In a baffling interpretation of a recent Sunday reading, a pastor at a Catholic church in Maryland wrote a blog post about why small children don’t belong at Mass. His explanation — they are too little to understand, they are disruptive, it’s distracting to the priest, they don’t “get” anything out of it, etc. — was sad because it missed the significance of what is happening at Mass.
His argument (and this controversy) are nothing new, and thankfully was met with swift opposition on social media and in various online Catholic publications. The Catholic view of church services is very different that many other Christian denominations, because Mass is more than an ordinary service. Here are the reasons why even the smallest children should be welcome at Mass.
It is their baptismal right
Once an infant or child has been baptized (and the Church encourages baptism to happen as soon as possible, preferably within the first few weeks after birth) the child is a full-fledged Catholic. Although in the Roman rite, babies and small children are not permitted to receive additional sacraments until the age of reason, their baptism makes them an integral part of the mystical body of Christ. If the only person present at a Mass that a priest was offering was a newborn infant, we could technically say that the priest was assisted at Mass by the participation of the faithful. As a part of the Church, the baptized child has a right to participate in the Mass.
Participation at Mass isn’t just about what we do
The Mass is an act of worship. In a very real sense, prayer and worship are a sort of work – the most important work that we can possible do. Prayer is the work of the saints and the Church (which is also why the role of contemplative religious orders is so essential in the Church). However, what makes this sort of work unique is that is involves a cooperation of our will and God’s grace. We cannot do the “work” or prayer of our own volition. We can only pray with the help of the grace given by the Holy Spirit.
What this means is that our participation is, ultimately, less about what we do and more about who we are. Participation at Mass is not about serving as a lector or cantor or extraordinary minister. Participation at Mass is not about saying all the responses, singing along to the hymns, and sitting and standing and kneeling. Participation at Mass is about our presence. When we are present at Mass, we are fulfilling our role in the body of Christ. By being present at Mass, we are “being the Church” in the most real way possible. This remains true if we occasionally get distracted, if we are wrangling a toddler, or if we are a toddler being wrangled.
I have three small daughters (ages 8, 5, and 1). They have been participating in our family life from day one. Even when they are too little to eat table food, we often have them propped in a bouncy seat or cradled in our arms during dinner. We don’t hide her away in a nursery until she hits the age of reason, then bring her out and let her take part in family life. What makes our newborns a part of our family is not what they do, but just who they are.
It is the same way with the family of the Church (but even more so). What makes us participants in the Church is our status as children of God. What matters is who we are.
The priest is meant to be a father to his parishioners – all of them
Next, we come to one of the most concerning of this pastor’s reasons for small children not being at Mass – that they are distracting to the priest and other parishioners.
Obviously, I’m not a priest, but I’m friends with lots of priests and seminarians. Over a hundred, actually! My husband is a theology professor at our archdiocesan seminary, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of men preparing for priesthood (as well as a lot of excellent priests who are forming those men.) One of the things that this seminary does well is human formation. Good human formation results in compassionate, strong, healthy men, who know how to have relationships with others. At this seminary, this means that the men all have parish assignments, plenty of pastoral experience, and opportunity to interact with the lay faculty and their families. I have had everyone from the rector to members of the formation team to seminarians thank me for bringing our children to visit the seminary. (We come at least once a week, to go to Mass and eat lunch with my husband and the seminarians.) It is mutually beneficial – the seminarians get to form relationships with families like those they’ll be serving, and families get to benefit from truly beautiful friendships.
These interactions with professors and their families are more than just enjoyable times of fellowship – they are a part of what shapes these young men for the priesthood. The formation team believes that it is vital for these men to have experience with married people and children. This method is working. I can’t begin to tell you how many times one of these men has come up to me (sometimes after a Mass when a child was especially noisy) and thanked me for bringing my littlest ones to Mass. “It is so good to hear the sound of children at Mass,” he will tell me.
What the pastor in the above blog post is advocating for is a kind of Downton Abbey-esque parish. The father doesn’t have to deal with the children, the adults are free to enjoy their time together, children can join in adult life when they can behave themselves. Sadly, that is a sterile sort of life.
The word “sterile” is not only used to describe a hospital-like environment. Sterile can also mean incapable of fathering children. However, spiritual fathers must father their spiritual children. Church is not meant to be a sterile environment, but rather a life-giving one.
We can only fall in love with what we know
One of this priest’s arguments was that if children can’t yet receive Communion, they aren’t really getting anything out of Mass.
One of the most beautiful names for the Church is the “Bride of Christ”. Sometimes, the Eucharist is compared to the consummation of a marriage. Long before our wedding day, my husband and I spent time together. We talked, we laughed, we just sat in silence together. We grew deeper in love and desire for each other, the more time we had together. There was such joy on our wedding day, because we would finally be one, with the one we had been gazing at.
This analogy isn’t my own – it is the analogy that St. Therese of Lisieux uses to describe her First Communion. In The Story of a Soul, she describes her First Communion by saying that she and Jesus had been “gazing” at each other for a long time, and it was a deep joy to finally be one, in the Eucharist. Her language is a bridal one.
If we want our children to truly come to know and love Jesus, then they must spend time with him. As Catholics, we have that opportunity in the Eucharist. Time with the Eucharist does more for faith formation than we realize. Forming a child in the faith isn’t just making sure that they know about Jesus – it’s making sure that they know Jesus. What better way to achieve this than by letting them spend time with him, present in the Eucharist?
It is for this reason that Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” instead of, “Let the children come to me…once they’re old enough to understand what I’m saying and sit still.”