When it comes to the problem of children crying at Mass, Catholics have a saying: “If it ain’t crying, it’s dying.” For those who think that there are too many children at church, they should consider the opposite problem: an aging congregation on the brink of death.
While the prospect of an elderly church without a future has always been a concern for most Christian communities since their very founding, much of this worry has curiously dissipated in the wake of Covid. No longer do pastors or priests care much about attracting families, nor are church committees looking for ways to appeal to younger generations.
Rather, most of the people leading churches have done their best to make church a place for the elderly and unattached, not the young. As such, the aesthetic, culture, messaging, and even behavior of the individual worshippers at most churches have now become explicitly anti-family and anti-youth.
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This becomes readily apparent as soon as one walks through the church doors. Immediately, he will encounter the pastel-colored felt banners, the childish artwork, and the overwhelming beige and white color scheme. Instead of being authentically wholesome and kid-friendly, it’s more the kind of decor that an older person would think is wholesome and kid-friendly. Actual young people consequently find these churches ugly and fake, better suited to a retirement home than the house of the Almighty God.
This, of course, is accompanied by the equally Boomer-inflected style of the music, where most of the hymns are reminiscent of the pop-folk hits of Cat Stevens, the cheesy pop of The Carpenters, or even some jazz numbers of Dave Brubeck (for reference, compare the hymn “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” to “Take Five”). Ironically, this becomes even more off-putting when churches incorporate Christian rock—now it just sounds like forgettable songs from U2 or Coldplay. Needless to say, an older crowd may enjoy swaying and clapping while millennial parents try to remind their little ones that Church is a serious place of worship.
Although many Christians have criticized the look and sound of today’s churches, it’s remarkable that none of this has really changed anything. If anything, leaders like Pope Francis and his fellow bishops have a nostalgic fondness for these kinds of churches, believing them to be more authentic and appealing to average people.
Inevitably, this banality makes its way into the pastor’s sermons and the community’s general values, which are geared ever more toward the tastes of older people and non-parents. Sermons in most churches tend to focus on the themes of forgiveness, inner peace, and staying positive—all of which might be on the mind of the lonely spinster who worries about Covid or the DINKWAD (dual income, no kid, with a dog) fretting over his next vacation. By contrast, few sermons ever touch on the need to sacrifice for others, temptations and vice, and the presence of evil in the world—all of which assail young parents trying to stay on the right path and guard their kids’ innocence.
Naturally, what follows are practicing Christians who don’t really want to “suffer the little children.” Whatever attempts a church might make to accommodate little children are immediately negated once families enter the nave and look for a place to sit. Without fail, single adults choose to sit at the edge of every pew, forcing a family to climb over them to find their seats. To make matters worse, those parents with a crying infant or a kid who needs to use the bathroom will now have to climb back out when leaving the pew.
And this is just the beginning. For the last two years, people have internalized the idiotic notion that kids are vectors of illness and somehow not deserving of any consideration from adults. This means facing many dirty looks from others (through face masks, of course) when a child acts up or makes a noise. It also means people refusing to greet you or shake your hand during the sign of peace. It’s quite evident that they would prefer you make your way to the cry room where nursing mothers are soothing wailing children and obnoxious toddlers are left free to roam and terrorize other kids—or just stay home altogether.
Instead of fulfilling its role as the Body of Christ, bringing together so many different kinds of people in a collective act of devotion, church has come a therapeutic club for childless adults with vaguely similar metaphysical beliefs. As for bringing new people into their community or even being personally challenged by their pastor, they’re happier to hear the same sermons with the same few people around them.
But, a traditionalist might object, this is only true for the mainstream churches. The traditional Christian churches are teeming with large families and have remained steadfast during Covid hysteria. They continue to grow and present a happy alternative for traditional Christians. Surely, these churches are doing something right by these families and represent the future. Indeed, I attend one of these types of churches myself when circumstances don’t force me and my family to attend the Novus Ordo parish down the street.
While this is all true, the problem is that these traditional churches are few and far between and face numerous hurdles that prevent them from expanding or growing. Pope Francis has repeatedly attacked traditional Christians. He even issued last year’s Motu Proprio to limit the celebration of the Latin Mass. As a result, many services at traditional churches are ridiculously crowded, but there’s little anyone can do about it.
Besides taking a less adversarial stance against their traditionalist counterparts, modern churches need to make greater efforts to foster a family-friendly culture. This doesn’t mean relaxing rules, empty pandering, or even offering childcare services that take the kids while parents attend worship. Rather, it means giving more of a thought to what both parents and children need to become saints. They need sermons that touch on their experience. They need empathy from their fellow congregants. And above all, they need respect. Without this, they will share the same feelings as Matthew Warner, who wrote in the National Catholic Register a decade ago that Mass was the “most stressful, annoying and anxious experience of [a young parent’s] life.”
In the end, it will be the large families that keep the Church alive, not only with their superior numbers but with their example. Few people are more Christ-like than the parents who reject the hedonistic, selfish lifestyle and devote themselves to raising children. It’s a life of personal sacrifice, grave responsibility, and constant humiliation. It’s also a life of profound love and joy. As we approach Christmas and Christians reflect on the trials of the Holy Family, they should try to do the same for all families who still face many of the same obstacles over two thousand years later.