Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mass Confusion

As every Sunday, we all went to Mass this morning. Unfortunatly, the girls behaved worse than I have seen them in quite a while, especially Cecilia. To some extent, I wasn't surprised. They spent the last week running around Disney World and it takes children time to adjust back to normal life just like it takes adults. Cecilia wanted to spend her time at Church playing, especially in the form of moving slowly farther and father away from us and smiling or laughing when we instructed her to stay closer to us.

Naturally, this caused quite a bit of frustration for James and myself. But I became furious when a woman and her children (both of whom were a few years older than mine) sat in the 3rd pew from the front, the pew behind us, during the homily and proceeded to get out a box of a couple dozen crayons, coloring books, pretzels, and Pez candy with a Pez dispenser.

How in the world am I supposed to discipline my children and teach them to behave properly during Mass when they see children behind us munching candy and pretzels and playing? How can I teach Cecilia that Church is not Disney World and Mass is not Playtime if she is watching children play and snack during Mass?

I became so angry and upset that I was disgusted at myself for my emotions during Mass, but I confess I did not know how to stiffle them. During the Presentation of the Gifts, I grabbed Felicity (I can carry her) and left the Church. While I was with Felicity, James had just as much trouble with Cecilia and, just after the consecration, had to grab Cecilia and the diaper bag and leave the Church.

Neither of us approve of food or toys during Mass (the exceptions being infants - who, let's face it, eat when they eat and might need a quiet chew toy when teething, and necessary juice or sweet for a diabetic). We allow each girl to pick up to two books to bring. No toys. Nothing that makes noise. No food or snacks. We bring in one water cup just in case, but rarely use it. We understand that not all parents agree with us. But that is one of the several reasons with sit within the first 2 pews if at all possible - to avoid the influence of such distractions on our children.

I've heard, and found to be true, that sitting in the front so small children can see everything that is happening, helps young children behave better at Mass. However, this is NOT the case IF the children have toys and snacks that only tell them that Mass is another snack time or play time. IF you give children such distractions, it doesn't matter where you seat them - the distractions win - they win with the children, and often with the adults as we heard crinkling bags and "Mommy, can you open this?"

Was this woman and her children's behavior responsible for my girls misbehavior? Certainly not. But not only did they fail to provide any sort of good example for my children who are significantly younger, but even strove to undermine everything we sought to do to discipline ours by demonstrating the exact opposite.

Why is it acceptable for parents to bring such things to Mass? I've seen McDonald's Hashbrowns, Leap Frog Electronic toys, crayons, action figures, etc. Why do priests not say anything? If I came to Mass with a portable DVD player, would anything be said then? What would the line have to be before it is crossed? Why does no priest draw a line and simply ask parents not to bring such things unless absolutely necessary. Let's say your child hasn't eaten and needs something to tide him through Mass - for whatever reason - is anyone going to tell me their child really NEEDED Pez candy and preztles in one of those lovely crinkly bags?

Obviously there is no concensus among the faithful of just what is appropriate to bring to Mass for children or what sort of behavior at Mass is appropriate. Maybe it is time the clergy waved just a little of their authority in their own churches and made some clear guidelines? And if something really NEEDED to be brought that could be a distraction, why can't priests ask that such distractions be kept at the back of the church?

I'm running out of places to sit!


  1. I share your frustration. Our only daughter is two and we are constantly trying to figure out how best to handle Mass. We allow her to bring a few books - no toys - and it always seems like someone has something really neat that she wants to play with, too. Today we did a split shift, and while it was lovely to be able to completely focus on the Mass without any distractions, I missed my daughter and husband. Sadly I think this is one of the reasons why some families just up and disappear - they feel it's too hard to control their children.

