Little gymnasts flipping over pews, a trail of goldfish in your wake, unsuspecting parishioners jarred by an unidentified flying toy or tug to the hair as they try their best to remain reverent. Is this what Jesus meant when He said “Let the children come?”
Mass with children is the easiest way to make what is supposed to be the holiest hour of the week seem like an eternity of embarrassment, apologies, and unending discipline. Eventually, two very sleep deprived parents begin to find themselves dreading the Lord’s day, and seeking desperately a solution. The silent prayer they desire is unfulfilled, the Gospel often passes unheard, and emergency bathroom trips even occasionally prevent a parent from receiving Communion.
There begins to exist a dichotomy between what we know is occurring mystically, and what we experience presently. We know in our mind and hopefully heart, that Mass is truly heaven on earth. This greatest and most glorious event occurring on the altar before us, in which the heavenly court joins us in celebrating the presence of Jesus among his earthly Church, could not be more real. There are angels truly present. Heavenly choirs, despite the human voices from the choir loft. The saintly souls proclaiming salvation, and then there is the Triune God! But I don’t see any of that, and often amidst the distraction, I don’t feel it either. If only my kids could see and hear the angels, recognize the saints before them, and be enraptured by the visual presence of God, Mass would be glorious again.
But alas, the limitations of our human condition have caused a separation between heaven and earth, making this nearly impossible. And so, we struggle to cling to the truth we know, of the divine presence before us, despite the distraction of boredom and meltdowns around us. The good news is that our children will not always be this young and hard to wrangle in the pew. Distraction however will remain an almost certain guarantee in one form or another, from within or without. The even better news, is that in heaven we will be given eyes to see that which can only be perceived by faith here on earth. Our immortal souls will be able to finally behold God face to face, and we will exist in the uninterrupted state of perfect happiness!
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” He also said, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Yikes! Can you imagine if we all started behaving like our children in church? Certain chaos would surely ensue, as people trample one another to run up the aisle to the altar, banging every stained glass window along the way, and then dunk themselves in the holy water as a finale! The cry room would be stuffed to the gills, and a song book would not be found that was not torn, chewed, or colored.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t say to act like our children. He said to be like our children. Through their innocence, purity, and unquestioning faith, our children teach us how to properly come to Jesus. That is their gift to us, to show our hearts the way to Jesus, through gentleness and compassion. Our gift to them in return, is to teach them to come to Jesus through worship, through an act of discipline and love, because he has required it.
The two main fallacies of those who struggle with Mass, in large numbers fallen-away Catholics, are that Mass is somehow for our entertainment, and that we are somehow the ones who come to be worshiped. These beliefs are often subtle, unrecognizable even to the individual themselves, but lie in the desire to be personally engaged, welcomed, and made to feel important and indispensable in the church. The truth is God does not need us, but he wants us, and he created us for the purpose of love and worship. We come first and foremost to Mass because God commanded it, and he commanded it to be practiced and participated in a certain solemn and ritualistic manor.
Life often teaches the hard lesson that ‘good guys finish last,‘ but this only makes it all the more imperative to teach our children that sometimes last is okay, because last is first in the kingdom of heaven. As they will learn, many good things seem boring, unimportant, and painstakingly useless. For their parents, in this season of life, it may be fighting on the bathroom floor with tiny teeth and a Thomas the Train toothbrush, making songs about spinach, and over-dramatizing the repetitive process of dirt disappearing under the mouth of the vacuum. Yet, as ridiculous as these battles sometimes seem, they somehow remain worth fighting for, because on a much less significant scale, we know they are good.
Our God is not only a God of rules, although rules are generously given for our good guidance. Without them we would surely return to grumbling in the dessert about a God we know not how to worship or please. God’s justice is only outdone by his mercy, and from the outpouring of that merciful heart, he wants us to love him above anything else. He wants us to come to him as children, because he loves us as children…his children.
The love he asks is hard, because at times it involves great sacrifice. We’re reminded of this every time we gaze upon the crucifix. It is precisely because the Mass is a celebration of this great sacrifice of love, the reverence required is much deeper than anything we will experience this side of heaven. Far deeper than a good time had by all, and a feeling of outward inclusion and acceptance, the Body and Blood of Jesus we are able to receive is infinitely greater and inclusive in Christ himself.
