The question of taking little children to church is one that most parents face at some point in their journey. Church and toddlers rarely mix, at least they don’t in Roman Catholic churches where we don’t do Sunday School and nurseries. From happy screams to whining and full-body-meltdowns, there is something inherently unnatural about sitting in a confined space for the best part of an hour, especially when you are around 2.
I have 9 children. The younger 4 have embarrassed me in church in every way you can think of and some you can’t even imagine. We’ve been asked to leave the pews. We’ve been asked the leave the narthex. We’ve been asked the leave the freakin’ cry room. When a couple explained to me that they took turns looking after the little ones on alternating Sundays, that spoke to me… And I’m a Catholic! Sunday church attendance is a precept of the Church: we have to go. I started going to Mass in 2000 when I was pregnant with my third child and I have been dealing with untenable toddlers ever since. You might think that going to church every single Sunday for 17 years might get children used to the idea but you would be mistaken: my children are determined to win this war. I have grown a pretty thick skin as a result and a different understanding of my role and expectations during Mass. It has helped me grow spiritually and that’s the spirit in which I am sharing this today.
We often expect Mass to feed us, and it is true that the Eucharist feeds us spiritually. Where our problems lie is that we often expect the Eucharist to feed us in the same way that normal bread feeds us, by giving us a sense of physical and emotional well-being. With the Eucharist, we are fed not so we can feel fed but so we can feed into the Body of Christ. That’s why we are expected to attend Mass every Sunday no matter how boring the homilies or how ridiculous the music or how mean the ushers. When we receive the Body of Christ, we become a moving Tabernacle, taking Christ into the world. Even when grumpy old folks behave like jerks, even if it’s too cold or too hot, and even if we can’t hear the readings from the parking lot where we have taken our screaming toddler. For many of us, Mass attendance falls squarely into the “sacrifice of praise” category: the idea that praise comes at a cost. My vocation calls me to raise little Catholics who understand that if we do one thing this week, it will be to go to Mass and partake in the Eucharistic celebration so we can take Christ to the world around us. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, even when it’s hard, especially when there is sacrifice in the receiving, even if we are busy during the readings and we can’t remember what the homily was about.
The first thing I like to meditate on when things get crazy and I feel like giving-up is that Christianity, the following of Christ, calls us to push the limits of our comfort zones. The Son of God died on a cross, that’s our aspiration of self-giving. So what if we organize our lives in order to show-up to church on time, with our clothes on right, without anyone pushing our buttons, so we can sit and listen? Where is the growth? Where is the cross? Where is the gift of self? Or we can come with our toddlers and get pushed around, spat on, stared at, and tell God: “You know the depth of my heart, pour into it the Grace I need. I can’t even articulate a prayer but here I am.” Jesus is made strong in weakness. He doesn’t lie when He says blessed are the weak, the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted. Sometimes I feel like all of the above when I take my twins and toddler to Mass, especially when we attend Mass in a church where we are not known. We can “get fed” by listening to a good homily and sitting comfortably, or we can get a fire hose of Grace by walking all over our pride and personal preferences taking our toddlers to Mass. Sometimes redemption doesn’t feel all that redeeming, just think of Calvary.
“Without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. The gift of grace increases as the struggles increase.” — St Rose of Lima
My “affliction” is healthy, happy, but spirited and loud children. Children blessed with a very strong will. These children will someday be leaders. They have everything needed to become productive members of society, committed to live by principles of integrity. Taking these children to Mass can be challenging but it’s ultimately small happy fry in the big scheme of what life can throw at someone.
The other thing I like to reflect on when the Mass-going gets tough is somewhat related to the theology of the body. As Catholics, we believe that our bodies and our souls exist in union. We believe that what we do with our bodies is relevant to the state of our souls, hence the Church’s teachings on contraception and human sexuality. That’s why we hold that pilgrimages and some forms of physical mortification such as fasting are keys to the purification of the soul. That’s why people haul their butts up the Camino and skin their knees on the Santa Scala. There is spiritual growth in physically getting your sorry self to Mass with your screaming toddler in a football hold. There are graces in physically keeping your child in the presence of God during Mass. The struggle is blessed a hundredth fold compared to the contained Mass attendance with your dress unruffled and your hair in place. Mass attendance is your Camino, make it count.
I don’t mean to cast shadows on my fellow sisters who manage to attend Mass without a fight. Our paths to spiritual growth are as different as we are. But whatever your cross is, don’t leave it at home when you go to Mass.