At Mass, I glanced over at the three children next to me. My 6-year-old was making shadow pictures on the pew. My 12-year-old was doing a careful examination of each of her fingernails, while my 15-year-old was… I really wasn’t sure where he was, but his glazed-over eyes told me he wasn’t at Mass.
When Behavior Collides with Expectations
I sighed deeply: such is life. We have been attending Mass with our children since they were born. Prior to relocating for my husband’s work, we were even blessed with a schedule and neighborhood church that allowed us, as a family, to attend daily Mass for almost four years. Recently I was noticing that my children especially those mentioned above had developed a “familiarity breeds contempt” view of Sunday Mass.
This is not the case every Sunday. My oldest son is an excellent server, and enjoys being the priest’s “go-to guy” for a role in which his gaze rarely leaves the altar and the tasks at hand. I’ve noticed the rest are more content and attentive on the second Sunday of every month (except in July and August.) That is our parish’s donut Sunday schedule when everyone is invited to meet and greet over coffee, juice and Dunkin’ Donuts’ latest offerings. I have used the bribery effect that donuts (and other tasty treats) can have on their behavior not specifically at Mass but at other public places so that they expect this same reminder at Mass.
For every family there is a rule or expectation of behavior at Mass. For some families younger ones may be allowed small snacks, books or toys. Some families allow this same type of distraction for children who will then be receiving Christ in Communion. Other families bring nothing and manage to get through only a little worse for wear. For our family, I will not allow anyone over the age of four to bring any sort of distraction, no matter how “holy” it may be. This rule isn’t a problem, but what about distractions that come from inside of the child? What could I do to help my older ones be more attentive at Mass?
The Gift and the Giver
Over the next week or so, I prayed about the problem and during one particularly difficult Mass, in what was surely an inspiration from the Holy Spirit, I had the idea to try to make my children more “present” at Mass by trying to see themselves as a “present” to Jesus. Just as Jesus gives the gift of Himself at every celebration, couldn’t my children give themselves as a gift back to Him?
At home, I wrote down my ideas and compiled the tools of my lesson and waited for a good opportunity to spring this idea on them. On a lazy afternoon, while the youngest ones were in bed for naps, I gathered the usual suspects around the dining-room table where several empty gift boxes, wrapping paper, ribbon, small pieces of paper, markers, tape and scissors were waiting.
The lesson was simple. We talked about the two meanings of the word “present,” the presents they love to receive at Christmas and on their birthdays, and the aspect of being present at an event such as Mass. We talked about whether they thought they were always being their best at Mass and, by God’s grace, they all admitted they weren’t. We talked about the reasons we go to Mass and who we were visiting. If we believe we are visiting with the King of the Universe, why aren’t our actions always proper, polite and kind?
With a humble admission of my own guilt in this matter, we discussed how we all get distracted by each other, our own thoughts, and even the people around us. I spoke about the fact that time playing with our own thumbs, or talking with our sister about our favorite movie took time away from Jesus. We then began to brainstorm about how we should act. The words “quiet,” “still,” “hands and feet quiet,” “eyes on the priest,” “prayerful,” and even “no squishing each other” (from my 6-year-old), were put on a list.
These words and actions, I told them, would become a gift they would bring to Jesus. They would bring quiet feet, still hands, prayerful hearts and more to Jesus when we went to Mass. They each wrote these words and others they came up with on the pieces of paper. We said a prayer together asking Jesus and our guardian angels to help us, all of us, be better behaved at Mass. We then placed them into the gift boxes, wrapped them up with paper and decorated each gift with ribbons and stickers. We then talked about a typical Mass.
With the gifts in our hands, we started talking about the Mass and how we would become distracted. My daughter remembered her habit of examining her lovely long fingernails. Upon this remembrance, she had to open her present, take out the card that read quiet hands and then attempt to re-wrap the present. We went around the table with each mentioning a distraction they knew they were guilty of, including Mom. I was reminded of how I would focus on the meal I would be fixing later that day instead of the Last Supper I was remembering that moment. We did this several times and I allowed the child to mention things to each other and to me. By the end of the time, our boxes were almost empty of cards and our gifts to Jesus, the beautifully wrapped presents we had started with, were a disaster. As we surveyed the mess, we were struck into silence and more than a bit of sorrow.
How easily the present of ourselves to Jesus at Mass had become a pile of torn paper, crumpled ribbon and abandoned ideas. My daughter said this wasn’t a gift worthy of anyone, much less Jesus, while my oldest son hung his head, embarrassed to let us see the tears in his eyes. Immediately, we began to think again on how to keep our hearts and minds on Jesus, the reason we were there. How could we stay focused during Mass?
