A Seemingly Impossible Task
Parenting young children at Mass seems like an undoable task. How can they be expected to be still and silent for an hour or more? Should I take turns with my spouse and do Mass in shifts? Will the other parishioners be upset that my child is making a bunch of noise?
Let’s set aside all of those questions for a moment and look at the facts. Children are a beautiful blessing to parents, but they are also a beautiful blessing to the Church. If the Church isn’t crying, it is dying. There are those who say that children, or babies, do not belong in Mass, that it is time for adults to quiet before God. But this is the wrong approach.
If the Church is Not Crying, It is Dying
Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, in his latest encyclical Complete My Joy wrote this, “You, Mom and Dad, have the God-given gift and responsibility of exercising authority in service of your children (Complete My Joy, 42).”
He goes on to say very strongly and beautifully: “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 (Complete My Joy, 81).”
Children belong with you, as a family, in Holy Mass.
So, we know the ideal. And we know that children belong in Mass. But how do we actually accomplish this. The list below is a guide to help you, assembled from the best practices from various sources. I pray that it is helpful for you.
Young children do not have a Eucharistic fast to worry about. So, it is best to feed them before arriving at Mass. Make sure that they can make it through without rumbly tummies.
For mothers who are breastfeeding and are uncomfortable doing so in a pew under a cover, confessionals tend to be a great option for privacy if they are not in use during the liturgy.
Children thrive on regularity and schedule. They also have certain items that they associate with certain actions. It is a good idea to dress children in special clothes that are only for church. These should be nicer than normal clothing, but make sure that it is still comfortable.
It is also a good idea to have a special bag that is just for Mass. You can put a small toy or book that is only for Sunday Mass, made of soft, quiet material. Parents differ as to whether or not snacks are a good idea at Mass. If you opt-in for this, you can bring a tidy snack like cheerios or fruit snacks controlled by an adult.
If your children are still in diapers, put a fresh diaper on them either right before you leave your home or as soon as you arrive at the church. If your children are potty-trained, then have them use the restroom, or at least try, when you arrive at the church.
Remind your child that they are about to go to Mass and it is important to be still and quiet. This is an expectation and probably will not be a reality every time. Nonetheless, remain patient and steadfast in your approach.
The expectations should be simple. For example, stay in the pew, use a quiet voice, and no banging. Remind them the day before, the night before, the morning of, in the car, and in the pew.
Staying in the pew means they can stand on the ground, on the kneeler, or on the pew, if they are one year old. Before two, quiet voice means asking quiet questions. After two, the goal is no talking. No banging on the kneelers or on the pews or the books.
This is not just another activity or a ballgame. Your child should know that the situation is different just from watching you and your body language. You set the tone. If you are calm and focused, despite the craziness of children, they will stand a better chance of getting the message.
You may be thinking, “there is no stinkin’ way that I’m sitting up front with my one-year-old.” And I get it. It seems very counter-intuitive. But the vast majority of sources on the matter suggest sitting up front. Children are able to see what is going on and will be much more likely to stay occupied if they can see. You can even quietly whisper to your child, as you hold them, telling them what is going on during Mass.
If you have a spouse or older child who can help you, then use the help. Take turns with who is holding the child. By holding your child, you have a bit more control over their attention. You can point things out to them or try to turn their attention somewhere else. If you need to, you can play a quiet game of point to the cross, candles, altar, etc. Going to Mass with small children is not easy; it will be work. But, it is Catholic parenting.
If your child is making a little noise, then do not worry about it. Do not be self-conscious. It will be okay. Your fellow parishioners will be forgiving, and if they are not… that is really their problem, not yours.
Now, if your child is making continual noise, it does need to be addressed. You can go to the entranceway of the church or even outside if your child is making continual noise, but try to get back in and soon as possible.
If you leave the nave of the church, do not put your child down to play or they will learn that they can get away with this. Leaving and coming back a few times is less disruptive than a crying baby. Don’t be self-conscious though! Children belong in Mass.
You are the primary catechist of your child. You are the best chance for your child to learn and assimilate the Faith. This does not happen through osmosis. It is an active process. The more your child knows about the Mass, the more they will be able to participate and enter into it.
Let your very young children ask questions in their quiet voice (even if it’s not so quiet). If it is the middle of consecration and you need to, you can say, “We are praying now, but ask me again after Mass.”
Make sure to also talk about the readings afterward and throughout the week. Connect back to the Mass in the car. Let your children know throughout the week that Mass is the most important thing you do all day. Also, make sure to reinforce good behavior by praising good behavior after Mass.
These strategies are meant to be a help to you, and I hope that they are. Even if they do not work right away, remember to be patient. Behaviors are formed over time and require perseverance and work, on your part and your child’s part. Don’t lose hope.
God wants your child at Mass. In the end, we have to remember: God loves your child infinitely more than you do. And He loves you more than you know. So, He wants you to succeed. Pray and keep trying. Patience and perseverance will win the day.
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