Earlier this year, Fr. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity and author of the book Rebuilt published an article entitled, “Why We Don’t Encourage (Little) Kids in Mass.” At his mega-parish, kids are expected to attend a children’s program while parents attend Mass. Since I was raised attending weekly Mass and now bring my four children every Sunday, this article made my blood boil. Father’s words fly in the face of every Catholic family attempting to anchor their children in the Faith together at Sunday Mass. His assertion that children should be in a separate space with “age appropriate messages and worship” during Mass is wrong and contrary to the pro-family teachings of the Church. Instead, let’s offer tips and encouragement for Catholic parents bringing their children to Mass.

Fr. White: “Part of the thinking is that sheer exposure to the service imbues them with grace and other good things in some kind of effortless and mindless sort of way. But if they can’t understand the readings and they cannot take Communion, it is unclear what they are “receiving” Sacramentally.”

At their Baptism, all children received the gift of grace and their souls became receptive to the gifts of further grace. So they can certainly receive grace by attending Mass even before they completely understand the readings or receive Communion. By Fr. White’s logic, no one should attend Eucharistic adoration. After all, the adorer doesn’t take Communion, so he is akin to the child who has not yet received. But every adorer knows he is flooded with grace by simply sitting in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

At every Mass, my children kneel during Consecration and whisper “Thank you, Jesus. I love you Jesus.” They pray and hope for the day that they too will receive Holy Communion. If they were relegated to a parish hall kids’ worship, this awe for the Eucharist and desire to receive would not be fostered in the same way.

As for “they can’t understand the readings,” let’s give the kids a little more credit, shall we? Bible stories are very accessible to children especially if they have been read to the children before Mass. Instead of taking children out of Mass, what if the pastor encouraged parents to read the readings with children beforehand? The parish could use money budgeted for “kid friendly worship” to purchase Magnifikid resources for every family to connect them to the Word of God.

We read the readings to our children before church and give them a word or phrase to listen for during the Gospel. Like adventurers following a treasure map, they are elated when they hear the “treasure word” proclaimed at Mass! Far from being “effortless and mindless” the serious Catholic parent prepares children for the Mass readings and, with great effort, helps them prepare physically and spiritually every Sunday. In the end, thank God that His grace is not doled out according to our effort. We do the best we can and trust that His grace is freely bestowed even when our best efforts fall short.

Fr. White: “Another argument suggests that kids need to “learn the Mass” and that can only happen through physical attendance…They must be introduced to the information in age appropriate ways if they are to learn. Everybody knows this, and yet we ignore it in church.”

Again, let’s give the kids a little more credit. While they might not understand every theological mystery presented at Mass (how many adults do?!) they can be caught up in the mystery and majesty of the Holy Mass. They can worship God Himself where heaven meets earth without fully understanding every detail. Perhaps in an even purer way than adults because they haven’t yet become skeptics!

Children are like sponges – they mimic and repeat whatever they see and hear. Of course they can’t “learn the Mass” unless they experience it. My children love to play Mass at home.  My sons are priests and my daughter is the lector/cantor. The only reason that the boys know to kiss the “altar” after the procession or my daughter knows to sing a Responsorial Psalm is because they are up front (*gasp*) every Sunday.

How can we expect children to “learn the Mass” outside of the Mass? At a “child friendly” Sunday school, they might learn facts about Jesus and the Mass but they can’t actually experience it. Children learn through experience and that experience deepens over time. It’s amazing to witness their level of understanding grow as they do. Just a few weeks ago my son asked why we bow for part of the Nicene Creed. I told him. Now he knows. And just like that, he’s learning the Mass.

Fr. White: “I will sometimes see a Mom sitting in the very front row with her child. The front row so the kids can “see the altar” (as if they’re looking )… Which becomes a distraction for everyone, including liturgical ministers and the homilist. I cannot begin to tell you how incredibly difficult it is to try and preach over a crying baby.”

My number one suggestion for anyone who is looking to get more out of Mass is to sit up front. No one would want to go to a concert or a movie and stare at people’s backs the whole time. Why would anyone want to sit in a back pew for an hour staring at the back of people’s heads? Sitting up front ensures that the child will be drawn to the action of Mass. When a child isn’t looking (as Father mockingly suggests) the parent can direct his or her attention back to what’s happening at the altar; provided they can actually see it.

