Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Children misbehaving in Mass: and an interview in Regina Magazine

I recently completed an interview with Anna-Maria Vesey of Regina Magazine on children at Mass. She said, what I am sure is true, that some parents with small children are concerned that their children won't be engaged at the Traditional Mass, or else that their behaviour won't come up to the expectations of the regulars, and that such thoughts put them off trying it out.

Watching (part of) the Easter Vigil two sets of closed doors away from the action...
It is impossible to guarantee no one at the Traditional Mass will tick off parents of small children, but I can say this to reassure parents:

There is such a thing as hostility to families and children in some churches, but this is much more common at the Ordinary Form than it is at the Traditional Mass, where there is a noticeably higher proportion of children present. This is partly because of larger families, and partly because the Traditional Mass is sought out by young parents. The sour looks and tut-tutting one gets as a parent trying to manage small children at Mass generally come from people, usually lay people but occasionally priests, who aren’t used to seeing children at Mass. People who go regularly to the TLM are that much more likely to be used to them.

You can read the whole interview here.

Here I want to say more about people ticking off parents at Mass. I've been ticked off a few times, sometimes for the behaviour not of my own but of other people's children. Inside a church at the end of Mass is not the best time and place for a discussion, still less a heated argument, and it is hard to know what to say in response.

I think a good quick rejoinder would be to direct the annoyed person to the celebrant or parish priest. It is for the priest in charge to determine what behaviour is intolerable, and it is legitimate for people unhappy with things happening in church to take their concerns to him. It is the priest who has the authority to ask parents to try a different approach to dealing with their children in Mass, if this really is necessary. He is also in a better position than a parent (or bystander) suddenly confronted with a complaint at the end of Mass (or, still worse, in the middle of it) to have a rational discussion about it.

Other things I'd like to say to those complaining about children in Mass, if it were possible to engage them in extended discussion, would be these.

Have you had the experience of bringing small children to church yourself?
Complaints seem almost invariably to come from people who have no such experience. Parents aren't perfect - we are sinners like the rest of you - but with experience comes an understanding of what strategies parents have been using or could use, why things might be difficult on a particular occasion, and so on.

Did you move from your pew near the children to somewhere further away?
Astonishingly, people complaining about children rarely seem to think of doing this. They expect parents to go to all sorts of lengths, including not coming to church at all, before it occurs to them to walk ten yards to a quieter part of the church.

Have you noticed the efforts parents are making to keep their children quiet in Mass?
The complaints of Mass-goers about one's children are particularly hard to bear when one has been standing up holding a small child, to keep him quiet, for forty minutes at a stretch, or when one has spend more than half of Mass outside with one. Sympathy for others' complaints can be directly correlated with their gratitude for one's own efforts.

Do you think that parents of small children should attend Mass?
What complainants tend not to appreciate is that if the children aren't there, their parents won't be there either, because it is generally impossible for the parents to attend without the children. This will be particularly so at the Traditional Mass, where you can't pick and choose between lots of Mass times. Another aspect is, of course, that the experience of people being extremely rude to them is likely to put many parents of small children off attending your particular church, and perhaps any church, under any circumstances. Either way, you are driving whole families away from Mass. Does anyone think that that is a good idea?

Do you think that small children themselves should attend Mass?
The subtext of at least some complaints about children is that small children should not be there at all. Indeed, hard-core tut-tutters often object not simply to children making a noise in church during Mass, but to small children playing quietly outside the back of the church, under parental supervision, when this has proved necessary. This may sound incredible, but I have experienced it with my own family more than once.

LMS Pilgrimage in honour of St Winefride, Holywell

It is true of course that small children are not under the same obligation to attend Mass as older children and adults, and it is also true that for certain classes, at certain times and places in the history of the Church, it was common to leave children at home with domestic servants while the adults went to church. (Again, in many historical and cultural contexts mothers have not been expected to leave home for a long time after childbirth.)

However, the attitude of Jesus Christ is emphatic: do not hinder little ones (pavuli in Mark; infantes in Luke) in coming to him (Mark 10:13-16). Again, he did not simply permit, but actually defended the role of children (pueri) in singing at his entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:15-16). The High Priests thought they were making too much noise...

Something which surprised me in researching for the FIUV Position Paper on Children were the Old Testament passages demanding the presence small children at liturgical events. For example:

'gather together the little ones, and them that suck at the breasts' (Joel 2:15-7)
'both men and women, children (parvuli) and strangers' (Deuteronomy 31:12)

There are many more examples of 'everyone' being called to attend the liturgy in the Old Testament, and in light of these explicit verses there is no reason to suppose that children are ever meant to be excluded.

