[This is a guest post by Norine Shaivitz.]
“[Jesus] called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.'”
I wonder if the child Jesus chose was perfectly quiet and still, after having just woken from sleeping in Heavenly peace.
He or she was probably not behaving like the over-tired toddler I took to Mass on Saint Patrick’s Day. My little girl was having a hard time holding still and being quiet. The woman in the pew behind us thought my daughter could use a distraction so she offered a rosary, which my daughter sent airborne. Our eyes watched it sail through the air and land next to the altar with a “clack.”
This same little daughter at another Mass decided to make an escape during the Eucharistic prayer. She climbed on the pew behind me as I knelt, passed to the other side and out of the row. I grabbed her dress, but inertia was on her side, causing both of us to fall out of the pew on all fours right in the middle of the center aisle.
Such are the moments I want to hide under a rock and wonder why in the world I bother taking my children to Mass. By grace, it’s extremely rare for us to miss Sunday Mass and we often come to daily Mass. Some people are welcoming and smile. Others whip around with disapproving looks to see who’s causing all the ruckus. It happened in Jesus’ time too. In Matthew 19:13, the parents brought the children to Jesus and the apostles rebuked them.
Some unkind words said to a mom at Saint Helen Catholic Church in Georgetown prompted a change for the entire parish. Father Brian McMaster said a mother made an appointment to tell him the story of how an older woman reproached her, saying, “You look like you have your hands full. You know there’s a cry room, don’t you?” The mother was devastated, feeling she and her children were unwelcome.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”
Father Brian took the mother’s story to heart. Inspired by Pope Francis and the book Forming Intentional Disciples, he was already looking for ways to evangelize through hospitality. Leaders in the parish studied for a while and decided they would order out the chairs that filled the old “Cry Room” and order in several rocking chairs and cushy rugs. The new “Calming Room” is supposed to be used only temporarily, with the hope that a fussy child will calm down and can be welcomed back to the group.
“We want to encourage those people who made a transition from the single life to married life to life as a parent,” Father Brian said. “They can’t pray in that pious, attentive way anymore. We want to honor that the care of that child is part of worship. It seems like a struggle, but it is prayer and holiness being acted out right there.”
“We also wanted to consider the experience of the people around those with the children,” Father Brian said. “They want to have undistracted quiet and that is good. But we are also called to love one another. We don’t want to admonish people and say, ‘Why don’t you go to the cry room?’ We want to say instead, ‘How can I help?’ We are a family in this parish and we are all called to practice charity.”
Father Brian said he wants the message to be known throughout the parish that families are valued. They are wanted in the midst of the celebration, not shoved off to the side places. However, there are times when it’s appropriate for a child to be taken to the back for a bit.
“A parent can discern and say, ‘My child is not quiet. The crying isn’t stopping. I can take them out to calm down.’ And it’s not a defeat,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with going out to the back for a moment. We wanted to create a space for that to occur. But we put signs up in there that say this is not permanent. When your child is calm again, we want you to come back.”
Father Brian is not immune to distraction. “As a priest, I have a high tolerance,” he said. “There are some people who can really focus better and there are some people who can’t as well. For myself, I have a higher tolerance. If there is consistent crying, then it’s distracting, especially if I am in the middle of a homily and I have to concentrate more. I have to make a point for myself to pray for the child, pray for the parents and pray for the people around them to be charitable. Again, if a child is crying consistently, it’s okay to go to the back for a little bit. It’s not a defeat. It’s normal.”
One tip often given to families with small children is to sit up front so kids can see. My husband and I do it with our two girls on Sundays. Father Brian recommends it too. “But then it really becomes important that they take the kids to the back when they start to get loud because it’s a greater distraction,” he said. “It’s a trade off. Families have to consider where they are going to sit and what works best for them.”
There are some families who decide a young child isn’t getting anything out of Mass and they stop coming with the intent to come back when the child is “older.” But Father Brian says he wants children to come.
“I remember missing Mass only one time in my entire childhood,” he said. “I was four years old and I had chicken pox. I think you learn by doing. At a certain age it’s really important for a child to come to Mass.”
Many a mom of little ones has told me that she feels Mass with the kids can, at times, make her feel like a failure in her faith life. It’s harder to hear the readings and the homily. It’s harder to pray and contemplate. Father Brian says to come anyway.
“To be at Mass, taking care of your child is a form of prayer,” he said. “It’s not warm and fuzzy, but it is pious. It’s sacrificial love, the highest form of love and the highest form of prayer. It’s the love that Jesus has for us. I told the community that Jesus embraced the children. He said not to hinder them. I explained to the community that we have to practice love and to imagine the child as the baby Jesus.”
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.”
We were at another daily Mass when my active little girl started playing peek-a-boo with my skirt. I struggled to keep my modesty as both of my girls laughed. I was so mad. I was exasperated. I wanted to keep my head in this Mass but now I was worried about my bottom. I vaguely heard the priest say the words of Jesus in the Eucharistic prayer:
“Take this all of you and eat of it. For this is my body, which will be given up for you.”
I looked up from my girls to see the elevated host and noticed that it was shaking. Why was this host shaking in the hands of the priest? It was because the priest was laughing. Really hard. Laughing at me and my children. I had wanted to cry because I had felt like such a bad mom for bringing my crazy children to distract everyone, and here was Jesus laughing through His priest. In my heart, I heard the words of Jesus:
“Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them.”