Monday, August 13, 2018

A note on babies in church, from 1921

Every now and then the issue of babies crying in Mass comes up, and I thought this note from the early 20th century is worth preserving on this blog. The book from which this anecdote comes was published in 1921 (it is available as a reprint interestingly).

Hat-tip to @AudreyFaithSeah on Twitter, who tells us

Timeless wisdom on preaching for hearing people (from a 1924 issue of “the Catholic Deaf-mute” newspaper).

I've written about children and babies in church here (on Geoffrey Hull claiming that babies should not be there at all), here (on 'crying rooms'), and here (FIUV Position Paper on children and the Traditional Mass).

I don't think (and I don't think Fr Conroy really thinks) that we should prefer listening to a baby crying in church than to the sermon; the point is rather that the occasional noise of a baby is not something out of place, in a church, nor should it be a matter of regret, let alone frustration and rage. Parents should, obviously, do their best to keep their children quiet, and everyone else should do their best to make them feel welcomed and supported. This last point, sadly, needs making more emphatically than should be necessary.

Occasionally people claim that crying babies is a new thing in churches, but as far as anecdotal evidence goes Fr Bryan Houghton expected to see small children in church in England in the 1950s and 1960s (see the first link above), and people clearly expected to see them in church in the USA in the first decades of the 20th century. As I have pointed out in the linked post on Geoffrey Hull, what else are you supposed to do with your infants when you go to church?

Our Lord of course defended the participation of children in the quasi-liturgical event of his entry into Jerusalem, a participation recalled beautifully in the chant Pueri Hebraeorum used on Palm Sunday.  Matthew 21:15-16: ‘And the chief priests and scribes, seeing the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying: Hosanna to the son of David; were moved with indignation. And said to him: Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus said to them: Yea, have you never read: Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

The kings, judges, and prophets of the Old Testament go one better, and actually command children to be present at liturgical events:

Deuteronomy 31:12 (at the command of Moses): ‘And the people being all assembled together, both men and women, children and strangers, that are within thy gates: that hearing they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and keep, and fulfill all the words of this law.’ Cf. Joshua 8:35 (at the command of Joshua), and 2 Kings 23:1-2 (at the command of King Josiah).

10 Joel 2:15-7: ‘Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather together the people, sanctify the church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones, and them that suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed, and the bride out of her bridal chamber. Between the porch and the altar the priests, the Lord’s ministers, shall weep, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and give not thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathens should rule over them.
Children at the St Catherine's Trust Summer School 2017
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  1. I'm told pews are a post-reformation invention, and that older churches, and still many Eastern churches, were without them. I've heard it's common during in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in these pew-less churches for the children to be escorted around the church in order to venerate the various Holy Icons.

    Surely it's quite unnatural and difficult for an infant to sit still in a pew for any length of time. It might be convenient to have a place in the church where the children can roam about a bit, particularly if you could involve them in something pious. This might be difficult to arrange without distracting those sitting in the harshly regimented rows of pews, though, and the idea of "active participation" in the liturgy has given many the impression that following the bare text and vocalising the responses is the only really legitimate way of being present at Mass.

    I think we have to be especially tolerant in the case of lone mothers bringing their children along, because it seems the mother has a much harder time shutting up an infant than a father (although not necessarily the case for crying babies, where the mother probably has a better chance).

    Interestingly, I get the impression from St Thérèse' autobiography that in her 19th century French Catholic household that the children were considered too young to attend Mass until they reached a certain age. There's an episode where Thérèse has to wait for her older sister to come home from Mass so that she can receive the "blessed bread" (not the Eucharist) from her, being too young to attend herself. I wonder how common and widespread that was then.

  2. Also, we should support (allow) breastfeeding in church when necessary.

  3. Yes, pews are actually a Protestant import and were not much liked by Pugin, Fortescue, and other experts, cluttering up the nave as they do, impeding the Stations, side altars and so on.

    Regarding babies, personally I'd rather they stayed home or at least moved to the porch. It's a house of prayer after all and few things frustrate this end more than wailing babies - full voiced conversation being another.

  4. I admit I used to get quite irritable about crying babies in Church - but age brings patience and empathy, and these days I am generally just happy to see young families at Mass (especially at the TLM, as this is the next generation that will grow up to carry on the old traditions after we are all gone; I was delighted to see the tiny girl in front of me enthusiastically singing the Salve Regina at the end of Mass yesterday). If I do catch myself getting a bit annoyed, I quietly say a prayer for the little ones (and their parents) and ask the Lord to watch over them and keep them safe and faithful as they grow up.

    Of course it has to work both ways, and while we should all try to be patient and welcoming to young families, there should also be understanding for those who genuinely struggle to tolerate loud, high-pitched noises (e.g., some on the autism spectrum with sensory issues) - don't automatically assume someone is a judgemental child-hater if they flinch or put their hands over their ears!

  5. It’s sad, today, because some people do not know how to parent and their children rule the roost. They scream and scream and climb all over and some parents seem clueless. Or worse, some parents today have only 1 or 2 children and treat them like gods. If they treated God with respect and the priest and the others who are at Mass, they might actually consider trying to quiet their own child/ children or taking them to the back or outside or in the bathroom for a few minutes to quiet them. Usually, the parents who actually spend time and give good attention to their children have well behaved children in church. I’m one of 7 children and my Catholic mother took us to Mass and never had any trouble with us. I took my own children to Mass and they were quiet and well behaved. I was a director of a day care of approx. 40 children and they can all behave well and be happy and quiet, if you treat them well and give them the proper attention, care, and guidance, including special needs children.

  6. I don't mind babies but parents who let their kid play with noisy toys or have tantrums get on my nerves. I once sat next to a woman whos three year old reached into my purse and took out the pill box. That couldve turned tragic and I was very glad when the mother moved to a different pew the next week. That kid was such a terror that people were relieved when she stopped coming to the evening Mass.