Children in Church

He claimed the sanctuary as his own with his powerful presence and began his talk. Minutes into it, a child squawked. Once. The priest whirled around and located the source of the noise.

“Please take the child out,” he commanded.

The parents didn’t move, thinking, no doubt, as the rest of us, that he was joking. Perhaps he was going to make a point about inhospitality, about children and the kingdom. About something. No. He was serious.

“Please take the child to the crying room,” he repeated, “We do not want the others present to be distracted.”

So the father rose from his seat, climbed through a pewful of knees and bags carrying the now silent child, and walked to back of the church, back to the glassed-in cage where, according to some, babies belong.

There are as many schools of thought on the portentous issue of children in church as there are on the nature of the soul, it seems.

The first, known technically as the Dried-Up Humorless Geezers, don’t want them around at all. They maintain that if children must be present in the actual church building, they should sit in the cheap seats, otherwise known as the cry room, a house of horrors as rowdy as any bleacher bum section at the ballpark on a Saturday afternoon.

Or they should sit in the back. Now, the back is useful when you have a baby you might need to whisk out and change without having to parade down the center aisle, but anyone with children knows that they cope much better when they sit in the front. Why? Because they can see what’s going on, that’s why. Imagine that you had to spend an hour in a room listening to words you don’t understand with nothing else to see but the backs of people who are twice as big as you are. You’d be bored too.

The group standing in opposition to the Geezers likes to be known by its acronym, LETTECE (Get it? It’s cute. This group likes cute.), which stands for “Let The Children Entertain.” They see disruptive children as the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. They like to trade stories about how sweet it was when Johnny McDougal swung on Father’s chasuble during the Eucharistic Prayer. They’re gratified that the Lewis kids feel so at home in the sanctuary they use the altar as home base during tag.

I’m of the moderate school — parents who affectionately call ourselves the I Love You, But Please Shut Up And Stop Fidgeting So I Can Pray For Maybe a Record Twenty Seconds During This Mass society.

A child who is screaming bloody murder over a banged head or a denied request should be hustled out of church until the painful moment has passed. Parents who bring toys that squeak, clatter or clank to amuse children during the liturgy should have their heads examined. I will never forget sitting behind a child who had been given a plastic container filled with perhaps three dollars’ worth of pennies to entertain herself at Mass in a church with plastic chairs and a parquet floor. Unbelievable.

But with that said, I find it hard to understand why anyone can’t accept the cooings of babies, the self-absorbed murmurings of toddlers, and even an occasional shriek as the normal sounds of the Body of Christ.

When I think about this, I sometimes remember being at a Saturday evening Mass, when at some point, I had reason to walk through the crying room. The congregation in the main body of the church had been completely adult, polite, silent, and to put it gently, low energy. As I opened the door to the room, I was met with a chorus of babbles, whimpers, cries and restless giggle-noises.

It was like going from death to life. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to break down the wall of that stupid baby prison and fill that very adult, very mature world with the energy of the young, which it had closed up in a back room where they could be neither seen nor heard.

Is this really such a difficult matter to resolve? Parents committed to teaching about reverence in church (a cause to which crying rooms contribute nothing), and parishes that welcome children and families into their midst, not their outlying districts, and are committed to keeping children’s attention, not with gimmicky “Jesus R Us” Masses, but by sparking their natural spirituality with fearless and vigorous use of every single ritual act and object tradition that creativity places at their disposal. Isn’t it possible to have expectations of children’s behavior, love them and be accepting of what it means to be a child, noise and all? Isn’t that exactly what good parenting is all about, anyway?

Jesus did say, “Let the children come to me,” remember?

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