We prepare our children for Mass well before they arrive at church. In my house, when we are successful, clothes are laid out the night before, right down to the shoes (shoe scrambles have often been our undoing). If we are going to Mass during a camping trip, we might wear clothes that are suitable for hiking, but the general rule is that we dress up for Mass. We remind the children that they are going to see the King. Our bishop wrote recently about the importance of our “Sunday best.” Clothing doesn’t have to be expensive and it shouldn’t be flashy, but it should reflect our disposition toward being in the presence of the Lord. When we dress our children in “special” clothing, they behave better. They rise to the occasion, to the expectation, of the clothing. If we dress them as if they are going to the playground, they are going to play.
Before they leave home, they are well fed. Rare is the child who can’t go an hour without food or drink. If you leave the bags of Cheerios and the sippy cups at home, there won’t be Cheerios thrown into the aisle. The cups will not roll away. Mom will not be digging through a diaper bag to the distraction of her entire family and everyone around her. Even little ones, when reminded at home to eat because there is no eating at church, can easily understand and follow this rule. The biggest problem we have ever had in over 16 years of our “no food” policy is our children wanting the fun finger food brought along for the child in front of them. Of course, nursing babies are exempt from the “no food” rule and they are fed promptly and discreetly.
Wanting our neighbor’s food is not the only coveting happening during most Masses. Frequently, it’s toys that children want. All sorts of superheros and tiny cars and Barbie dolls are on display most Sundays. Like food, we leave toys at home. They really aren’t necessary and they are fuel for all kinds of squabbles and skirmishes. This is also a point of preparation. From the time they are very young, children can understand what is happening at Mass. If we are going to play, better to play Mass at home and really teach a child what is happening before her eyes each week. Name the sacred vessels and the linens. Talk about the epiclesis and the consecration and the Real Presence. And then during Mass, gently and quietly remind a child to “watch for Jesus.” The awe and the mystery of the Mass really is enough to keep most children engaged.
Practice sitting still at home. Read stories aloud to children, even stories without pictures. The habit of attention is a valuable one to cultivate. We need to be careful not to let television and video games rob our children of the ability to be still and know God. Don’t underestimate a child. Children with special needs will be particularly challenged by the sensory experience of Mass, but the grace is theirs to be had as well. With patience and training, almost every child can grow to truly appreciate an hour of reverence in the sanctuary.
Sometimes, preparation means ensuring that the atmosphere of the sanctuary is conducive to reverent behavior. Are the adults respectful? Are they quiet and focused before Mass, saving the very vital community socializing for the vestibule after Mass? Children will mimic their parents. If they see that noisy conversation is the norm, they won’t understand that it’s okay to chatter one moment and it’s not accepted the next. If we approach the sanctuary as a sacred space always our children learn that it is so.
As luck would have it, I’ve attended Mass in lecture halls, cafeterias and gyms almost my entire adult life. I’ve been privileged to be a part of a parish which met in a cafeteria but was still able to foster an atmosphere of peaceful worship. The same children who were rowdy in that space on weekdays were reverent there on Sunday. When they entered before Mass, the Knights of Columbus were leading the rosary. Everyone was dressed differently than they were on school days. The expectation was one of quiet contemplation and reverent celebration. And the children knew it.
I asked the pastor there how he managed to never have disruptive children during his Mass. He told me that if a child started to make noise, he’d offer a prayer to his guardian angel and ask the angel to assist the mother’s and the child’s angels. He said that, always, the child would quiet or the mother would leave the room with him. He also assured me that there were many graces to be had by mothers in the vestibule with small children who are just learning that being in the sanctuary is a privilege. I find that our vestibule days are usually over by the time our children are 2. I’ve never forgotten that that priest was praying such prayers. To me, that he was so spiritually connected and so mindful of the souls of the children in his care was the ultimate act of child-friendliness.
How much more beautiful would the sanctuary be if, instead of inappropriate liberties or disapproving glances shot at the parents of recalcitrant tots, we all offered such prayers. We do our children no favors if we don’t teach them how to pray. And we truly deprive them if they can’t enter a church on a Sunday morning and be enveloped by the peace that passes understanding.
Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at www.4reallearning.com.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)