By Lindsay Schlegel
For over a decade, I have been bringing my young children to Mass, not only on Sundays, but often during the week as well. There are certain developmental stages each of my children has been through. There have also been particular joys and struggles with each child. As challenging as it can be to bring kids to Mass (and to be honest, I’m in a somewhat challenging stage right now!), I am confident of the fruit, both for the children and for the parish community.
The Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life. If we want our children—I say “our” both as a parent and as a member of the Catholic Church—to appreciate this most important celebration of which we humans are capable, then we need to welcome them with all fullness.
The Scripture typically referenced in conversations on this topic is “Let the children come to me,” variations of which appear in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matt 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16). But what does that look like on a daily basis in a twenty-first century parish?
Here are some things that have helped me feel welcome with my family at Mass and that I strive to offer to other young families.
This simple gesture can go such a long way. I appreciate it when a fellow Mass-goer smiles when we come inside and find our seat (even if we’re a little late) or when a child speaks loudly. Sometimes someone behind us will distract the baby for a few moments with a silly face (best if they stop before the baby starts to giggle). A smile can say, “I’m glad you’re here,” “I get that kids make noise,” and “Thank you for the joy your little one brought me today.” And all of those things are what make me feel comfortable coming back to that parish again next time.
This one is tricky. There have been times when a fellow Mass-goer has approached my family after Mass to tell my kids they were so well behaved, when what they don’t know is that someone ignored my whispered reprimands for fighting over the book bag and has a time-out to look forward to at home. While the intention is good, I worry it will confuse my kids when someone else tells them they were so good (which usually translates to “so quiet”). Quiet and reverence are important for children who are capable of practicing them, but I’d prefer to have my kids praised for participating in the Mass in some concrete way, perhaps by singing or by walking peacefully in the communion line.
Likewise, a friend recently told me about an experience she had at a parish that was not her home base. At the end of Mass, someone told her and her husband not to worry; taking kids to Mass gets better as they get older. Now, my friend’s three young children are typically very calm and peaceful at Mass, and were no less so in this situation—or so they thought, at least. This woman projected her own standards onto my friend’s family and made for an unnecessarily awkward end.
That said, the thing I’ve most appreciated from other people at Mass is the encouragement that what my husband and I are striving to do in bringing our kids to Mass is worthwhile. Really, I don’t need to know how other parishioners judge my kids’ behavior (I don’t mean to be disruptive, of course, but other people’s opinions are not paramount). What I need to focus on is the reality that Jesus loves it when any of us—young or old—comes into the Church to celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. He wants to be with us. He delights when we walk through the door. He knows our faults, our failings, and our struggles to be present in the time we spend with Him.
God wants a relationship with each of His children, and we do well to make that as regular a possibility as we can for the children in our homes and the children in our parishes. Consider your smile and your encouragement an active prayer for future vocations to both religious life and marriage.
And if at some point, you hear a child call out as mine once did, “Father John, are you done yet?” stifle your laughter, but don’t spare your smile.
Lindsay Schlegel is the author of Don't Forget to Say Thank You: And Other Parenting Lessons That Brought Me Closer to God. She and her high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband live in New Jersey with their five children.