do better with more activity and noise that they’d find in the nursery. Some hate being separated from their parents and are willing to be quiet in order to stay with them in the sanctuary. There are all types of children.

      I struggle when I hear about the “good Catholic family” who can sit still and quietly, even with six children in tow. It’s hard to hear that they are good because the 2 and 4 year olds are happy to color quietly, and to have them held up as the model for all children. Particularly after this past weekend’s reading from Paul about being different parts of the same body. I wish this nuanced model was held up more than the black and white model of faithful Catholic children.

  11. Fr. White says “There is something in Catholic Church culture that insists kids belong in the sanctuary for Mass.” I’m not sure why he thinks this is a bad thing. Little children at mass is a sign that they (and their parents) want to be close to Christ in a way that being behind a livestream screen won’t satisfy. The mass is for everyone. This isn’t to say that some parents couldn’t watch over their squirrelly toddlers better, but my experience is that most parents have good judgment when deciding to take a break in the narthex with their toddlers. In any case, congregants and parish staff should be patient with young families and see them as gift to their local parish. A parish without children is a parish that is doomed.

    In my experience young families are best served with options. My own parish has two cry-rooms connected to the sanctuary, in addition to a spacious narthex. We also have a nursery and children’s Liturgy of the Word during our two most-attended Sunday masses (out of five every weekend). Nevertheless, many parents still attend mass with their little ones in the main sanctuary. I served a mass once and a runaway toddler even came up to me and started tugging on my cassock. I kindly led him back to his embarrassed mother and gave her a smile letting her know it was no problem; it was the cutest thing ever and took nothing away from the mass. Personally, I don’t know if I’d stay at any parish that discouraged me (pre-mass video or otherwise) from attending mass with my young children. The Lord said “let the children come to me.” We ought to follow in his example.

  12. What was striking to me was that how different a man and woman can see an issue differently. I don’t want to reduce either writer’s valid points to gender but it does reinforce for me how critical it is that the wisdom of our female leaders is included in our faith tradition. (What a pity I can’t bold and underline ‘leaders’!)

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