  2. Oh I so agree. We try to sit right up front but it seems at the Mass we usually go to there are one or two families with children who also always sit right up front. There is one couple with two boys, between 4 and 7, I think they are the grandparents, who always have a bunch of snacks and toys. And the snacks and toys do not help the children to behave, they chatter and make noise and are quite disruptive. Like you I get angry because we don't let the girls bring toys and food to Mass and we do expect them to sit as quietly as they can at their ages. When older children are getting away with worse behavior and are being given things we have interdicted, it makes our job so much harder. And yet try as I might I cannot think of a way to calmly and politely bring up the topic without putting the other families on the defensive.

    Of course the same goes for the adults who chitchat during Mass. One mother held a conversation with her two older boys about their having doctors appointments in the coming week. In the middle of Mass. Frankly, my daughters usually behave better than some of the adults. but what do I do when people who should be role models undermine my efforts to set boundaries and to set an example myself?

  3. domesticaecclesiaMarch 8, 2009 at 4:50 PM

    We have only done split shifts when someone is sick. And while the quiet ability to focus and pray is nice, we always want to be together at Mass as a family.

    We found ourselves today asking, "What do we do?" Today, we left before Communion, not because we wanted to, but because we were getting so frustrated fighting a losing battle.

    James said that priests really should say something. They should make a point of telling parents what is appropriate and what isn't. They should make an effort to say something to parents who bring such things, especially the ones who insist on bringing toys and snacks to the front of the Church. He has a point. The priest is responsible for the parish and the church and the Mass. He is Christ as King presiding over the Mass. He is the leader. And, at our parish at least, I've heard and seen absolutely nothing about children behavior at Mass with the only exception of encouragement to leave small children in the nursery at the rectory before Mass and pick them up afterward. Maybe that has been our pastor's approach to children during Mass, but, in my opinion, it is no solution to the problem.

  4. ((((hug)))) Going to Mass is in the Top Five Most Sucky Things in My Life. A couple children ago we used to go to daily Mass, but I decided it was just a near occasion of sin for me, and so we quit going except for Sundays and Holy Days.

    I am also in the No Toys, No Food-Sit Up Front Camp, and yet things over the years have just gotten progressively worse. I actually don't think my children are a distraction to much of anyone else, except for me. The sheer exhaustion which comes from trying to keep it that way just crushes me.

    I have come to the point of grieving that is acceptance. This is just how things are, and this is just what God has allowed in His Providence for our sanctification. It is frustrating when others are making different choices from us which seem to make our choices more difficult--but that kind of epitomizes the life of a Christian family in today's world; the way we do thing is NOT like everyone else. The challenge for me, is to view our alternate choices through the lens of humility, rather than pride...and I think that might be the crux of the ongoing lesson of the Holy Spirit while I dream of being Octopus Mother with enough arms to not be so grossly outnumbered at every Mass in which we assist.

  5. Katherine,

    I've been thinking about this and much as I feel sympathy for James' desire to have our priests speak clearly on the topic (Oh how I would love to hear that shouted loud and clear from the pulpit!) still, I think that it would be a disaster from a pastoral perspective.

    What would be the reaction of those parents if the priest were to stand up and question their parental judgment? Human nature being what it is, at the very least you'd probably get a very huffy "How dare he!" But how many of them might stand up, walk out the door, and never come back? As satisfying as it might be to have those parents put straight, I don't think that any message from the pulpit would have positive results. Think how you would react to any criticism of your parenting decisions from even the friendliest source but especially one given as a public rebuke from the pulpit.

    A priest has to consider the needs of every one of his parishioners and has to balance so many competing interests. Truly I don't envy the lot of the parish priest. His job is one of the hardest in the world because he can't take sides. Much harder than your job or mine refereeing squabbles among small children!

    Really I think the best we can do is pray for those parents who aggravate us (I'm sure if they have their hands full in Mass they need prayers in general. And especially if the parents lack reverence and understanding, how much more do they need grace and heavenly aid?) Also we can try to set the best example we can for our own kids and perhaps in doing so for other families as well. Who knows maybe one day one of those harried parents will approach you and ask what your secret is when your children behave better than theirs without all the distracting toys and food)

    Long term, perhaps we can work at creating relationships with other families in the parish. I think the only advice parents are open to receive is that that does not seem a reproach or a challenge to their parental judgment. A word from a friend might come across very differently. But of course that is a difficult road and won't work everywhere.

