Suffer the little children

Four stories from personal acquaintances, all involving small children at Mass:

-- A mother brings her three preschool children to a daily Mass attended solely by elderly persons. After Mass, the priest approaches her and says, “The next time you come here, you must remain with your children in the crying room. The noise from your children upsets the old folks with hearing aids.” The mother felt humiliated and never returned to that Mass.

-- A mother attends a midday Mass at a university parish. Three of her four children are well behaved. The other, a two-year-old, needs a nap and therefore spends most of the Mass walking up and down the aisle in the back of the church crying; although, because the church is cavernous and largely empty, the sound echoes loudly throughout. When the Mass is over, the priest comes down from the front of the church, approaching the child. He turns to the woman nearby, whom he correctly takes to be the mother, and says with evident irritation, “To whom does this child belong?” The mother concluded that the priest dislikes children; she never returned to that Mass.

-- A father and mother bring their four small children to a late morning Sunday Mass at a university parish. They sit in the far back of the church, because they are aware that the two-year-old is unlikely to sit still. Throughout the Mass, the child walks around and babbles. After Mass, a student at the university, who also sat in the back, approaches them and earnestly advises them to leave their children at home: “When my brothers and I were young, that’s what my Mom did.” The father says nothing; he sits there in wonderment that a college student without children has just seen fit to correct him.

-- A young American couple with five small children are attending Mass in an historic church in a European city. There are no other children at the Mass; in fact, there is no one else younger than 50 at the Mass. The children naturally make some noise. After Mass, several elderly persons approach the couple and tell them that they shouldn’t bring their children to church. In this case, the mother does not silently listen. She gets angry and says in reply, “Then tell me who is going to be attending your church 20 years from now?”

Now three observations.

First, one must realize that it is an objectively heroic action, any time a mother with young children brings them to Mass -- and especially to daily Mass, when she would have had to do everything on her own.

Consider: she is at home perhaps getting some work done in the kitchen; her children are playing in a space which is designed to make things easy for them and for her; she is able to put her children to sleep when they nap, or to feed them when they are hungry.

She then has to dress each one for outdoors (perhaps it is raining or cold outside); get herself ready; and pile them all into the car. Each step involves a small struggle; likewise getting into the car and out at church. Even so simple an operation as walking up the stairs to the front of the church can be heroic (a baby over one arm; a toddler perhaps in an umbrella stroller who needs to get lifted step-by-step; the others who need to be shepherded so that they don’t run away or into the street).

When she finally gets to the church, probably late, she understands that she will not be able to concentrate much. She’ll spend most of her time tending to her children, anxiously trying to keep them as well behaved as possible.

The Mass itself may be only 20 minutes long, but the entire operation of getting her children there, from start to finish, will occupy about two hours of her time, a substantial sacrifice.

Second, it is impossible for a third-party observer to judge whether a young child’s behavior at church indicates any shortcoming on the part of the parents--that is, if one doesn’t hold the harsh view that young children should not be brought to church at all (and therefore that homemakers who cannot afford nannies should also not attend). The reason is that young children, of course, move around and make noise; and any particular bad spell may be attributable to such things as a needed nap, or a peevish fit, or an incipient cold or earache, rather than poor parenting.

I know a three-year-old who once toddled up the aisle during Mass and lay down at the base of the steps leading up the altar, rolling gently about and singing softly. This was good behavior for her, not bad--probably the best behavior she was capable of that day. Someone who is not the parent simply cannot judge.

Third, we do not attend Mass for our comfort; and we need to consider whether internal distractions (wayward thoughts, anxieties, vain musings), for which we are directly responsible, are not greater distractions than anything external.

The safe rule to draw from these considerations, I think, is that one should never direct even the slightest word of criticism toward a mother who brings her young children to Mass.

What she deserves, rather, is pure praise -- and our own comparatively pitiful attempts to imitate her.

Michael Pakaluk is currently a visiting professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.