It’s hard to teach love, and let’s face it, it’s hard to understand love, even as adults. Many of us come from families that are broken, leaving only a remnant of faithful and practicing members. Likewise, many of our friends have watched their children stray from the faith. This is nothing new. In fact, the concept is demonstrated over and over again in scripture, beginning with Cain and Abel. As much as we would like each and every last one of our children to go the way of the Lord, we must accept they were also given a free will. As Mother Teresa says, “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.” The one who created and loves our children most of all, has instilled in them a holy longing for an eternal destiny with him.
Trust and pray always for your children! In the meantime, here are some practical ways to keep the faith, even through the fits and fantastical rebellions of your current Sundays:
1. Make Sunday Special – Dress the Part. When I was a little girl, I loved going to Mass. I loved the fact that I got to wear my fancy white Mass dresses, complete with ribbon adorned wavy brim hats and white lacy gloves! No, I’m not from the 18th century, and just barely south of the Mason Dixon Line. While I recognize that these articles of clothing were not entirely common or even necessary, I was a little girl in her glory on Sunday mornings.
2. Bring Church to Their Level. My lace-gloved hands were not empty as we entered church on Sundays. Oh no! I had received a First Communion Purse, which I cherished, and was only allowed to carry on Sundays. In it was a children’s Mass book (with gold-rimmed pages) for me to follow along with the congregation. I no longer depended on mom and dad to tell me what to say or where I was supposed to be in the missal. I proudly asserted my independence as I sat a little taller, doing it on my own. Try giving your child an independent part in participating in church. This may be a religious coloring book, board book, or saint doll when they are very little. Let them belt it out, singing at the top of their lungs when they learn to read music! Get them a children’s Mass book, and encourage them to serve at Mass after first communion. As parents, we have to come to Mass prepared, in order to allow our children to have a peaceful experience. While there may at times be scattered and screaming family members, hopefully it doesn’t start with them piling into the van, with wet hair and missing shoes.
3. Step Up and Be the Change. It’s easy to sit back and grumble if your parish isn’t doing “enough” to incorporate children (tweens, teens, young adults). Perhaps they need to step up their activities, education opportunities, and invitations to participate. Still, at the end of the day, only you can make a real change for your family. More than that, it’s your responsibility, as spiritual guide for your children, to do so. This may involve a fair amount of sacrifice, by way of your family traveling to a parish, which incorporates programs you deem vital for the spiritual progress of your children. This need may also present an opportunity to brainstorm with a cooperative pastor, about starting appropriate programs in the parish you currently belong.
It’s true that children are wiggly and squiggly, and they like thing “hands-on” in order to best process and understand them. For this reason, the best place to start for young children may be a children’s Liturgy of the Word, or a Montessori Atrium (a place of prayer, prepared especially for children to contemplate the life of Jesus and the liturgy of the Church, with the use of many sensorial materials). For as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “All our knowledge has its origin in the senses.” The Church concretely teaches us this, as adults, through the Sacraments.
4. Celebrate! All of Sunday is the Lord’s Day. The Lord commands us to rest and worship Him on one of the seven days of the week. Doesn’t it seem crazy that he commands us to rest? Yet, I think the commandment to rest might be one of the hardest. It’s hard to remember that my children are watching, absorbing, and will most likely mimic these habits in their adulthood. I don’t want them to remember Sunday as the crazy cleaning day of stress before the week begins again. So how do I turn Sunday back to God? I feel like brunch is a great place to start! A big brunch after Mass, with everyone’s favorites, certainly gives the whole family something special to look forward to. We could choose a fun activity or family project, make Sunday our movie night, complete with snacks we make together. Build community and friendship by planning activities with other families, or performing a work of service together. Anything to keep Sunday holy and happy!
(Saintly Silver presents a great teaching tool for your little ones! A hand-sewn plush figure of their very own patron saint, to accompany them to the heavenly banquet. Erin of Saintly Silver is a catholic artist who sews each saint doll from scratch as soon as the order comes in. Personalized with a scripture verse or quote, she even made a custom saint doll for my son, who has an Old Testament name.)
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