Children Belong in Mass

Deacon Greg and Calah Alexander are having an animated discussion with several readers who are taking issue with parents who bring babies to Church.

Here is an example of the tone of the questions to which they are responding:

“When I read these posts from parents of young children who say they need God’s grace and that is why they bring their young children to Mass, I consider that to be selfish. We ALL need to look out for one another. It is NOT “all about me” as so many in this generation believe. I come from a different time, as I said in my previous posts, when folks were much more respectful and wouldn’t think of keeping, or even bringing a young child to Mass.”

Since my wife and I actually have a chapter on taking your kids to Church in Parenting with Grace, I thought I’d weigh in with a few points.

1.  As far as Catholics are concerned, babies are not merely tolerated.  They have a right to be in Church.  IF YOU ARE BAPTIZED, YOU BELONG.  PERIOD.  END OF STORY.

2.  As a matter of Catholic social teaching, it is the duty of every Catholic to support the mission of the family to raise godly children.  Failure to do so is a serious offense against both charity and the dignity of the family.  If you have ever scowled at a parent of a crying baby at Church. I recommend you confess your hardened heart.  “Whatever you do to the least…” (Mt 25:40).

3.  While I respect the intention behind it, a parent who leaves a child at home “until they are old enough” is being unjust regarding the child’s religious education.  Education begins unconsciously before it begins consciously.  Your baby or toddler needs to be given the opportunity to learn the rhythm, sights, sounds, and smells of the Mass before he is conscious enough to understand the Mass.  Robbing a child of the sensory education makes catechesis that much harder later on.  Spirituality is primarily a sensory call (from God) that leads to a transformative response.  Robbing a child of that early sensual experience of God and His Church is a very serious impediment to future catechesis and spiritual development.

4.  As Calah rightly points out, there is a difference between a fussing baby and a screaming baby.  As a matter of courtesy to the other worshippers, parents should always remove a child who is being loud and cannot be consoled after about a minute or so.  That noted, everyone else around the family with a fussy child has an obligation to either put on an understanding, sympathetic smile or pretend you don’t notice and trust the parent will handle it.  As Jesus said, to the apostles who were pushing the kids away, “get over your bad selves.”    As a Church, we do not believe in contraception and we certainly should not be promoting contraceptive sanctuaries.

5.  Some tips for moms and dads.

-This is counterintuitive, but sit in the front.  Kids behave better when they can look at what’s going on instead of some other parishioner’s butt (which is, afterall what’s on their eye-level).

-Don’t ever just sit in the cry-room from the start.  Although I understand, and support, their intended use, in practice, most cry rooms are from the devil.  It’s like Lord of the Flies Sunday School in there.  Go in only for as long as you need to, if you need, then go back to your pew.  You and your child will get more out of the experience

-If you have to remove your child from the sanctuary, hold him the entire time you are in the cry room or the back of the church.  DO NOT under any circumstances let him down.  If you take the child out and put him down and play with him (or, God forbid, let him run around) you will teach him–through simple Pavlovian conditioning–that he NEEDS to cry to get the fun times that happen when he forces you to leave the sanctuary.   Let your child have a minimal amount of freedom of movement if he allows you to stay the pew, but none if he makes you leave the sanctuary.  If a little one is really that out of control, he isn’t able to get himself back online anyway (remember our discussion about the myth of self-soothing).  If he makes you leave, by all means be loving, sympathetic, compassionate, and affectionat, but DO NOT PUT THE KID DOWN.  When he’s quiet, return to the pew.

-By all means, for children under, say, 4-ish, bring some quiet, soft, preferably religiously-themed toy-like things.  Keep them in a special “going to Mass bag”  that the child doesn’t get to see unless you are in church.  That will keep these activities special.  Regarldess, try to put these things away before the consecration.  At the elevation, point to the host and whisper something like, “look at the miracle!  Look at Jesus. Say, “I love you Jesus!”

-Don’t do mass in shifts.  The Mass is for families.  When parents say they aren’t “getting anything out of Mass” when they bring small children they are missing the point.  What you get out of Mass when you have small children is the joy of passing your faith on to them.   That’s what you signed up for when you became a Catholic parent.  Yes, it can be tough, and yes, you may certainly do other things to get your spiritual needs met, but Sunday mass is for your family.  Go as a family.

