Bringing babies and young children to mass is hard. I’ve seen different parishes deal with this differently. Nurseries, parent co-ops, cry rooms, Children’s dismissals, even a special row in the back for quick escapes. Priests, parishes, and parents have worked hard to make it easier for parents to meet their Sunday obligation. As a parent of young children, I appreciate the effort. I also believe we have to do better.
While parents might sigh a breath of relief as they part with their little wigglers, consider for a moment what we are communicating to our children. At the core of these “child friendly” options is the common thread of keeping kids away from the mass. How can we possibly be surprised that our teenagers don’t want to come to mass when we’ve spent their whole lives training them to believe that mass is not the place for them? How can we claim, “It is important that you are here,” when it wasn’t important enough that they join us when they were younger?
Yes, bringing children to mass, especially young children, is a struggle. If you are like me or have kids like mine, it is often a humiliating struggle. I hope to convince you that entering this struggle is not only worth it, but actually an essential part of our call as parents.
Children Belong in Mass
Reason # 1: Jesus said so.
Why should we bring our children to mass? First, because Jesus said so: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” (Matt. 19:14). It is possible that Jesus merely meant these words only for the little children in front of him that day. I think that is unlikely. This short passage of two verses is sandwiched between two challenging calls to action. The first is Jesus’s “hard teaching” on divorce (don’t do it). The second is his encounter with the rich young man, who went away sad when faced with the challenge of giving up his possessions to gain salvation. Jesus is calling us to take up the hard work of bringing our children to mass to encounter him. As hard as it may be, it is much easier to help a toddler learn the mass prayers and responses than to pry open the heart of an adult child who has already closed the book on God. Jesus’s instruction is clear: when we go to Jesus, we are to bring our kids along with us.
REASON # 2: Kids Learn from the Mass.
Second, our children learn from the experience of mass. My daughter knows the feel of the holy water from the font under her hands. She knows where “Mamma Mary” is and talks with her after Mass. She offers peace to our fellow parishioners and goes with Daddy to “eat Jesus.” She has big plans to “eat Jesus” when she gets big one day, too. Sure, she sometimes eats the PSA brochure and thinks the kneelers are great playground equipment. That’s what a toddler does. That’s what God made them to do. It’s our job to redirect their curiosity and natural drive to explore in ways that help them encounter Jesus.
Now that she’s reached the “why” stage, her questions are: why Jesus is on the cross, why we eat and drink at mass, why do we put ashes on our heads. Children have absorbent minds and they are ready to encounter the different aspects of our faith at different times. Our children belong in mass so they can learn about and absorb the central mystery of our faith.
Children are not the only ones who learn and grow by their presence at mass. Jesus is clear: to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children (Matt. 18:2-4). So much of the joy of parenting is a renewed chance to see life once again through the eyes of our children. When we leave our children out of mass, we close our ears to what God might speak to us through them. We close ourselves off to an entire avenue of grace.
REASON # 3: KIDS ARE GOD’S PEOPLE, TOO.
The third reason our children have a place in the liturgy is that liturgy is the work of the people. All of God’s people. What takes place in the mass is holy, sacred, and we should include our children in that. There are many times and places where it is most appropriate to exclude our children because the task or activity is beyond them. I won’t take my baby or toddler to the movies. I won’t take them to eat at a fancy restaurant. The mass is unlike these things. The mass is not entertainment. It’s a prayer. It’s a ritual. This is the space and time in which heaven kisses earth, and Jesus wants our kids to be a part of that.
REASON # 4: KIDS NEED GRACE, TOO.
Children can and should pray. We are not here to evaluate their prayer or measure their experience of God. Our role is to provide the space and opportunity for prayer. St. Ignatius of Loyola offered this important piece of advice for retreat directors in his Spiritual Exercises: God deals directly with the retreatant. In an analogous way, parents are called to provide the opportunities in which kids can encounter the living Christ.
