At 2 years old, my son prays before meals and before bed, he knows the Our Father and Hail Mary, says “Amen!” at the right times during Mass, joyfully belts out a dozen different versions of the Alleluia (even during Lent—*ahem*), and kneels before the altar to cross himself when we leave church.
At 2 years old, my son also walks all over the pews, shouts, “no mas, padre!” if the homily drags on too long, throws tantrums, and hits other children who look at him sideways from the pew in front or behind us.
At 2 years old, my son is one of the Littlest Christians, and has been for about two years.
At 2 years old, my son is often made unwelcome at the Catholic Mass.
Consequently, I, my husband, and our infant second child are also made unwelcome.
This situation is deplorable.
My husband teaches religion at a local Catholic high school. He once had a student do an entire final project on why young adults leave the Church. A major factor? Having children, because children aren’t welcome in our hallowed church halls.
My husband’s mother, a devout Catholic herself, didn’t go to Church for four years, from her son’s birth until he was 4, at which point I suppose he could comport himself well enough to satisfy the Pharisees gathered for the Eucharist.
*Side note : Yes, I mean Pharisees. Modern-day Pharisees are good church-going folk who get so concerned with their own self-righteousness, their own holiness, that they get caught up in doing faith practices rather than living faith mercifully. Check out a recent Sunday Gospel (for an example of classic Pharisee-behavior: Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees complain, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, what’s up with that?!” Jesus responds with three magnificent parables explaining that Pharisees (good church-going folk) ought to head out into the people and welcome them home to God. Thinking about the “Littlest Christians,” imagine Jesus playing peek-a-boo with a fussy baby in the middle of Mass. Sure, peek-a-boo isn’t exactly a holy activity, but helping a family struggling with multiple children and a fussy child relax in a welcoming church community is a holy thing to do.
I’m not going to lie, I am amazed that my mother-in-law ever went back to Church. If I stopped going for 4 years, I don’t know that I would be able to pick it up again.
My own mother, a wonderful, blessed woman who raised this ornery girl into a woman of faith, lamented to me that both my husband and I are Catholic. You see, my mom didn’t have to take me to Church because my dad is non-denominational Christian and stays home on Sundays, so he took care of me while she attended Mass in peace.
I am also deeply saddened by my mother’s lament: she wishes my family was not united in one faith! I know Mum doesn’t quite mean it that way. She sees me struggling with a loud, misbehaving toddler, trying to keep him quiet and prayerful during Mass while those around us shoot my beautiful son and my disheveled self looks that say, “just take him outside,” and “you don’t belong here.”
Well, I’ve got news for you Pharisees-in-the-pew: what my mother and mother-in-law were forced to do with their children is wrong. My husband and I were deprived of God’s presence every Sunday—every day! There’s no reason children should not attend daily Mass—for years. We were two little baptized Christians, and we were not welcome. My mother-in-law was made unwelcome, my mother convinced that her precious baby girl would not benefit from the graces of the Mass.
Now, as the mother of two, I have been told off by a security guard at a local church for allowing my son to hold a hymnal (he was singing! He might have been singing “Jesus Christ loves ABCs,” but he was singing during an appropriate song-time during Mass), I have been not-so-politely directed to the “cry room in a parish (for those of you unfamiliar with “cry rooms”, they are germ-infested appendages to the nave filled with all those deemed undesirable by the usher; in them, it is usually next to impossible to hear the liturgy and difficult to get in line for Communion before the parish runs out of hosts), and I have suffered the strange indignity of overhearing strangers complain about me and my family—of strangers wanting me to hear them complain. Friends of mine, important people in their parish, have been directed by their priest to sit in the back because he finds their toddler distracting.
Now, my husband and I are both professional theologians. We have dedicated our lives to the most holy Catholic Church in consecrations to Mary, in our professional lives, and, of course, in prayer. We will not be chased out of the Church. But what if our faith was weaker? What if our trust in the Church had less intellectual underpinning? If people treated me and my family like this at a store, or a school, or a government facility, I would leave and never come back. Many young families do.
I have heard in ministerial meetings complaints that young couples come to the Church for marriage, stay to baptize their kids, and then disappear. Apparently some, but not all, come back when it’s time to sign their kids up Sunday School. “Why do they go?” the pastoral staff wonders, complaining about the unfaith of this generation.
It’s not the parents, it’s the Pharisees-in-the-pews (or at the doors or the altar).
Kids are kids. They are loud. They are emotional. They are unpredictable. In short, they are just like the rest of us, only they don’t have the skills to hide their feelings and impulses yet.
If you, Reader, ever find yourself annoyed with kids in church, wishing they would just go away, look deep inside yourself and confront your inner-Pharisee. Are you really wishing faithful parents go without the Eucharist for your personal peace and quiet? Are you really preferring families be broken across denominational lines? Are you really so self-absorbed that a child acting like a child interferes with your ability to worship the Almighty Father who has, after all, put up with much worse antics from you?
Don’t be a Pharisee. Be a follower of Jesus. Play peek-a-boo with the fussy babies. Complement the single mom on her dedication to bringing herself and her kids to church. Invite that big family to the coffee hour. Convince your teenager to offer free babysitting to the young couple that clearly needs a date-night. Shake hands with the Littlest Christians during the Sign of peace and try really hard to hide the fact that you are grossed out by their snotty noses. If you are a priest, a church secretary, a youth minister, choir member, or usher, your behavior is particularly important. Give a curious toddler a tour of the altar (he might become a priest one day!) or choir loft, tell the families how glad you are see them at Mass, show off the beautiful organ keys and pipes to the kindergarteners (maybe let them play a few notes!). Welcome the little children.
Kids are the littlest Christians, and they belong in the pews with all the adults, singing their little hearts out to a jazzy “Alleluia” and bonking one another on the head. Kids belong in church, as do their parents. They should not be closeted away in “cry rooms” like diminutive lepers , or kept at home until they are big enough. They should be part of the whole wonderful, diverse array of the Church community, celebrating Mass with “full, active, and conscious participation,” to the best of their tiny abilities.
They should sing, and shout, and cry, and pray, and listen, and play in the Church building, because once they are baptized, the Church becomes their mother, and Mama always welcomes her children in their Father’s house.
Siobhan Benitez is a wanna-be contemplative called to the active life. She is married to a saint (inner-city Catholic school teacher), mother to an adorable monster (toddler boy), and fussy angel (infant boy). Siobhan is also a PhD student and Teaching Fellow at The Catholic University of America where she is (occasionally) writing a dissertation on the theological ethics of eating in the Christian family and (usually) teaching classes in Moral Theology and Ethics.