 

Dr. Gregory Popcak

By

Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • DYoung

    ABSOLUTELY!! As a father of 6, what Dr. Popcak says works. The only thing I did differently was when the children were about 2, I would put them down. But they had to sit and not move. (Holding a struggling 2 year old for 30+ minutes is challenging)

    3 out of 6 of our children were born on Fridays, they where at Mass on Sunday with the rest of the family. Age does not matter for mass attendance.

    Another tip my parent taught me, don’t all sit in the same pew. If you have 3 or more children, let the older children sit in the pew in front of you. It gives them a sense of freedom that they are on their own. You are actually closer to them, and can easily give them verbal reinforcement.

    Fast forward a few years. Now I get compliments on how well behaved my children are. One lady commented after mass, “Your children are so well behaved, but you are to strict.” Yes, they are well behaved and it is because they I have set boundaries. My children know exactly how important Mass is to our family.

  • Carol Lorance

    I do Children’s liturgy of the Word for children and they become a part of the Mass.
    We read,the approved Lectionary for children and give a brief reflection so they can understand. We recite the creed, say our prayers of the faithful and return respectfully to Mass at the beginning of the gifts being collected.

    Everyone seems to love it, Young and old alike. sometimes the parents attend our liturgy of the Word with their children.

  • elmccl

    And while you are holding little baby “Patmusma” in the back, please continue to participate in the Mass. It will keep you sane.

  • JMC

    I have some vague memories of being three and four years old and going to Mass…This was well before Vatican II; Pius XII was still Pope. Toys in church were unthinkable. My mother was unable to tolerate being among crowds and habitually sat in the very back of the church. I remember being extremely frustrated because I couldn’t see what was going on, so you’re right on the money with that tip about sitting in front. I discovered that I got a slightly better view if I stood on the kneeler, but I wasn’t allowed to do this. My father, God bless him, eventually figured out what I was trying to do and picked me up (he was 6 foot 2) to let me see. It only took once. After that, even though I didn’t completely understand what it was all about, I imitated my parents throughout Mass.
    I realize most kids aren’t going to catch on that quickly. But the whole key is letting them see what’s going on. If your family has an active prayer life at home, small children will soon catch on that Mass is prayer and will behave accordingly.

  • JMC

    Parents’ fear of being considered “too strict” is exactly why so many children cannot sit still at Mass. Our society frowns on disciplining children in any way, and it shows. Personally, I think that when a six- or seven-year-old is still allowed to bring toys to church, those parents are being too lenient.

  • pianomom

    Thank you for this encouraging and practical article! My husband and I are expecting our ninth child (our oldest is 16), and have learned all of these tips over the years, mostly the hard way. But they really do work. The only thing I would add from our experience, is that we do not send our children out for the “children’s liturgy.” It is tempting to do so sometimes, but my husband has always felt that he wanted us all together for the Mass and in the long run, I can see all the benefits of having stuck with this over the years. To all those parents who have several little ones and no big kids yet, I just want to encourage you by telling you that it really does get easier! This is not only because your current children will grow up and learn, but it even gets easier to teach each of the new little ones. I think the little ones learn from the example of the older ones. Secondly, my husband and I are more relaxed and I think the kids pick up on that and are more settled. And thirdly, we have more older hands to subtly keep things under control inside our pew (and several older children who voluntarily take turns with my husband and I to take a baby or toddler out, so that we can stay in the pew for an entire Mass. What a luxury!) One last thing: thank you to all the kind parishioners over the years in all of the different parishes we have belonged to who have encouraged us in many different ways. I can honestly say that I have never been made to feel that our children were unwelcome at Mass and that has made a big difference for us!

  • Andy de Laveaga

    I agree: bring the children to Mass!! Aside from the theological justifications, as the father of seven kids and the grandfather of 21, I have to ask those who are bothered by children at Mass: “If we don’t bring them to Church when they are young, how can we expect them to come back when they are grown?”

  • Bill Kifer

    Re: #2: You could add Matthew 19:14 – Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

    A priest once said that if a child screams during mass, he’s undergoing a minor exorcism, so it’s OK.

  • Marcie Glajch

    Thank you for these words Dr. Popcak! Bringing many little ones to mass is often challenging but always rewarding. I love ushering my clan into an entire pew. I also wanted to add something that a very holy priest said to me. He loves hearing the babies crying and sometimes screaming during the Holy Mass, because it reminds him of how we must sound to God. Thanks and God Bless You.

  • jenny

    ” Don’t do mass in shifts….” I remember a priest telling parents with small children to do mass in shifts…. because he can not concentrate on his homily.
    I remember feeling so angry- no one in the congregation said anything. I wonder how many families gave up church … and how many children went to other denominations…
    Thanks God…. this does not happens anymore, …I hope. If we do not encourage families with small children to come to church, sooner or latter the pews will be empty.

