I remember the first time I took my two young children to daily Mass. My youngest was a baby. After Mass, an older woman came up to me and told me I was “so brave.” I could not help but to ponder what this meant. Surely, I was not worthy of a term applied to martyrs and war heroes. Perhaps she was echoing what we often tell our children when they are about to do a public event: “be brave.” What did I have to “be brave” about at daily Mass?
Mothers and fathers will eventually feel some embarrassment or maybe even shame at Mass because of how our children behave. After all, their actions, as a whole, do reflect our successes and failures as parents. But we should not let this hinder us from bringing our children to Sunday Mass, daily Mass, Adoration or any other prayerful activities. After all, in Matthew’s gospel, who is rebuked when the children are coming to Jesus? It is not the unruly children, nor their frazzled parents, but only those keeping the children away from him. Jesus does not qualify which children can come to him. He does not say only the well-behaved children should come to him. Jesus wants both the behaved and misbehaving children to come to him.
Sometimes our self-consciousness can distract us from fully bringing our children to Jesus. If we judge children by how quiet they are during Mass, we miss the joy of Mass. It is true that young children need to have things to occupy their shorter attention spans. But silent children are not children who are praying and praising the Lord. As parents, we should be actively participating and teaching our children about what is going on at Mass. And for non-parents, we need your encouragement at Mass, not to keep our children silent or offering praises for good behavior, but acknowledgement and excitement that the children are praying to and praising the Lord.
It is essential to work with children throughout the week on the components of the Mass, and then to progressively integrate those components each Sunday. This will look different for every child and every family. For us, the first prayer that I taught my son was the sign of the cross. For him, Mass starts at the holy water even before we enter sanctuary. We pray with the sign of the cross as a family. We say that same prayer as we genuflect together before sitting down. Throughout the Mass, I engage him in prayers and responses. When the readings are read, I will prompt him to listen for the characters with whom he is familiar from our nightly children’s Bible stories. He is not forgotten to sit in the pew, expected to color a book the whole Mass.
Sunday Mass can seem like a daunting experience to parents. And if practice and preparation doesn’t occur throughout the week, then perhaps the statement “be brave” does apply. But if we are working with our children throughout the week, then going to Mass will be more familiar to them and they can participate more fully. For example, our family practices prayers every night before bed. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we join hands, just as we would at Mass. When Sunday comes, the children know what to do.
At Mass, we get to have a real encounter with our Lord and Savior. If we take this excitement and live it throughout the week, then our children will see Jesus throughout their days. Mass will start to take on new meaning as we live out Christ in our daily lives with our children. Let us join St. Paul in saying, “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
I still cringe when one of my children starts screaming during the homily or when one of them loudly asks if we are done yet. But that embarrassment applies only to me. Jesus is the focus at Mass, and he wants our children fully there. But these moments will be fewer and less embarrassing if we focus on the source and summit of our faith, our Savior present in the Eucharist. And when we prepare our children throughout the week for the beauty of Sunday Mass, our feelings become less about shame and more about the joy of bringing our children to our Lord. So, take bravery as your compliment if you bring your children to Sunday Mass and leave it at that. But what I hope for all parents is that we “be diligent” in encountering Jesus in our lives and the lives of our children each and every day.