Not too long ago, I wrote an article for my parish newsletter about why we must offer encouragement — not sideways glances — to parents who bring their young children to Mass. Overall, the response was positive, but one reader sent me a letter suggesting I leave my kids at home so I could “more fully receive Christ.” It was charitable enough, but the point was clear: Children are sweet, but they don’t belong in church.
This wasn’t the first time (and I suspect it won’t be the last) I’ve been scolded for encouraging our children’s presence at Mass. Last summer I was pegged as a breastfeeding heretic after I wrote a column about nursing discreetly in church. What I foolishly assumed was an innocuous article about a mother’s love for her Church and her children resulted in a barrage of comments — some of them laced with vitriol directed not only at “immodest nursing mothers” but at children attending Mass in general. I discovered a litany of complaints about crying babies (who should exhibit more self control and not need to be fed during Mass), antsy toddlers, and young children’s “sin” of causing distraction.
These comments baffled me. So did the woman who recently shot nasty looks at my brood during Mass. I smiled at her when I caught her gaping, but she continued to scowl at my older children (four and two), who were doing nothing more than quietly flipping through religious books. (Just imagine the scandal if I’d dared to nurse my seven-week-old!)
Then there was the time we sat down next to a woman who caught sight of us and sighed loudly, glared at my two-year-old daughter, and snapped, “Just keep her quiet” — before the child had even uttered a peep.
At this point, you might think that I’m one of those overindulgent mothers who lets her little hellions scale the pews and leave a trail of crushed Cheerios in their wake. Not so. If my kids are being disruptive, we retreat, and I don’t permit noshing during Mass (nursing babies are an exception). However, I don’t consider an occasional happy squeal or my preschooler’s off-key singing as a reason to surrender.
If we are truly a pro-life people, then how can we not welcome children — the future of the Church — at Mass? What follows are five more reasons why I believe children of all ages belong in the pews right along with us.
1. Allowing kids to go AWOL from Mass undermines the parents’ duty to begin faith education in the child’s earliest years (Catechism 2226). Not only will it be a lot tougher to teach an older child who has rarely been to Mass to behave, leaving kids at home sends the message that Mass is not for children. Regular attendance at Mass is a must to help them recognize the sacredness of the Eucharist and to value their faith.
Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI urges parents to make Sunday Mass a family affair. “Parents are called to make their children discover the value and importance of the response to Christ’s invitation, who calls the whole Christian family to Sunday Mass,” the pope said to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square on June 13, 2005. Note he said the whole Christian family, not just those old enough to behave or to receive the Eucharist.
Jesus invites all of us to His table — and He extended a special invitation to children, saying, “Let the little children come to me.”
2. Bringing children to Mass helps nurture their inner life. Early lessons make lasting impressions, child development experts tell us. Good parents recognize the importance of nurturing their children physically and emotionally during their formative years. But if we fail to nurture their spiritual self as well, then we are not attending to the whole child. While we can teach about the Faith within the walls of our domestic church, being in the presence of Christ and those who love Him is what really awakens the spiritual self.
Moreover, you might be surprised by what a small child gets out of Mass. My four-year-old recently asked me if what I ate and drank was really the Body and Blood of Christ. Thankfully, before I had a chance to respond (I wasn’t quite prepared to start explaining), my daughter said, “It is. I know it is.” Where knowledge is lacking, wisdom often runs deep. Children too are capable of receiving God’s graces.
3. Regularly attending Mass helps children find their true home. While my children are constantly with me at this age, I know I won’t always be there to guide them. But God will never leave their side. Their real home is with God in His Church, but they will only learn to recognize it as home if I bring them to Mass from an early age. We cannot open the door to the Church at Baptism, only to slam it in their face until they’re deemed mature enough to be a part of the Body of Christ.
4. We are all one body.God longs for His whole family to gather around the table. In the breaking of the bread, we proclaim that we are one in God. Mass unites people from all walks of life and connects us with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is no room for intolerance at the table of the Lord.
5. Mass isn’t about me. It isn’t about you, either. Unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters, who often segregate the children from the adults to facilitate a more inspiring worship experience, Catholics go to Mass to give thanks and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Everything we do during the celebration is in remembrance of Him.
While it’s ideal to enjoy an uplifting and distraction-free Mass, we should be focusing on the fact that Jesus shed His Precious Blood for all of us — the nursing babies, the fidgety toddlers, the disabled, the young, the old, even the teenage girl with the low-cut top (who’s likely as much of a distraction as any whiny three-year-old).
We might wish it weren’t so, but the Body of Christ isn’t always a pretty sight. None of us is worthy to be in the presence of Christ, but He shows up anyway. Not only should we show up, too, but we should welcome everyone — young or old, big or small — who has come to the Lord’s Supper.