Catholic Family

Fr. Mike Bertram, O.F.M. Cap., at St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee talks to kids before children’s Liturgy of the Word in 2019. (Submitted photo)

Once, after a particularly fraught All Saints Day Mass with my then-16-month-old daughter, I made a social media post asking for advice on how to keep small children quiet and occupied in church.

I was relatively new at parenthood — new enough to still believe that random strangers on the internet might have the answers. New enough to think that if I tried really hard or prayed really hard, I could make my active and inquisitive toddler into the solemn, pious little Blessed Imelda clone I somehow thought was promised to all Good Catholic Parents.

“Um, don’t bring small children to church?” read the first comment, concluding with a winky-face emoji. “But seriously, we don’t bring our kids unless there’s a nursery. You don’t get anything out of it.”

I have to say that, fortunately, I have not run into many people with that same outlook. On the whole, I’ve been met with overwhelming support as a young mother in the pews. If you’re one of those parishioners or priests who goes out of your way to show kindness to a mother or father struggling with a particularly active child, please don’t ever stop doing that. Know how grateful we are.

But I’ve also heard more than one story of people being advised to leave their children home while spouses alternate Mass attendance. I’ve heard people murmur to one another asking, what’s the point of any of us coming here, if we’re not going to be able to focus? These sentiments are dangerous because they echo the lies we all (parents and nonparents alike) believe about ourselves on our worst days: “I don’t belong here.” “God doesn’t want me.” “The Church doesn’t have a place for me.” “I shouldn’t even try.”

My children, unsurprisingly, have never morphed into little Imeldas. I never found that magic toy that could make them be silent each and every Mass. I never prayed the magic prayer that gave them reverence for what was going on (although I did observe it develop, organically, over time). They remained normal children, with voices that are sometimes too loud and emotions that are sometimes unchecked.

But a different miracle did occur: we kept coming to Mass, each and every week. Even when I didn’t want to. Even when I didn’t think I could face it. Even when the middle kid was going through a phase where he would smile at me before bolting into the aisle. We kept showing up, and so did Jesus.

It may be true that, per canon law, children younger than 7 don’t have the same obligation to attend the Mass that people over the age of reason do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there. It certainly doesn’t mean they don’t derive benefit from the experience of worship, or that they don’t participate in it themselves, or that their presence does not benefit the entire community.

There are plenty of restaurants I used to love that I haven’t visited since becoming a parent, because not only would it be sort of rude to the other diners, but it would also be a grim experience for me. Why pay for something you’re not going to enjoy? But Mass isn’t a product to be consumed or an experience to curate. Mass is a miracle we get to witness. It’s a collective act of worship, and God, in his goodness, wants us all there to meet him: those so old they can’t hear the Gospel, those so young they can’t understand it, those so broken they don’t know if they can accept it. Mass is not a place where I meet Christ. It’s a place where we meet him, and he, in turn, stoops to meet us.

Is it easier to contemplate the mysteries of divine grace when everything is quiet and well-ordered? Sure. We all need quiet and order, and I’m certainly not advocating for parents to ignore children who are being disruptive — we parents need to be mindful of the community, too. Take the screaming baby to the narthex if you have to. But don’t for one moment feel ashamed of the baby or her screams. Remember, even Judas was invited to the Last Supper, and what he did was a whole lot worse than interrupting a homily.

Keep bringing that baby to Mass. She’ll keep screaming, and you’ll keep cringing, and it may be a good year or two or five before you actually hear the Gospel. Pro tip: leaf through those readings in the morning before the kids wake up.

But bringing our children to Mass creates within them a muscle memory, like a dance step. At some point during their lives, they may lose the rhythm, but they will remember the step. That screaming baby will grow up to be a person trying to find the truth in this dark, broken world. In her lowest moment, she will wonder if there is a place where she fits, where she belongs, where she can find truth and beauty even when she has nothing to offer.

You want her to remember that she once found all these things in the Church. You want her to remember how to find her way home.