I Firmly Resolve, with the Help of Your Grace
Using a children’s book on the Mass, we started at the beginning, talking about each part and if it was a struggle to pay attention then. We discussed what each part meant and the purpose behind what we did and what the priest did. They all agreed it didn’t get hard until the Liturgy of the Word where is it was difficult to listen to sometimes unfamiliar readings. Our resolution was to go over the readings before Mass. The words would then be more familiar and they would listen to see if they could remember what we read and what was being said. The older children said they enjoyed reading along and resolved to get a missal before each Mass.
The homily was the next sticky point, and I had to admit that I, too, sometimes had trouble staying focused. We knew that due to many factors, including their age and maturity and the skills of the homilist, they often just couldn’t keep their minds from wandering. We decided that while we couldn’t stop the wandering, we would make efforts to keep our minds in the church. No longer would my sons take mental trips back to the house to play computer games; my daughter wouldn’t travel to a sunny beach for a vacation, and I would stay out of my kitchen cupboards. We resolved that if our eyes and attention wandered we would try to keep them in the church were they could dwell on our church’s beautiful statue of Mary, on the tabernacle to make a quick visit to Jesus, or on one of the carved Stations of the Cross on the walls. This resolution wasn’t perfect, we knew, but while we were working on our muscles of self-discipline, checking what Mary was wearing was better than checking out what the woman in the pew ahead of us was wearing.
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the key was keeping our eyes on the altar, where before our very eyes a miracle was going to happen. Through the power of God mere bread and wine was going to become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. This reminder inspired all of us. I reminded them, and myself, about the power of aspirations. Those small, short prayers would help us to remain focused on the miracle. By repeating Jesus’ name or the words of St. Peter “To whom would we go? You have the words of everlasting life” or “Jesus, have pity on me, a sinner” or any of many other short prayers, we can keep our eyes and hearts on the altar. Looking back over the children’s missal, we came up with appropriate aspirations for each period of silence. We decided what would be important for them to say during the raising of the cup and the elevation of the host. We talked about whom we would remember during this most powerful of prayers. Finally, we resolved that we would remember to place ourselves on the paten with the host as a true gift to Jesus.
I then admitted that a problem for me was being distracted by those receiving Communion. I told my children that many times I find myself giving attention to the outfits and shoes of those receiving and would even make judgments on the state of their souls! I asked them what I should do. Their brilliant idea was that instead of judging those people, I should pray for them. This bought my own words back to me, because I remind them to pray whenever they have problems with friends or family members. We all agreed than instead of seeing the Communion line as a fashion show, we would see it as a line of fellow Catholics who need our prayers.
The last part of our lesson was going over the family’s sign language, those silent signals given to the children to remind them of the manners and actions expected in any public place. We use the familiar finger over the lips for silence, but also tap a finger near the eyes to remind them of where their eyes should be. We point a finger into each palm of the hand (actually sign language for Jesus) to remind them to keep their hands still. Finally, we point to their hearts when we want to remind them to love their siblings and Jesus, and to stop squishing or teasing.
The lesson was complete, and as a final gift to Jesus we took a set of reminder cards, put them in a nicely-wrapped box and placed it on the mantle, next to a statue of Mary, His mother. It remains there today and on Sunday when we walk past we remind ourselves of how we want to act, the gift we want ourselves to be.
That day, as I was putting the supplies away, I was struck by my own failures to keep my mind and heart on Jesus at Mass. I also realized that there were holes in the children's understanding of what Mass is and should be. I had assumed they knew more than they did. This lack of knowledge wasn't from not having been taught, but rather from the need to be reminded. My husband and I are their primary educators in the faith and all other subjects. However, while we were good with using repetition as a skill in math and spelling, we had forgotten its value in every subject including faith lessons. I made a resolution to myself, and later shared it with my husband, that we needed to take a few minutes each week to remind them of what we expected and what they could anticipate. I also admitted that my example had not been what it should have been. My children were only doing what they had seen me do time and again.
I resolved to take myself to confession. In the end, what had begun as a lesson for the children had, as so often happens, become a real lesson for me.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Rachel Watkins, wife of Matt and mother of 10, is a contributor to Heart, Mind, Strength Radio program and the blogsite, www.execeptionalmarriages.com. She is also the creator of The Little Flowers Girls’ Club, www.eccehomopress.com