This goes beyond the practical question of avoiding forcing mothers to stay at home to look after them. On the contrary, Our Lord tells us that small children are the model of liturgical participation, applying to the children singing for him in the Temple the (now) famous words of the Psalmist: 'ex ore infantium et lactentium': 'out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise' (Ps. 8:3). Again, Christ tells the Disciples that they must 'receive the kingdom of God' like a child (Mark 10:15). This is reflected in Christian practice in both East and West of giving infants and small children sacraments and blessings. In this context, why should anyone think that children should not be present at Mass?

The answer, in a nutshell, is a rationalistic conception of the liturgy. If you think that liturgical participation requires an intellectual grasp of what is going on, then you won't think that children will get much out of it (and nor will many adults). If, on the other hand, you think that the liturgy brings an objectively valid blessing down on those present and on those for whom it is offered, and if you think that the sacraments represent an objective divine intervention into the lives of those who receive them, then you will want to bring children to it and them. It is a rationalistic mindset that demands a liturgy in the vernacular, that wants to delay baptism, first holy Communion, and confirmation until later and later ages, that thinks that priestly blessings, holy water and scapulars, and the veneration of relics, are at best a purely natural means of reminding people (intellectually) of something or other, and at worst plain superstition, and it is this same mindset, at bottom, which objects to children being in Mass. It is this mindset which is rejected by the Old Testament and by the words of Our Lord. 

So here is another advantage of the Traditional Mass over the Novus Ordo for parents of small children, and one I didn't mention in my Regina Magazine interview. This rationalistic mindset is, thank heavens, much less prevalent in Latin Mass congregations.

Finally: Would you like to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem?
The atmosphere of disapproval which in some congregations greets parents with small children makes handling the children infinitely more difficult. Why, you ask? Because it makes everyone tense. Small children pick this up and they fidget and squeak. The people craning their necks to give them dirty looks should first of all blame themselves.

What would actually help? The single thing which would make the biggest difference for children attending any service is the timing. Masses scheduled when small children would normally be eating or sleeping are, for reasons which I need not labour, going to be a lot more difficult for them than other times. We can all appreciate the difficulty of squeezing the Extraordinary Form into an already crowded church timetable, but given the fact that parents with small children will want to attend it, some consideration should be given to this reality. The support of all parishioners in bringing the Traditional Mass in from the margins, and from the least child-friendly time slots, would make a far more positive impact than all the tut-tutting in the world.

Blessing of throats for the Feast of St Blaise.

Related: commentary on the FIUV paper on Children and the Extraordinary Form (with a link to the paper);
on Geoffrey Hull on children at Mass.

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  1. I'm not a parent unfortunately, but I think that one thing is very important: from day one, the family must pray the Rosary together every day. Beside the obvious spiritual benefits of the Rosary, that will also help improve the behavior of the children at Mass.

  2. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's heard a priest quipping "a Priest in the making" right after his sermon has been interrupted by a baby boy. In all fairness (as a single person without children) I would much rather prefer small children to be at Mass and occasionally climbing over the back of pews than to be at home. If nothing else it helps my spatial awareness as I have to navigate low flying traffic in the hall after Mass.

  3. As a small child (pre-school) I was taken (with my even younger brother) by my father to the Sunday Missa Cantata (my mother had attended the earlier Low Mass and was cooking lunch). I remember sitting quietly and absorbing the sights and sounds - my earliest musical memories are the Asperges, Missa de Angelis and Credo III. I would not have been allowed to leave my place; not that it would have occurred to me to do so.

    Were children better behaved in the 1950s? Certainly we did not run around in pubs and restaurants, but then we weren't allowed in those establishments anyway.

    It always amazes me that one crying infant can generate enough decibels to drown out a full choir of professional singers, but I have to remind myself that I'm not there for the music.

    Very small children can't be expected to sit still for over an hour, and we should not rush to criticize parents. But keep them out of the choir loft, if only for elf'n'safety reasons.

  4. Good stuff. We're hoping to be first-time parents soon, and I'm trying to get my eye in about how best to approach Mass-going.

    My wife and I have never been really got annoyed with babies and toddlers crying (that's just what they do), but when we get the sense that the children are being allowed simply to misbehave then we do lose patience.

