Saturday, April 07, 2012

Children in Mass

James Preece has picked up Fr Tim Finigan's interesting post about children in Mass. Fr Tim quotes a Fr Ryan Erlenbush on Theology Today: Crying children call to mind the mystery of the Mass.

Let the sound of toddlers and infants weeping (and even wailing) call to mind for you the tears shed by the Sorrowful Mother of our Savior, and by St. John the Beloved. 
Small children at a Baptism in SS Gregory & Augustine's, Oxford

This is a nice meditation for people enduring the crying of children in Mass, but we wouldn't want to take this principle too far, it would lend itself to parody. Should the Church employ, not musicians to sing as beautifully as possible, but professional mourners to wail during Mass, like they did at funerals in ancient times?

I have five children of or under the age of 8, and I have therefore been responsible for the sound of wailing children to be heard at a great many Masses, Baptisms, even at periods of Eucharistic adoration, Vespers, and times when people are preparing for Confession. What parents like me almost invariably do, when a small child makes a lot of noise, is (1) try to quiet him down, and (2), if that fails, take him outside.

2011 03 27_8527
Children at Mass in Holy Cross, Leicester
James Preece suggests you take children to the front of the church so they can see what is going on. I do try to get my small children to look at at least the key moments in the Mass, and to bow, make the sign of the cross, and so on at the appropriate moments, as they grow in understanding, but I'm a coward and I prefer to have a quick getaway (although I also sometimes have some with me in a choir loft). There is a reason why the priest raises his voice at certain points in the Mass, why he moves around the Altar, why he raises the Host as high as possible, and why he's on a raised platform: you can see and hear the key cues during Mass from a distance. Perhaps the Traditional Mass is more dramatic, in this sense: the visible gestures, bells, incense, the sudden silence, everyone getting on their knees for the final blessing, genuflecting in the Last Gospel... And there are some really excellent illustrated books for children to help them find their way round the Traditional Mass.

2010 10 03_7674
View from the choir loft at St William of York, Reading.
What I heartily agree with is that tut-tuting by others in the congregation (and yes, I've been a victim of this too), and, less often, by members of the clergy, does not help; nor does the ostracism of the 'crying room'. My most cherished piece of advice comes from Fr Tim's Catholic Herald column: if you can't keep your children quiet in Mass, try taking them to a quieter Mass. Keeping children quiet in Mass is all about habituation: they need to pick up the idea that people are quiet in church, and they have to learn to occupy themselves somehow in a way which won't disturb others. If you take them out too soon, they will never learn what they should be doing in church, and will get into the habit of demanding to be taken out, which they may well prefer. And then at least one parent will be stuck outside too. (A parent attending Mass with children without a spouse, for whatever reason, particularly demands our compassion.)

This means that parents won't always take their children out of church at the first sign of trouble, and they will tolerate low levels of noise. Parents are in it for the long haul: children have to get used to being in a quiet place. Tut-tuting while this is going on is tantamount to driving the next generation of Catholics out into the street.

So a certain amount of noise is inevitable and indicates a healthy congregation, not made up exclusively of the elderly. But let's not pretend it is a good thing in itself. The liturgy uses poetry, the rhythms of Latin, music, and silence, to convey its ideas to the congregation. Like it or not, wailing children don't help. Indeed, ultimately, do they do not help other parents trying to teach their own children to behave, or to focus on the Mass. But to enjoy the butterfly, you have to endure the caterpillar.


People sometimes ask why parents bring small children to Mass at all. The simplest answer is: because you can't leave them behind. I don't think people always brought children to Mass; in former centuries people with servants left them behind; mothers had extended periods confined to the house before and after birth; people didn't expect to attend Mass as a family. I've even heard of children being banned from Mass in some places, in the 18th Century, and I was surprised to read of the young St Therese of Lisieux asking her older sisters what the sermon was about when they got home from Mass. (She could talk: but she didn't yet go to Mass.) Well, that's not how we live now, and nor can we. If you want to go regularly to Mass, and you have children, you have to take them with you. This does have the advantage of giving them a chance to absorb the liturgy in a profound way, if they are also being catechised and encouraged to behave well and pay (at least some) attention. As the Jesuits used to say, 'Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.'

Wishing everyone a peacful Easter Saturday!


  1. Take your courage in your hands and go to the front! We read this piece of advice in the letters page of the Catholic Herald and gave it a go. The result has been resoundingly positive. Our children can see what is going on and have become more engaged with the Mass as a result. No, they're not always angels, but any misbehaviour is now usually in a whisper - an achievement in itself. So cower ye not in the choir loft - take the front pew. For some reason the front pews in churches are often left vacant at Mass. Perhaps it's because it has your family's name on it!

  2. Joseph Shaw11:02 am

    Toddlers are one thing, babies are another. If you have a child 0-1
    year old, then you may just have to dash off with him...
    Of course in some churches you can escape from the front, without
    running the gamut of the entire congregation. In others it can be
    By the way I'm not in the choir loft to cower, but to sing! This is an
    addition problem: splitting the family up, if one parent is needed to
    sing or serve. At least if I'm in the choir I can take a couple of
    children with me. They get a good view from there too.

  3. Ben Trovato6:26 pm

    In our parish Church, now our kids are older, the problem is the other way round.  Our kids are scandalised by the cacophony the older generation make at the end of Mass - chatting about the most absurd inaninites in loud voices - while they (the kids) are trying to make their thanksgiving...  And so the wheel turns full circle...