I was once a young mom attempting to attend daily Mass with my three little ones (ages 3, 2 and 1). One morning, an older woman approached me and inquired as to whether or not I fed the children prior to Mass. I assured her they were well fed and she scrunched up her nose and shrieked, "Reeaally? 'Cause they're so loud and whiny, I was sure that they must be hungry or something. Maybe it would be better if you left them at home."
I was a little tenacious back then.
Okay, I'm still tenacious. I'm working on it.
I told her that Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me..." so, I was sure that they were welcome at every Mass and that if they were too loud at any point, I was fairly adept at heading to the foyer until they had calmed down. I also told her that Father had assured me that it was a blessing to have our children present and that he felt it benefited both parishioner and child alike. "Well priests don't have children, so what do they know," she quipped, "Perhaps, it would be an act of kindness to myself and the other daily Mass attendees if you saved us from the constant distraction caused by your children."
I bit my lip and tried to mentally talk myself down.
It didn't work.
"Or perhaps it would be good opportunity for you to learn how to remain focused on the Mass in spite of minor distractions." She huffed and scurried away.
The Sunday following the encounter, I saw her approach another young mother, holding a baby that looked to be about 18 months old. The spectrum of emotions on the mother's face broke my heart. First, friendly surprise at being approached by someone new, then confusion, then shame and then her hand trembling and rising to wipe her eyes as she walked away.
I ran up to her. "Thank you for bringing your little guy here. I know how hard it is and you're doing an amazing job. Please don't be discouraged and know you both belong here." I probably freaked her out a little, but she smiled slightly, and then hurried off with her head bent low.
The next Sunday, I was on guard. I scanned the church and observed the contorted, crustaceous, disapproving eyebrows attached to the... er... the "work in progress" - charity, right.
She was sharing a pew with a young couple and their two children who were age-appropriately bubbling with energy. My little ones were under the weather, so I was uncharacteristically child-free. I genuflected beside their pew and offered to let them sit on the end, planting myself between them and the self-appointed Parent Punisher (who didn't seem to recognize me without my babes in tow), and then the fun began.
Every time I heard an excited squeal from the children beside me, it was followed by a enraged "Hmph!" on my other side. In my peripheral, I could see her attempting to make eye contact with the young couple. She leaned forward, so I leaned forward, pretending to adjust my dress, fully blocking her. She stretched her scowling face above me and I quickly sat up again. She lurched her head forward again, desperate to convey her disapproval. I hunched over my purse, pretending to dig through it, once again deflecting the stink eye targeted at the couple. Finally, she seemed to give up. The children were serenely sitting in their parents arms and she seemed to realized that her moment had passed.
After Mass, I was warmed by an incredible elderly couple I overheard praising the parents for bringing their children. They assured them that children's voices were one of the most beautiful and welcome sounds at Mass. It was so good to see how fellow parishioners were ready to stand up for young families and counter the condescension.
See, young parents desperately need support and affirmation when it comes to attending Mass. I've encountered so many parents who feel like they're failing every Sunday, and many who will even refuse to return until their children are practically tweens. It is an enormous offering for them, but one that imparts even greater blessings and graces for their family - graces they will need to raise faith-filled children.
So one of my missions, and I hope the mission of every person who attends Mass, be it single, married, religious, or widowed, is to support parents with little ones. As their babies or loud, pint-sized parishioners let out energetic shrieks, let their nervous glances around the church be met with an understanding smile or a subtle District 10 hand signal of solidarity. Perhaps if you are able, offer to lend a hand when you see exasperation plastered on their faces, fetch the wayward sippy cups or the keys and songbooks that have just been thrown onto your pew for the 11th time and smile with genuine warmth as you return them. Following Mass, if the opportunity allows, offer words of encouragement and gratitude. Even a simple, "You have a beautiful family." Because what they're doing is a gift to the whole church community.
A few months after my run-in with the "less-than-charitable" woman, I overheard her mentioning that none of her grown children attend Mass anymore. I had recently been through a cancer ordeal with my two year old and felt compelled to share how I believed that we had been sustained by the graces accumulated with each Mass we had attended together. I wrote a letter and discretely left it on the pew beside her. I shared about my son and I pleaded with her to be gentle and understanding towards other parents, because perhaps there is a reason God has called them to make an effort to attend Mass more frequently. I assured her of prayers that her children would one day return to the church and asked that she in turn pray for me and other parents who are striving to impart the gift of faith to the smallest members of our parish.
“…Children cry, they are noisy, they don’t stop moving... God’s voice is in a child’s tears: they must never be kicked out of church.” Pope Francis