Reason #5: It’s a sacrament.
Mass is a Sacrament. It is about making the invisible visible. Why would we want to hide that from our kids? Kids belong in the pews, not in the nursery or the cry room. Ours is an incarnational faith. What we do with our bodies matters. Where we sit matters. Christ is truly present in the mass – in the person of the priest, in the word, in the assembly, and in the Eucharist. Christ is there, and we must let the children come to him.
But, bringing kids to mass is hard.
Yep. It’s hard. Just like basically every other aspect of parenting. There are lots of ways to make parenting easier, but let’s not fall into the trap of thinking easier means better. Instead, let’s lean into this struggle together, knowing that knowing that our efforts to include our children make the mass meaningful and important to them. Mass should be something we invite our children to enter into, and doing that means equipping them to engage to whatever degree is developmentally appropriate. It is a challenge. It’s worth it.
But, kids are distracting. Yes, children can be distracting to their parents, to those in the pews around them, sometimes to every single person in the Church. For parents, this can be humiliating. My advice? Take a deep breath and pick up your cross. Welcome to your purgatory. In the meantime, you might consider finding ways to be more intentional about your prayer time outside of the mass you attend with your children. Pray with the readings ahead of time. Listen to Bishop Baron’s homily on the “Word on Fire” Podcast or attend a mass solo during the week. There are many ways to be intentional about nourishing ourselves spiritually without sacrificing our children’s time with Jesus and his Church at Sunday mass.
What about everyone else? Shouldn’t we be considerate of their opportunity to pray at mass? If your child is having an ear-splitting tantrum, of course it is appropriate to step outside for a few minutes. But a whimpering baby or a wiggling toddler? These are the sounds of a living Church. We are the body of Christ and all of us share the responsibility of helping our children encounter Christ. If nothing else, remember that it is a spiritual work of mercy to encourage the discouraged — smile at those parents who dared to brave the pews with little ones in tow.
How can we help? At a parish level, we can be more welcoming to children in our masses. Priests and deacons set the tone for this. When a little one cries out, acknowledge it. Publicly thank young parents for bringing their kids to meet Jesus in the mass. Encourage your parishioners to welcome these little ones as well. Occasionally, speak directly to the children in your homilies. With the kids engaged, their parents will pay better attention to this part as well. Practice hospitality. Some have entertained angels without knowing it.
None of this means that children have carte blanche to use the pews as their personal playgrounds. As parents, we have a responsibility to prepare our children to participate in ways that are respectful to the community praying alongside them. At all ages, kids learn how to behave in mass from our behavior and the expectations we set for them. When we fall in love with the mass, our engagement and respect will radiate to our children. The attitudes we convey are the attitudes they will absorb from us.
There are also a few practical steps we can take to help our children feel and act like they belong at mass.
- Teach your child, both at home and during the mass. Read books about the mass (I’ve made some great suggestions here.). Whisper quietly to discuss what you see, hear, and smell. Children love ritual and the more they can understand and participate in what you are doing, the more joyfully they will approach the mass.
- Set them up for success. Kids whose needs are met are better prepared to learn. Exercise prudence when choosing mass times. Make sure kids arrive well-rested and well-fed.
- Get good seats. Sit close to the front so they can see, and close to an exit so you can make a quick escape if necessary.
- Choose when not to come to mass. Kids who are tired, sick, or especially cranky for any other reason might have a legitimate need to sit this one out.
- Remember that when your kids are with you, they are there to learn how to behave in mass. No snacks. No noisy toys. For the love of God (really), no phones.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. Some days, the cry room might be a welcome escape, a place to rest when your patience runs out. That should be the exception, though, not the norm. Keeping kids out of mass is keeping kids away from Jesus. We are called to seek an experience that includes our children in the Eucharist. It’s a challenge. It’s worth it.
For more on teaching kids to love Jesus, check out this post.
What are your tips and tricks for bringing littles to Mass?