    Also much as I hate to say it, because like I said this is one of my big grievances too, I keep coming back to Tolkien's advice to his son about making your communion in circumstances that affront our taste

    While it is clear Tolkien is not considering here the special challenges faced by parents trying to train their children to behave in Mass, still I think there is wisdom in his approach. The fact is that these people who so aggravate me are still members of Christ's Body and are my brothers and sisters. Perhaps it is in God's plan for me and my family that we face these specific challenges so that we might all grow in holiness.

  6. domesticaecclesiaMarch 11, 2009 at 7:16 AM


    I certainly see what you are saying about a public rebuke. As much as I would have relished it Sunday, I don't think it would be helpful in the long run.

    But couldn't a priest make a statement about behavior and attitude toward the Mass in general? I mean, St. Peter's requires certain attire before entering and people have to understand it is out of respect for where they are going. The statement could include turning off cell phones, not wearing immodest or irreverent attire, and not bringing food and other distractions into the Church. In other words, what about a general statement not only aimed at parents? It could include not talking, but whispering in the Church, which, let's be honest, applies as much to the elderly and adults as it does to any parents and children, and other forms of respect that seem to either be lost or on their way out.
    And if such a statement on reverencing the Eucharist and Mass might be taken the wrong way from the pulpit, what about a nicely put statement in the bulletin? I know not everyone reads it, but most do.
    I see what you are saying and I think you have a good point, but I also think the priest has a responsibility to Christ in the Eucharist as well as the faithful to ensure that the Eucharist is properly respected and reverenced and the faithful are properly guided for the good of their own souls as well.
    As for us, Tolkien's advice will have to do. While I have no objection to his advice for myself, I do not believe small children are in such a position to handle those circumstances so well nor understand them as they may not yet "affront" their "tastes" but rather encourage them only toward similar behavior. His advice is good for those who are already formed in how to properly behave at Mass, but small children are still learning. Remember what Christ said about causing a child to sin? Is it more harmful to the adults as well as the children to not say anything?

    Just a question, but would such parents rather hear something from another parent or the parish priest? Personally I think I'd prefer something kindly said from the priest than some other parent I don't know, but maybe that is just me.

  7. Katherine,

    I think there is definitely room for all priests to do more catechesis on the Eucharist, on the Mass, on the Real Presence, etc. And as part of that certainly there is room for discussion of how to approach the Mass reverently, how to behave in church, etc.

    It seems to me the root of most of the problems we're discussing is a lack of reverence and understanding. Perhaps the real solution is to foster devotion and to increase a sense of the sacred. If that is the case then there is also much that can be done by the priest in helping to lead by example and in indirect ways: having music playing quietly before Mass can help to foster silence and the sense that this is time for prayer and not socializing; training altar servers, lay ministers, ushers in approaching the altar reverently, dressing appropriately, etc..

    How does the priest himself behave? Is he careful to genuflect and lead by example? Does he interrupt the Mass by having everyone shake hands and chat? Does he tell jokes and read the entire bulletin and in general give the sense that Mass is time to socialize?

    I know it was inspiring to me the other week to see our pastor kneeling in quiet prayer before Mass near the front of the Church.

    Even having more times for Eucharistic adoration might help to foster in the community of awe and reverence and help to curb some of these tendencies. Could the parish begin by offering monthly Benediction and Adoration? Perhaps it could even offer a special Eucharistic Adoration hour especially for children in which the priest gives a talk about what it is and how to do it and then allows for some silent time for children to experience silent communion with Christ?

