“And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.’ Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them” (Mark 10:13-16).
When Pope St. Pius X lowered the age for First Holy Communion from twelve to the age of discretion (around seven) in his 1910 Quam Singulari, he expressed his hope that children who have received First Holy Communion would be regularly admitted to the Holy Table, to be embraced by Christ, preserved from corruption, and nourished by the food of interior life. One of the hopes of the National Eucharistic Revival is that it will foster recognition and devotion to Our Lord who gives himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament, not only in today’s Catholic adults, but in our children as well.
When I was a teenager, my pastor once announced to the parish that parents needed to stop bringing Cheerios into Mass to feed their children. I remember hearing parents grumble that the pastor didn’t know what it takes to keep little kids quiet, especially those who were too young to be left in the nursery. I can’t speak to the pastor’s intentions at the time, since many parents seemed to think his concern was Cheerios being crushed into the carpet under the pews, but I must confess that the whole conversation changed my heart about Mass and inviting children to participate.
I used to think that we needed to entertain young children during Mass so that adults could pray while children are kept quiet or outside of the liturgy. As a young adult I was fully in support of nurseries, packing books or snacks, or other measures used to keep children from disturbing the liturgy. Even so, the priest’s words continued to stick with me and have given me reason to reconsider my attitude. If we spend all of the liturgy distracting our children from the greatest act of worship on earth in order to keep the church quiet, how are we different from the disciples who turned the children away from Jesus? Doesn’t he desire them to come and participate as well?
“We, the whole Church, need to be better at engaging them, not through distraction techniques, but as a meaningful part of our Church.”
As a parent I realize that helping children enter into the liturgy is not an easy task. Sometimes we must take out the screaming child or feed the hungry baby. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to help our children pray the Mass with us. Years ago, when my first daughter was only about two years old, I took her to a daily Mass in a small chapel. This chapel presented a few obstacles for a parent. First, it was a side chapel in a larger church and was just off the main sanctuary. Second, the pews were open on only one side. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it was entirely covered in marble and was the worst possible echo chamber. My daughter spent much of the homily chattering, and while she was speaking quietly, I know the priest and everyone at Mass could hear her. I ended up taking her out to keep her from being disruptive, but as I did so, she started repeating the homily back to me! Somehow, in spite of her jabbering, she had managed to catch some words from the homily! I was struck then, and continue to be amazed, by how much even the youngest children can be aware of what’s happening around them. We, the whole Church, need to be better at engaging them, not through distraction techniques, but as a meaningful part of our Church.
I would like to offer a few suggestions that have worked for my family or families that we have known:
1) Be willing to bring children to Mass, even at a young age. This is not always easy or even possible, but children must regularly attend Mass if we want them to know what it means to approach the Holy Table.
2) Make Mass a positive experience. I like to joke that I bribe my children after Mass. (They get a donut if they behave and lose bites of it to me when they don’t). It might be silly, but my youngest anticipates her reward and understands the expectations I have during Mass, offering positive reinforcement to the activity of praying at Mass.
3) Try not to distract children away from the liturgy; rather, help them understand what is happening. Perhaps whisper quietly into a child’s ear to help him or her know why the priest is incensing the altar or raising the chalice. Avoid toys, books, or other activities meant to quiet children. It might be embarrassing, but a child who belts out “Alleluia” after the Gospel Acclamation has concluded should not be quickly shushed, but should be commended for paying attention!
4) Speak to children about Mass before and after. Spend time in the car talking about the readings for the day or the different parts of the Mass. For the youngest children, discuss the colors of the day! This can go a long way to helping the child pay attention during the Mass, even if only briefly.
5) Pray daily. It is important that you pray with your children outside of Mass. If praying as a family is limited to Mass only, then praying the Mass will remain foreign to young kids.
6) Consider taking your children to adoration. If you know of a place that has Eucharistic adoration that works with your schedule, consider taking your children to a 15-minute block to introduce them to the practice. If you have multiple children, you might find that taking the children one at a time is easier.
