“Let the children be, do not keep them back from me; the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19-14)
Recently in these pages, I wrote about a local traditional Latin Mass parish and a modern parish renewal program called “Rebuilt,” which was developed by a suburban parish outside of Baltimore. I noted how the Rebuilt program, in its emphasis on attracting visitors from evangelical churches, places too great an emphasis on music and “messaging,” the latter being the term the program prefers for the homily.
In a blog post about one of the recent Mass readings, Fr. Michael White, the pastor behind the Rebuilt program, has nowabout one of the recent Mass readings, has opened himself up for a fair amount of criticism in Catholic corners of social media by explaining why he does not like to have little children at Mass. To a certain extent his explanation demonstrates my assertion above about his program’s priorities, such as when he compares the Mass to a college lecture. Of those who bring their young children to Mass, he writes:
I liken it to bringing a toddler to a lecture or presentation intended for adults, because there is information you want your kids to have. Nobody would ever do that, because it obviously wouldn’t work.… I cannot begin to tell you how incredibly difficult it is to try and preach over a crying baby.
The fact of the matter is that we need to be a Church that welcomes children instead of shuttling them off to separate programs. Of course, some young ones will act out, often at the worst possible moment of the Mass (which isn’t Fr. White’s preaching, but rather the moment of Consecration). When this happens, children can easily be taken to the vestibule or cry room temporarily if needed.
With regard to Fr. White’s assertions—and leaving aside his gross error in believing that little children get no graces from attending Mass—it is critical that two things be stated.
First, young children and their parents need to be a witness to the other adults in the pews and the sanctuary.
As Fr. White opens his remarks, he notes that this—the bringing of kids to church—seems to be a problem with Catholics in particular: “There is something in Catholic Church culture that insists kids belong in the sanctuary for Mass,” he says, oddly getting the part of the church building incorrect. “I must say I don’t totally understand it, but it is definitely a Catholic thing.”
Fr. White’s Rebuilt program focuses on removing what makes the Catholic church “experience” different from the evangelical alternatives he’s competing with. So much of it is modeled on what he sees as successful big-box evangelical outlets, down to the guitars on stage, the technology behind the screens, and the barista in the vestibule. For all its efforts to promote working with the local community, the Nativity parish website has no mention of the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
We need to focus, rather, on what does differentiate us. It’s not just the liturgy, but the teachings of the Church itself. An important part of this differentiation in today’s world is the importance of a stable Catholic family that welcomes children.
We all know the statistics. Families today are having fewer children, averaging about two, and fewer children are receiving the sacraments of initiation at an early age. Only a small percentage of Catholic children are receiving a formal Catholic education.
A small family with one or two children may be the “norm” nowadays, but it should not be the case, especially for the typical Catholic family—barring health issues, of course.
That’s why it must continue to be part of Catholic culture to have children at Mass, emphasize this differentiation, and let hesitant or resistant Catholics know it can and should still be done in this day and age.
Second, these young children need to witness, from an early age, adults—especially their parents—in acts of divine worship.
We never know how much our children are paying attention to the adults around them until they do something bad, or something wonderful. If we want our lessons to our children to stay with them, they need regular reinforcement. Praying together at church, at home, and elsewhere on a regular daily basis is critical for forming a strongly Catholic soul.
When our children were younger, I was always the doubtful one when my wife wanted to have us sit towards the front at Mass. She was right, of course. If they are tucked away in a back pew, all they will see is the back of the grown-up in front of them, as our granddaughter complained when we took them to Mass recently and ended up in a middle pew. Worse, if the children are at the playgroup free-for-all in a side room while Mom and Dad are at Mass, all they will see is the chaos of the other children. They need to see us adults, especially us parents, not just doing something good, but doing the best good we can as a human being, namely, worshipping God.
With Catholic numbers down and dropping for multiple reasons, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying anything to build attendance. But any program that does so must not negate the Catholic difference, whether in worship by turning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass into just another music-and-message moment, or in teachings that downplay the beauty of what our Church has always taught and what the world today still needs to learn.
At the heart of this the world must witness our love for children, as Our Lord himself so emphasized.