Suffer the children: A post for my Catholic readers who are just about fed-up

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.

14 thoughts on “Suffer the children: A post for my Catholic readers who are just about fed-up

  1. Somehow all my children lose control of their spines when we go to Mass. My weekly pep talk involves reminders to not.lie.down. on the bench! Either that or they become perpetual motion machines. The oldest is gradually getting better, at age 8, but the rest have a long way to go. Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. I love this. I remember one Summer Mass where the singing was abysmal, the readers illiterate, Father’s accent was indecipherable and the man next to me smelled so bad I assumed it had to be Jesus in disquise. It was one of the holiest experiences of my life.

  3. Bless you! I spent some time pondering this on Christmas eve. Father managed to make it almost as long as the Easter vigil (I may be exaggerating). As we neared the hour mark and had yet to reach communion the children let us know time was up. There wasn’t a corner of that church without a crying, whining, squirming, babbling, child…including my 3yo who had reached her limit! As a Christmas miracle my 5&8yo kept their act together knowing gifts followed mass, lol! Many years ago we had a priest who actually enjoyed hearing the children and knowing they were present….boy did I love him!

    1. Isn’t it fascinating how all the children lose it on cue at the one-hour mark? The same thing happens at every Parish I’ve ever visited. I remember one day when there were many (many) long announcements and one of my kids stood up on the pew and said (very clearly) “Ok, that’s enough!”

  4. I certainly can relate. I am due any day now with my 6th. When we first moved to where we live we were the only people with children at the 9 am Mass (11:30 family mass just was too late, since our children woke us up at 6:30 every morning). I like to tell parents there is a lot in perseverance, and perseverance is a virtue. I also believe Jesus wants our children at mass. So I say to myself in my tough moments, one of the few thing Jesus ever said regarding children. “Let the children come to me”
    Thanks for this honest post we all need to know we’re not alone in this beautiful challenge of raising children born with human nature not yet formed.

  5. Good job Véronique!!

    I don’t often take time to read through such messages, but your moved me enough to do so. Once I read it I wanted to applaud you!! I believe that God is honoring you for your efforts in raising up a child as he should go…. so that when he is old, he shall not depart! Being part of a church community should be pleasant and supportive. I am so sorry for the judgement and rejection you have already lived. If we as believers don’t bring our children to church, WE will be the last Christian Generation. Thank you for fearlessly continuing to honor our Lord Jesus Christ in the church of your choice! I would love to invite you to attend a church that does offer the fruits of the spirit, and children’s church! There are many out there. If anything, please know that you are not alone! My prayer for you is that you are blessed beyond measure! Julie Ottawa

    1. Dear Julie, thank you so much for taking the time to read and to write in reply. Your encouragement means so much to me! Thankfully, I have been to enough different churches to know that some communities are more welcoming than others. We’ve seen the range! And I’m happy to say that the welcoming Christian communities far outnumber the not-so-welcoming ones. Of course, the negative always stands out more but there is more good than bad on the whole. Because of our teenagers’ work schedule, we often end up in parishes that are either closer or more convenient than our home Parish. Our home Parish in Lanark is wonderful and they love the children. When we first came, one of the older ladies told me: “It’s wonderful that families are coming now, we’re starting to have Baptisms again. For a while all we ever saw were funerals.” The older folks who have that wisdom can see their communities dying in real time. Those who can’t see it will just wake-up one day as the last Christian generation, as you say so well.

      May God richly bless you

  6. No Catholic should be complaining about spirited children at mass. They should be grateful you are bringing your children.

    1. You would think… I don’t want to paint entire communities with the same brush: every community hs a bunch of welcoming people but it only take one nasty comment by someone in a bad mood to leave a lasting impression.

  7. Why don’t Catholic churches do something specifically for children? the Orthodox do. Protestants certainly do, in fact they can go overboard, here, actually. But my concern for the Catholic children of the world is that they dislike church and leave when they are able. Not asked to be snarky, asked because I would genuinely like to know…

    1. I started writing a reply and it turned into a blog post… Stay tuned! (Seriously though, I didn’t realize I had so much to say on that topic but being a mom of 9 with one grown kid out of the Church gave me a bit of an opinion…)

      1. Cool. I can think of reasons myself. It’s important to be there for the Eucharist, for example. However, kids could be brought back in for this. (I believe this is what the Orthodox do, with the added benefit that the smallest of kids are allowed to participate.) My single most pressing concern is that children fall in love with Church and Jesus, and so the question is around how that happens. Of course, children can become disenchanted with whatever they were raised with, and they do… Plus, I do think what you do and say at home matters a lot more than how precisely you spend two hours on a Sunday morning. Needless to say, I’ll stay tuned for your post. 🙂

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