7) Be patient with children. Their attention span is often much shorter than ours. They struggle to keep focused on the Mass, especially with all its different parts. Maybe your child can only focus for a minute or two at a time. That’s fine! Work with that.
8) Be patient with yourself. Offer your sufferings as a parent to Christ and let him know that you are trying. He will offer you the grace you need to be a good parent: you need only be willing to accept it.
9) Find time to pray by yourself. Some Sundays it will be nearly impossible to pray at Mass in the way we want or need. Find time to pray without the children. Daily Mass, during lunch breaks or other times, can be a wonderful opportunity for this prayer without the children interrupting.
10) If you don’t have children or if your children are older, offer to help other parents with several young children (or even just one baby) with whatever they need. Younger children often do well with a “mentor,” an older child who is more familiar with the Mass and can remind them how to behave during the liturgy.
11) Help pastors and those without children understand the needs of parents. Sure, a child should not be yelling out during Mass, but sometimes a cry lasts only a minute or two and it is easier to quiet the child than to take him or her out. If we always rush to get parents out of Mass any time their child makes a noise, we risk actively discouraging parents from bringing children to Mass.
These suggestions are just that: suggestions! You might have found that other ideas work for your family. As a parent, I know how difficult it can be to take my children to Mass and have them participate. Even now that my children are all in elementary and middle school, we still have trouble from time to time with them arguing or finding ways to misbehave during Mass.
“This gentleman reminded me how important it is not to give up because my children don’t always behave the way I want.”
As a parent, I have had many moments of grace reminding me why it is important to bring our children to Christ through the Mass. I’d like to share two: the first occasion happened on the road. Each time my family drives to visit my wife’s parents, we take the opportunity to visit the parish where we were married. On one visit, my son, who was very young at the time, misbehaved almost all of Mass. It seemed like I was constantly taking him to the back of the church into the tiny narthex with doors that couldn’t really contain the sounds. At one point, an older gentleman approached me to say something. I thought for sure that he was about to scold me for trying to bring such an unruly child to Mass. As this gentleman approached, I saw only kindness in his eyes. He told me that I was doing well dealing with my son and it was good that I had brought him to Mass. Until that moment, I had been judging myself for my unsuccessful parenting strategies and was horrified by my son’s behavior. If I’m honest, I was angry and embarrassed with him (and with myself). Worst of all, my son was the only one who was causing a scene! The kindness of this gentleman, though, reassured me that our presence was a good thing. His actions made me feel more welcome at Mass as a family than anything else could have. This gentleman reminded me how important it is not to give up because my children don’t always behave the way I want.
The second moment of grace happened in the last couple of years, when public Masses had been suspended in our area. Our parish devised a way to have Eucharistic adoration a couple of days a week where families could sign up and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. I tried to take my oldest girls every Friday morning, and we would go as a family on Sunday. Before this point, I must admit that I had not considered taking my family to regular Eucharistic adoration, since I thought the children were too young. The first few times we went, they were not sure what they were supposed to do, so I spoke to them about why we were there, the practice of adoration, and suggested some different prayers and reflections they might offer. I also encouraged them just to sit quietly and let Our Lord speak to them. Very quickly, our Friday mornings before the Blessed Sacrament became a highlight of our week. In many ways, though we yearned to go to Mass, these moments sustained us until we could once again participate in the Holy and Divine Liturgy.
During this Eucharistic Revival, we need to be mindful of the needs of our children. Not only are they the future of our Church, they are her very present. Pope Pius XII admonishes us, “If the faithful strive to live in a spirit of lively faith … they will take to their hearts those members who are the object of our Savior’s special love: …children whose innocence is so easily exposed to danger in these days, and whose young hearts can be molded as wax…” (Mystici corporis 93). As baptized Christians, our children belong to the Body of Christ and the youngest can anticipate the day that they, too, will receive Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion. We need to accompany them so that they recognize and come to Jesus, present in the Bread of Life, who wants to nourish them and pour out his graces upon them.