  • bandlj

    PERFECT!! This is how we were/are with all 6 of our children! It irks me to no end to see kids with video games and pretty much “picnic lunches” in the crying rooms, which is why we only went there when absolutely necessary. My kids learned very quickly that the “crying room” was a time out, of sorts, and were “rewarded” with going back to join the family in the main body when they settled down.
    If a child is old enough to sit through a Disney movie (usually by age 3), they are old enough to be expected to sit and behave for the Mass. We encourage our children to sing and participate as much as possible. I have my 4 oldest altar serving and lecturing when they are old enough; you get out of the Mass what you put in to it!

  • Faithr

    I think people who get angry over children in Mass are spiritual scrooges, however, people who get ideological about bringing children to mass in a certain way (never use the cry room, always sit up front, don’t do mass in shifts) are also out of bounds often. You mean well, but what works for you may not work for another, so chill please. I didn’t bring my kids to Sunday mass until they were 5 or so. They stayed home with their non-Christian father and bonded with him. In the meantime I could actually concentrate on Mass for an hour that I truly needed. I had hyper, hyper kids where I would spend the whole Mass just dealing with them and come out angry. It was almost blasphemous. I guess I am just weak. But just because I didn’t take the littlest ones to mass on Sundays doesn’t mean we didn’t take them at all. I took them to a short daily mass and we (horrors!) sat in the cry room and tried to model prayer and attention and also occasionally instruction about what was going on (Jesus is coming! Tell Jesus you love Him!). And then we made a super big deal about being old enough to go to Sunday Mass with Mommy. So it worked out and so far all my kids (three are young adults) take their faith seriously and are good Catholics. So while advice is nice, no judgment please.

  • Mommyof10

    Thank you, Dr. Popcak, for this charitable article! I have 10 kids, and a non-Catholic husband, so I pretty much have been in charge of the kids alone at Mass (once in a while Dad goes with us.) I must say that I agree with you whole heartedly that children belong at Mass, but I also have experienced the times when it was just better for my sanity to leave really little ones at home with dad. As long as the parents try to instill Catholicism (with Sunday Mass attendance as one part) in their children’s daily lives, I think Jesus understands any imperfections in our execution of His Will. Thank you and your wife for being so pro-life! :)

  • catholicexchange

    You’re a hero for bringing in that large of a family to the Church. Awesome!

  • ndmom

    Disagree with the command to avoid going to mass in shifts. This is what worked for us when the kids were at certain difficult ages. It is especially helpful for parents of multiples or who otherwise have more small children than arms to hold them. This stage soon passes, and it’s hard to argue that irreparable harm will ensue if the parents decide NOT to spend a good chunk of their Mass time standing outside in the rain with a screaming toddler. After all, little children are often sick, which forces parents to attend Mass in shifts.

  • Mancipium Mariae

    I don’t see why children should not be at Mass. I do not consider it selfish to bring them to Mass either. If they are causing annoyance to others in Church, let us remember that the Catholic Mass is a place where we bring our pains and annoyances and unite them to Christ’s suffering so that it becomes life-giving. Let the offended ones unite their sufferings with Christ’s self-offering and offer up their annoyances for the salvation of souls. Personally, as a priest myself, I see a crying or fussing child during the Mass as a reminder to speak clearly, louder and give shorter and more direct sermons. Remember Jesus’ words, “From the hearts of babes, you have found perfect praise.” For the love of God, bring our little brothers and sisters to Mass. They belong there.

  • mr bill

    Coming from a Protestant family I was taken to my first Mass by a friend of my mother’s of whom she said: “She’s a nice lady even though she’s a Catholic.”

    It was Easter Sunday 1944 and I was five years old. She lovingly explained to me that “Jesus was coming” and at the consecration she had me stand on the kneeler, put her arm around me and pointed to the alter and whispered “Jesus is here, do you see him.” Somehow I knew that the host was Jesus and more incredibly that he completely and unconditionally loved me. At age eighteen, against my entire family’s wishes, I was received into the loving arms of the Roman Catholic Church.

    I will never stop praying for, or cease my love for, the woman of whom my mother would never even give me her name.

