Samantha Stephenson shares on how God uses those difficult moments with our kids in church to transform us spiritually.
The cry room at our parish has been many things to me. At times, it is a place of solace, an escape for me to catch my breath when all the shushing in the world cannot quiet my little wrigglers. At others, it has felt like a prison, its glass partition walling me off from the rest of the community, a visible sign that our noise does not belong in their space. Even during the times when we do not use it, the cry room looms over me. I imagine criticism emanating from my fellow parishioners: why aren’t you using the cry room?
Why? We want our children to be engaged in the Mass, and that is hard enough to accomplish with a front row view in the pews. A separate room full of children and their families can be a grace in certain stages, but when trying to teach our kids how to participate fully at the appropriate levels, it can become more of a barrier than a help. Still, for all our efforts, managing little children at Mass is often exhausting, distracting, and discouraging.
There are few things quite so humbling as the feel of all eyes on you as your baby’s squeals reverberate off expansive ceilings during the consecration, or as you haul your 3-year-old outside while she screams, “I still want my treat!” Even when they are on their best behavior, taking young children to Mass is hard. It’s a challenge for them to be quiet and sit still. It’s a challenge for parents to participate attentively as we find ourselves distracted by the slightest of slip-ups. We desire desperately to teach our children to love the Mass and to enter into prayer, and to set the example for them ourselves. And yet, their noise and our own self-consciousness and even our egos often pose difficult barriers that must be overcome in order to truly be present during the celebration of the Eucharist.
Despite my firm conviction that our efforts are worth it for the sake of our kids, I wonder sometimes: how, exactly, is God working in my soul through all of this? Reflecting on this question has led me to recognize four ways in which God invites us to grow in holiness through the experience of bringing young children to Mass.
In our fast-paced world, it can be so easy to overlook the truth: we were made to rely on one another. This long, slow pilgrimage to Heaven is never one we walk alone. Parenthood helps us along this journey by shattering the illusion that we can do this alone. At Mass, even the cutest of our children’s noises, like baby giggles and high-volume toddler “whispering,” draw eyes towards us. Well-meaning parishioners might comment on our children’s behavior after Mass, telling us how well our children did, or offering words of encouragement when things didn’t go well.
Bringing children to Mass can make us feel exposed when we know that, to some extent, our worship and our parenting are being watched. This vulnerability, though, is a gift that opens us more deeply to embrace humility and our place within the community. With our weaknesses on display for both ourselves and others to see, we are better prepared to allow Jesus and His Church to embrace us as we really are, rather than who we’d wish them to see.
More than anything, bringing our babies and toddlers to Mass has drawn me more deeply into humility. From things I didn’t understand until I became a parent myself, to kids who can behave so well one minute and lose their minds the next, this process has taught me about the lack of control I really have. When faced with the humiliations that inevitably accompany bringing our children to Mass, we have the choice to shrink from them, to rail against them, or to offer them to Jesus for our own sanctification.
Each humiliation is an opportunity to surrender our children more fully to their Father, to recognize that their salvation and our own are ultimately in his hands. This time is hard, but it isn’t forever. It helps to remember that God refines us as through fire (Psalm 66) and even in this, He is working for the good of us who love Him (Romans 8:28)!
Thankfully, whatever my self-conscious perceptions might be, the response our family has received from other parishioners has been overwhelmingly positive. People smile at our children, shake their hands during the sign of peace, and make efforts to be genuinely welcoming to our family. Even on days where my toddler’s babbling breaks through the tangible silence at daily Mass, when I am exhausted from chasing him around the vestibule, a hand will reach out from the pews as we walk down the communion line, or a kind whisper echo, affirming our presence there.
These moments are so refreshing, the kindness of Veronica reaching out to refresh the face of Jesus as He carries His cross. Our cross is small by comparison, but the little sufferings we bear in bringing our children to Jesus every week open us up to connections that might otherwise not be realized.
Bringing kids to Mass is a call to courage. It takes real fortitude to brave the pews every week, especially when last week’s shame looms overhead. The voice of the accuser sometimes echoes that this choice is a selfish one, that our children belong with a babysitter, in the nursery, or anywhere else so as not to disturb the prayerful atmosphere we enter at Mass. That is such a clever lie! Jesus himself tells us, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them,” (Matt. 19:14). As many an empathetic priest has been known to repeat, “If the Church is not crying, then it is dying!” Our children are baptized members of the Body of Christ, and as such have a place at the table as we celebrate the divine miracle of the Eucharist.
Sunday Mass is our family reunion each week, not an exclusive dinner party for the well-behaved. Yes, sometimes (maybe many times), it is appropriate to step out when their behavior causes a disruption at Mass. But this should not discourage us from continuing to bring them to the Lord! Just as St. Ignatius advises spiritual directors that God deals directly with the retreatant, as parents we can take heart in the fact that God desires and initiates a relationship with each of our children that is independent of us.
Even in the midst of all its difficulties, we are called to be bold on behalf of our children, claiming for them these moments to worship, to learn and grow in faith and love of God. We can be resolute in our determination that what we teach them about the value of their presence at Mass will last with them as they grow.
In all things, God has a purpose. As parents of young children, we can rest in the faith that although our participation at Mass may be distracted and weary, God is using this time to grow something beautiful in our hearts and those of our children.
About the Author
Samantha Stephenson is a Catholic mom of 3, writer, and host of Brave New Us, a podcast exploring bioethics in the light of faith. She is also the founder of Spoken Women, a community for Catholic women to nourish their creative callings. Connect with her or sign up for her "Mama Prays" newsletter at SNStephenson.com.