    Red Cardigan had a great post this morning about fostering devotion and reverence. I think many of her suggestions if implemented might help to encourage parents to approach the Mass differently. And I think once you've started talking about many of these issues, it might be easier to discuss how to teach our children about the Eucharist in a way that is constructive and doesn't sound like the parents are being lectured to. Perhaps the right approach is more one of asking how we can teach our children to recognize and love Christ in the Eucharist. If parents are shown that the priest is their ally in teaching their children instead of a critic of their parenting techniques, they will probably be much more receptive. But I think it has to come as part of a larger push to educate the parents and inspire them with love for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

    As to your final question, I think you misunderstood. I do agree that parents would rather hear from the priest than some other parent they don't know. However, I wonder if there might be a possibility of becoming a parent they do know, a friend rather than a stranger. I say this with full awareness that I'm extremely shy and am having a very hard time right now trying to meet anyone in our new parish, much less reach out in friendship to people whose kids annoy me. But it does seem like if I could manage to bridge that gap, a word from a friend could be even more successful than one from a priest.

  8. I love Red's suggestions. It certainly would take longer than simply saying something to people, but it might not only be kinder but also have greater long-term effects.

    Our pastor actually has been trying to put more reverence into the Mass. We always sing the Gloria (not during Lent, of course) in Latin, the Communion hymn is a simple prayer chant, and he only uses more traditional songs. He also has Adoration at least once or twice a month. (I just haven't figured out how to get there with little ones yet.)
    But when it comes to recognizing that altar servers should not be serving in sneakers, people should not be talking in the Church, etc., he is mute. He also has a history of having personal difficulties coping with small children at Mass. I honestly think he just doesn't understand small children, how to speak to them, how to discipline them, etc., and so he doesn't even go near the subject. He just pushes the babysitting available during Mass at the rectory. I wonder how many other priests just don't understand children OR won't say anything because they've just been told that they have no authority on the subject since they don't have any children.
    On the other hand (and, yeah, I think I may be babbling a bit, but, oh well) I have to wonder how much it comes down to priests, in general, simply not exercising authority but wanting to be everyone's friend. I mean, how many priests would feel confident enough to remove the Sign of Peace?
    Just thoughts.....gotta go to Mass...

  9. It is sad that a priest doesn't know how to relate to young children, though perhaps understandable if he doesn't have young relatives himself.

    As for wanting everyone to like him and not wanting to be the bad guy, I think that's very understandable too, if unfortunate. I've often thought that it must get very lonely being a pastor, especially in a parish where there are no other priests living. I read a great book of meditations last Lent that connected the 7 last words of Christ on the cross to the 7 sacraments and the word that went with Holy Orders was: "My god, my God, why have you abandoned me?" It is very easy for priests to feel isolated and abandoned and easy for them to seek affirmation from their parishoners and to shirk the harder tasks of fatherhood.

    I wonder if your pastor might be open to an invitation to dinner or a birthday party for one of the girls, or the new baby's baptism party (when that comes around). Our former pastor was very good with kids and used to drop by our family get-togethers when invited. We never got around to inviting him to dinner, sadly. I always meant to but excuses like pregnancy exhaustion kept popping up. Still, I think that it might be good to encourage him by making him feel welcome and perhaps spending time with children in their own home might help him to feel more comfortable with them?

    Also, I just read this blog post at Feminine Genius that mentions that Pope Benedict has declared the upcoming year a special Year for priests. Genevieve suggests an apostolate for women to spiritually adopt priests, acting in imitation of the Blessed Mother. A good suggestion, even if one doesn't formally join the apostolate, to pray for our priests and offer sacrifices to them.

    I make sure to tell our priests that we pray for them with the girls every night. It is important they know we support them and pray for them. We also make sure to praise the things we do like that the priest does well. Have you told him how much you appreciate his attempts to celebrate a more reverent mass? Maybe our encouragement can help our priests to find courage and confidence they need to make the tougher choices in the face of opposition.