People on Facebook are familiar with trending topics or features — brief articles, pictures or videos that suddenly everyone is circulating for our consideration. It could be a parent’s facetious lament that her kids are going back to school, a video of a bear raiding someone’s refrigerator or countless iterations of the ice-bucket challenge, for example.
Making the Facebook rounds of churchy people recently was a memo To Parents of Young Children. It began: “Relax!! God put the wiggle in children, don’t feel you have to suppress it in God’s house.”
I hadn’t bothered to read the text when the first several versions arrived, and then something happened that prompted me to go back and see what this anonymous observer and advocate for children in worship had to say.
A stranger approached me as I greeted people leaving Mass. He introduced himself, said he and his wife and five children ages 4 to 11 were visiting. “I want to tell you about something that happened during Mass,” he began, quickly adding, “I have to acknowledge that my 4-year-old son isn’t always very well behaved.” I said I knew a few 4-year-olds who fit that description.
The man’s youngest son was having a hard time sitting still as Mass unfolded, the father reported. Squirming, whispering, bothering nearby siblings. We can all imagine the situation. What we probably wouldn’t expect is what happened as the boy’s misbehavior continued. As the father described it to me, a man sitting behind the family reached into their pew, picked up the boy, shook him and said “You need to behave!” or something to that effect.
After Mass the father approached the other worshiper and suggested that what he’d done was “really inappropriate.” The man’s wife interjected, “You need to get control of your son.” And they walked away.
The father appreciated our celebration of the Eucharist. He hoped his family would return. He had no desire to contact the police regarding what could probably be judged under the law as the assault of his son. “I just wanted you to know what happened,” he said. All I could do was strenuously express my regret.
I mentioned what had happened to the ushers on duty. They hadn’t noticed anything. But, one of them observed, the couple could have moved away; there were plenty of empty spots in the front. Or, I offered, the boy might have been more focused on what was happening if his family had sat near the front, even though I know that doesn’t always work, or at least not all the time.
What the father reported to me is an extreme reaction to what is often regarded as “a problem”: unruly children at Mass. Most of have probably been distracted by too much movement, crying that goes on for too long, “singing” that doesn’t coincide with the music the rest of us are singing, behavior that isn’t reverent. Well, reverence in worship is a pretty arbitrary quality and our attempts to enforce reverence could easily leave us with emptier churches. There’d be plenty of reverence, just not many people.
Sure there are occasions when a mother or father will need to take their child out of Mass, but they shouldn’t have to endure sneers or judgmental glares as they do so. And, as the Facebook posting reminded parents, “If you have to leave Mass … please come back. As Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me.’”
Most critically the item offered important encouragement for those of us who aren’t worshipers with children: “Remember that the way we welcome children in church directly affects the way they respond to the Church, to God and to one another. Let them know that they are at home in this house of worship. … The presence of children is a gift to the Church and they are a reminder that our parish is growing. Please welcome our children and give a smile of encouragement to their parents.”
Imagine the difference such a smile might have made to that young father. Or imagine a church without crying babies or unruly toddlers: You wouldn’t have to imagine for long. TL