This guest post on children in church is written by Marti Salas, Director of Religious Education here at St. Austin.
Recently Pope Francis said, "Babies cry, make noise, go here and there. But it annoys me when a baby cries in church and there are those who say he needs to go out. The cry of a baby is God's voice: never drive them away from the church!"
I’m not one to publicly go against Pope Francis; however, I have worked in the Catholic Church for almost twenty years, and I can promise you that the topic of babies and young children in church can incite some pretty heated discussion and call forth strong opinions.
On one hand we have parents of young children (of whom I am one) who are just doing well to get to Mass on Sunday. Getting everyone fed, dressed, out the door, parking the car, and finding a pew is not as easy as it sounds. Many of us are doing well to get there, even if it is five or ten minutes late. As modern, educated parents we are trying to teach our children to be self-sufficient, thinking, questioning, participative and dialoging human beings and members of society. We encourage babies and toddlers to explore their world, because experts tell us that it’s good for them. Then, come Sunday morning, they’re expected to sit quietly for a full hour. Church “experts” admonish us for bringing books or Cheerios or anything not liturgical or Church-centered. Occasionally, we might wonder if the Church is trying to make it harder on us on purpose. It’s even possible that we’re so used to our pre-school child or toddler or infant squirming or making noise that we don’t really notice that it’s really bothering the people around us. As parents, the threshold for what bothers us is a pretty high bar.
On the other hand, our parish community is wonderfully diverse. We have families, college students, single adults and retired couples. All of us come to Mass looking for God in different ways. An adult or college student whose week is over-full might be looking for a nice, peaceful hour of prayer and worship. Maybe it’s the only time of the week they get to sit still and not answer their phone. They come and find a nice corner pew in which to pray and listen attentively to the word of God. And, then, a three year old sits behind them, jumping on the kneeler and banging their sippy cup on the back of their pew. The mom and dad are just thankful that the three year old is quiet. Yet, the person in front of them—the one who thought they’d found a good seat for Mass—can’t hear the readings or the homily and spends the hour feeling frustrated.
How do we be a community for all? How do we recognize that children move and make noise and don’t naturally fit into an adult liturgy? How do we respect that other adults around them come to Mass with needs for quiet prayer, inspiration, song, community and worship? Can we be a place where both are welcome—and, more importantly, valued and respected?
Over the past few months, I have been part of many discussions on this matter. Our parish staff and parish pastoral council have taken up the issue. We have looked online for resources. We have started a Children’s Liturgy of the Word at the 9 a.m. Mass. And, still, once a month or so, the issue comes up. So, we want to start a dialogue here in our parish community on the topic. The short answer is that, if your baby or toddler is making a racket, please take them out to the narthex of the church. A good gauge might be that we have moved from one part of the Mass to another and they haven’t quieted down, it’s likely disturbing folks around you. Conversely, if a child near you is making a little noise or causing a small-but-manageable-and-short-term disruption, please take a deep breath and try to be patient for just a bit. We really are glad they’re here.
If you have helpful comments, ideas, resources or suggestions, please email them to me at the parish office (firstname.lastname@example.org). In the coming weeks, we will publish some of them here in the Sunday bulletin. We’d love to hear from all members of our community. All are welcome and celebrated in our community!