    We've been put off one church because there were parents there who let their children run around and throw things, which is really a bit much.

    I suppose a relevant point (being Devil's advocate) is that in many places only Low Mass is available and some people really relish the silence and restfulness of it, which aggravates the situation a little.


    When Jesus was
    A little Boy
    I'm sure sometimes
    He cried

    Cradled in Saint
    Joseph's arms
    Next to Mary's

    Just like today
    At Mass sometimes
    Our patience can
    Be tried

    When little children
    Fuss and fret
    Take all of it
    In stride

    For they're vocations
    Progeny of
    His Bride

    And possibly
    Another Christ
    With you
    At death's bed-side

  6. Fidgeting and talking are understandable but there are some parents who allow their children to run around the church during Mass. This is totally unacceptable. Children should learn that not everywhere is a playground.

    1. I agree, Brian. The author of this article casts blame on those who attend Mass to worship God. As a long-time teacher of children of all ages it must be asserted that present-day parents do not, as a rule, demand from the children the decorum and self restraint that were expected of children in earlier times. From such parents we hear the complaint that others are 'not understanding' of how difficult raising children is. No one is faulting very small children for moving around, but seeing the free reign and distracting noise and maneuvers from children who are well capable of understanding where they are and why they are there is frankly repugnant. What really gets me is when small children are given food to quell them. What message is that sending? This issue of how children conduct themselves at Mass is part of the larger issue of how this permissive culture in which we live must be accepted before any other priority. Mass is the greatest act of worship there is and small children will conduct themselves accordingly if it is expected of them.

    2. Obviously some behaviour is unacceptable. That is partly why it is worth noting that behaviour is better at the EF.

  7. There is a lot of young children and young families at our ef mass including my own. I think its really striking how well behaved they are poor behaviour would be so much more noticable especially with long periods of silence but the children are always very respectful especially durring the long silence of the consecration. My eldest son 5yrs is probably the least well behaved of all the children but he always responds to the silence of the consecration with kneeling in silence himself... its as if the silence reaffirms the special moment in the childrens minds. I remember once many years ago long before i had children i went to a novis ordo mass a woman with a child maybe no older than two was sitting next to me... after mass on my way out she stopped me and appologised for the tantrum her child had been having throughout mass. I looked at the child and smiled touched the childs cheek and said "dont worry the kingdom of God belongs to such as these"

  8. I think the main frustration with children at Mass is when parents allow them free reign to play anywhere in the church. I have often looked in amazement when parents do nothing whilst they run up and down the aisle or even play around on the footsteps of the sanctuary. This is certainly more of a common occurrence in the Novus Ordo and very frustrating when one is trying to pray.

  9. Two words: Cry Room. Lot of parents are considerate and use it. Some feel since they have to put if with their screaming brat then we should too, never mind that we can't hear the service or pray.
    Once on an Easter Sunday the kids in front of me sat in the pew and gorged on Easter candy. Not small chocolate eggs but big Bunnies from a box. All through the service too. These were not 3 or 4 year olds but 10 or 11 year olds.

    Like some have brought up have seen the kids running in isle but mostly playing in the pews. This is Mass not a playground.
    Very much agree with Brian, the older kids can tough it out for less than an hour.

    One lady I know would bring her special needs adult kid to Mass. Out of now where he would run down the isle and toward the altar while shrieking like a pterodactyl. The priest told her in no uncertain terms he had to be in the cry room after that. Even in the cry room his shrieking could be heard just not enough to disturb people. Not saying this as a means of forbidding him from Mass just giving insight as to how loud and disturbing to people trying to worship he was. His mother seemed oblivious to this fact.

    Now have a serious question for those who call yourself Catholic. When I was growing up if I'd misbehaved like some of the stuff in this story and some of your comments I would have been punished hard when I got home. I was not a Catholic as a child so what does that tell you about my parents and the denomination I grew up in? Maybe they expected children to behave in the house of God? Funny is it not heretics made their children behave yet I come to this faith and have to deal with this? Yes I quite agree Jesus said let the children come unto me but the Bible also said "spare the rod". No am not saying beat them to death but am saying what the Bible is clearly saying and that's correct their behavior. Do this before you have the next generation of snowflakes.

    1. Crying Rooms (as we call them in the UK) are a really terrible idea. They are convenient from everyone but make things worse for parents in every way. I will write about this problem on another occasion.

  10. Whenever I'm at mass and there are little ones with their kinetic energy bopping around, I just consider it a part of God's blessings.