By Sue Elvis
There’s a young, slightly dishevelled father who always appears for 7.30 am Mass each Sunday. He has a gorgeous, curly-haired baby who spends the hour wriggling in his arms, pulling on his hair. He also has a lively toddler who likes to balance on the hymn book ledge and swing back and forth over the pew while he sings to himself. Long before Mass is over, the children start making impatient noises and it takes all the young father’s ingenuity to keep them happy for the last minutes. It mustn’t be easy but each week, he returns with his children.
I look along the pew at my own children. I don’t have to think about keeping little ones entertained and babies quiet. I don’t have to remind anyone to sit up straight or pay attention. But it wasn’t always like that. I remember when Gemma-Rose was two, I read an article in our diocesan newsletter called Children at Mass. The article concluded with an invitation to share our own experiences of taking children to Mass. So I wrote:
We have a large family with children ranging in age from eighteen down to two. Although it is not always easy, we have always celebrated Mass together as a family. We have never left our babies or toddlers at home even though there have been times when I have felt very frustrated with the problem of keeping our little ones quiet during Mass. The benefits that come from including our little people in our celebration of Mass are well worth the effort involved. As babies grow into toddlers and beyond, they gradually absorb the beauty and significance of the Mass. They observe our example of reverence and attentiveness and will over time, conform their own behaviour so that it matches ours. They know that they are an important part of our community as they have never been excluded. I have no experience with children who begin attending Mass at an older age and maybe this works out well for some families…
Of course, it is a challenge for any parent to sit with a little person in Mass and having a ‘game-plan’ worked out ahead of time can make the experience less stressful. I have learnt never to enter a pew until Father is ready to begin Mass. I don’t want our toddler’s patience to expire even before Mass has commenced. I try to prepare myself for Mass while I take our youngest on a tour of the Stations of the Cross or statues. We go and say, “I love you, Jesus” to the Sacred Heart statue or I point out Jesus, Mary, John and the soldiers on the Stations.
During Mass, I will whisper in my daughter’s ear explaining what Father is doing. I will point out the candles and the statue of Mary, encourage her to fold her hands or kneel next to me. If you sit at the front of the church, a toddler will have a better view of the altar. However, if you are like me, you may prefer being able to exit quickly from a rear pew. When our toddler’s attention span has been exhausted, (sometimes this happens almost instantly!), I will move onto our own version of the ‘Mass Kit’.
The idea of a ‘Mass Kit’ for little children is wonderful. At times, other parents have told me that they believe children should learn to sit quietly through Mass without the aid of toys or books. They suggest that toys and other distractions will lead to bad habits and children will always expect to be entertained during Mass. Little people are not designed to sit still quietly for long periods of time, and perhaps it is unrealistic to expect them to do so, especially when they do not really understand what is going on. When I am tempted to think I am spoiling my young ones by letting them have a snack or a toy, I just look at my older children. They were once babies themselves but they are no longer demanding crayons or sultanas. They are quietly attending to the Mass and one day, our two year old will reach this stage herself.
If our little people cry or scream, I will remove them from Mass until I have quietened them. Because we are at Mass as a family, my husband or older children are present to keep an eye on the younger ones while I am absent from the pew. (I know that some parents are less fortunate than me, having no one to help them with their other children while they attend to their youngest.) Standing at the back of the church, I often hear comments from other exiled parents such as “Why do I bother? This is just too hard. He won’t behave. I’m getting nothing out of Mass.” Yes, sometimes I feel frustrated myself, especially in winter when I am closed out on the wrong side of the door in the cold with a fretful child. It is easy to envy those without children who can focus on prayer. However, I believe God does not penalise parents for their seeming lack of attentiveness during Mass. We are fulfilling the duties God has given to us by seeing to the needs of our children and He will reward us for the sacrifices we make. By patiently accepting my situation, I like to think that God will bestow many graces upon me.
I try to be considerate of other parishioners. I know that older people have trouble hearing even without the noise from crying children. Being prepared to remove excessively noisy children and apologising to those around me for any disturbances caused by my children, has opened the way for many encouraging comments: “We know what it’s like having children. We’re parents ourselves. You’re doing a fine job. Please don’t feel you have to take your children out of Mass. We like the sound of children’s voices.” Our family is so fortunate: we feel totally accepted by our parish.
Taking children to Mass is difficult but I would encourage parents to persevere. Children grow so quickly. Attending Mass won’t always be such a difficult experience. In the meantime, you will be blessed with much grace and your example will be an encouragement for other young families. We need our families: they are the future of our parish. Let us go out of our way to welcome and support those with little children.
It seems such a long time ago that I wrote that article. Those days of wriggly toddlers, noisy babies, frustrated feelings and exhausted parents are now just a memory. Why did we put ourselves through all that? I look at the young father on his own at Mass, juggling his two beautiful children. Why does he do it? Maybe he, like us, wants his children to grow up in front of the tabernacle, absorbing the beauty and appreciating the great Miracle of the Mass where everyone is welcome, regardless of age.
Please share my stories at my blog, Sue Elvis Writes
Please share my stories at my blog, Sue Elvis Writes