Admittedly, the homily is a difficult time for children; good thing the sermon is the least important part of a Catholic Mass. Our young children are allowed to look at Catholic children’s books during homilies and if a baby gets too fussy, we take him or her to the back until the homily ends. But at the same time, perhaps a baby’s babbling is a good reminder to the homilist that he’s speaking to real people in a life that is rarely serene, cookie cutter perfection. This messy world with babbling babies and restless toddlers (and restless adults for that matter) is the exact world that Jesus chose to enter and preach to.

Fr. White: “In this exercise the parents are fighting a losing battle, and sometimes suffer the unkind, but understandably disapproving glances of the congregation.”

Instead of telling parents they are “fighting a losing battle” how about encouraging them to “fight the good fight” by anchoring their family’s weekly schedule in attendance of Sunday Mass in a culture that values weekend sports over weekend liturgy? As for disapproving glances, I am repeatedly encouraged by parishioners who thank me for bringing my children to Mass. Just recently, a man approached me at a parish night of healing following the scandals. He said, “You don’t know me, but I know you and your family. The scandals made my wife decide to stop coming to Mass. But I see you passing on the faith to your children at Mass and that gives me hope to keep coming.”

Some Sundays, I fall into the trap of seeing my kids as nothing but little distractions. But this man reminded me that by their very presence, children inspire hope. They are living proof that the life of the Church will go on. I’ll take witnessing to hope over fear of disrupting a homily any day!

Fr. White: “This is why we invest in our children’s programs. We love the children of this parish so much we want them to have a great time and learn to love the Lord too, through age appropriate messages and worship.”

When worship becomes about fun and entertainment, it will always fall short of the fun and entertainment found elsewhere. The sooner that our children learn that liturgy is not about entertaining them, but worshiping God the Father, the more likely they are to remain Catholic and attend Sunday Mass for life. The world will always be able to offer more fun entertainment, but it can’t offer the intimate relationship with Jesus Christ found in the Sacraments. With Fr. White’s model, it’s inevitable that children will see “their” worship as fun and in contrast, Mass as “boring.” At what point will the child have to leave the “fun” and start attending “boring” old Mass. That’s not a precedent any parish should be proud to set.

Parents can model this understanding of Mass-as-worship for their children by praying during Mass. It can be easy for parents to be distracted and attend to their children all Mass. So I suggest that, unless it’s necessary, parents should focus their own attention toward Mass more than toward their kids and so model what Mass is all about.

We don’t tell our kids to “be quiet” before Mass. We say, “Remember to pray when it’s time to pray, sing when it’s time to sing, say Alleluia and Amen, and listen when it’s someone else’s turn to talk.” After all, we don’t want the congregation to “be quiet” at Mass, we want full and active participation – it should be no less an expectation for our children!

I’ll leave you with the story of Blessed Imelda. She lived at a time when people were not allowed to receive Holy Communion until they were adolescents. But as a young girl, she was extremely pious and longed to receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Because of her fervent prayer, one day after Mass, a host was seen floating above her head. Father took this as a sign and gave her her First Holy Communion. This caused her to die of happiness, her cause for canonization to be opened, and the age for reception of Holy Communion to be lowered. If she had been relegated to an “age-appropriate” worship in the parish hall, would her desire for Our Lord have been so great? Would she have been disposed to become the vessel of an extraordinary miracle? I’m certain the answer is no. So thank you, parents of Bl. Imelda, for bringing her to Mass and for the example you give to every parent striving to pass on the Catholic faith by worshiping with our children every Sunday.

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Annie McHugh is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and youth minister at St. Raphael Catholic Church in Rockville, MD.  With four young children, life in the McHugh house is always a ruckus – and they’re trying to keep it holy!  Annie does youth ministry with her husband, Mike, and together they lead youth groups and speak at schools and parishes about chastity, dating, and marriage through, Mike and Annie Talk.  They also run a summer camp for kids led by young adults and teens called the Rockville Catholic Summer Program.  Annie loves reflecting on her ministry to her family and young Catholics through writing for the Holy Ruckus blog!

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