  • Becky Simons Scherer

    My parents always sat us in front and when we were old enough we started participating as servers and singers. When my dad would usher he would grab whoever was acting up and hold them while doing his usher duties. :) Now that I have kids we always sit up front – used to sit in the middle as my mother-in-law always did – but as the oldest got to the age of being curious he acted up more, so up to the front! Now the boys always pick the front row if we ask them to pick a pew. :) They like to see what is going on. And as far as ‘waiting until they are old enough’, how can they learn if you don’t teach them? My children have been going to mass since the Sunday after they were born (except the oldest, he was born early on a Sunday ;)) (not to mention the whole time in the womb) and behave better than some of the older school age children I see sometimes! Take them to mass, teach them about the mass and our faith – they want to learn!!

  • Polly

    This absolutely still happens. A local pastor did just that in the parish bulletin a year or two ago.

  • Deacon Joe

    Dr. Greg: First, I love hearing you on EWTN and listen to you and listen all the time! I agree that all kids belong in church with your parents. My dad started taking me to Mass (my mom wasn’t Catholic at the time) as soon as I could walk. I grew up sitting in the choir loft with him. There’s no reason for kids not to be taken to Mass right away.

  • Therese

    I used every one of your tips while taking my 6 children to mass every single week. They work quite well. My children were always better behaved than the adults around them.

  • Mrs. McC

    Good for you! We’ve been taking our children to church since they were babies. And everybody take his advice about the crying room; hold the kid while she needs to be held and once she doesn’t, go back into church so they don’t think the cry room is the play room. I got disenchanted with the model in Protestant churches of shipping the kids off to their own service during the main service, too, because it breaks up the family and community. HOWEVER, parents need to remove their loud, annoying, screeching, disobedient and disruptive kids, since everyone else should not be tormented or otherwise distracted. One couple in front of me chatted, amused and talked out loud to their repeatedly disruptive little boy for almost the entire service; people were getting up and moving to other pews it was so bad. If you take your child out and calm and/or discipline them (it’s really ok) or address their problem, and once they are quiet, you then bring them right back in. If you remind your kid, esp. school age ones, that if they can behave for a subject period in school they can certainly behave for the same length of time for God, that often works.

  • Molly Beck

    Wonderful article! Faithfully written and full of good, concrete advice for parents. AND nice to see that there are other Catholic parents who feel the same way we do. :-) Many blessings to you!

  • JMC

    We once had a pastor who used to say that very thing. Another thing he said very often was that when children cry and scream during Mass, we should remember that construction is always noisy, and children are just “adults under construction.” He discouraged use of the “crying room” (which was in the parish hall) in the strongest terms; he even proposed shutting it down completely at one point, though never actually did it.

  • andrea

    I only disagree with three points- 1) not starting mass in the cry room. 2) Not letting a child down if you leave the sanctuary and 3) Splitting up Mass.

    As far as #1) I *know* my child. The constant back and forth (coming in and out) is a huge distraction to other parishioners. When I know my child is going to be a handful during Mass (depending on his mood, how the day has gone, etc) I automatically go in the cry room. Usually we are the only people there so it’s not “Lord of the flies” in there.

    #2) My youngest son does not like to be held or restricted in any way. He never let me baby wear him (unless sick or teething hard). If I try and hold him he will fight me to the point he hurts himself or me and is screaming the whole time. It’s better to let him down and place limits on his movements versus forcing him to be unhappy in my arms.

    #3) Splitting up Mass has been a HUGE blessing for my family. My husband and I were really reluctant to do it, because we agreed it *should* be done as a family. But when you’re dealing with less than ideal situations (an 18 month old toddler who won’t sit still and is notoriously loud and uninhibited in public) it’s been a real blessing for one parent to stay home with the baby and the other parent take the other kids to mass, and then switch up the next day. We *do* get more out of Mass, and bottom line is that Mass isn’t required for those under the age of reason. I’m not saying it should be expected kids stay home, but that it is helpful in some situations. We split up Mass for about 3 weeks this summer, and then took our little one back as a family. The break seemed to really help him and he did well for the following Masses for about a month or two. We’re at a point again where we may consider splitting up again. Do I think its a good long term goal? No. But the age in which kids are problematic (usually 18 months to 3 years old) is a short time, and I don’t see the harm in splitting things up temporarily. I also got special one-on-one time with oldest child when I took him alone. At Mass, I’m *trying* to focus on God. It doesn’t matter who else is at Mass with me (unless they are of course such a distraction I can’t pay attention at all).

    My points are that there’s no black and white for every family/child, and some of your points make it sound like you should NEVER do some of these things. As with many things, it’s not that simple most of the time.

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