It is with some sadness, then, when I hear the occasional grumblings, albeit from a minority, that do not approve of children’s presence or young voices being heard at Mass. It’s not that I’m a fan of Mass be readily disturbed by screaming children. If a child (or an adult for that matter!) is having a tantrum then they should of course be taken out until they calm down. Most parent’s do this instinctively and are very good at it, in fact I can’t recall an occasion when this has not happened in a Mass that I have celebrated. I have heard many horror stories, thankfully not in my parish, of people telling parents off, making them feel unwelcome and even, on occasion, priests stopping in the middle of the Mass and calling children or parents to account.
One of the things that I have tried to introduce in my own parish recently is a greater use and awareness of time of silence and quite in and around the celebration Mass. This is not at odds with the welcome that as a parish and as a priest I extend to families. This is because the kind of silence that I encourage (and the kind of silence that is conducive to the liturgy) is not supposed to be an absolute void of sound, but rather the creation of space in which to hear God and prepare our hearts to meet him, which we can create by the absence of endless nattering.
The heart of the issue, as I see it, is whether we take our Baptism seriously or not. Catholic teaching is clear that at Baptism several things happen: we are washed clean of the stain of original sin, we are born again in the waters of Baptism, dying with Christ in order to share his resurrection and we are grafted on to the Body of Christ – the Church. Baptism, which is a free and unmerited grace from God, is the first Sacrament of Initiation, in other words it’s how we become Catholic Christians. Baptism leaves an indelible (permanent) mark on the person’s soul, it can never be repeated, and it means that we belong to Christ. Baptism is how we are born into the Church and all the baptised…that is ALL the baptised, are on a level playing field. This means that no member of the Body of Christ, (the Church) is more valuable or more special than any other. The eldest member, the youngest member, the fittest member, the sickest member, the saintly member, the sinful member, all are equal before God and all have their place in the Church. Children and young people are not “the future of the Church” as many people seem to enthusiastically say. Children and young people along with every other member of the Church are the Present of the Church, the Church of today! As such they must have a rightful place in the public worship of the Body of Christ.
The Church’s public worship is the liturgy, and our most common experience of the liturgy is when we participate in the source and summit of the Christian the faith – the Eucharist (Mass). It’s important to remember that the Eucharist is always an action of the whole Body of Christ, the whole Church: The Church universal, the Church visible, the Church invisible, the local Church, the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering, all of these realities coincide in every celebration of the Eucharist. This is an important point that needs to be grasped – The Eucharist, The Mass is not a personal prayer. We do not go to Mass as a consumer simply looking at what ‘we can get out of it’. We go to Mass primarily because we are members of the Body of Christ and at Mass, where we are nourished with the Body of Christ we become more fully, the saints that God has called us to be. And he calls us, that’s US to be saints! That is, he calls a people, a Church, a community. He does not call individuals to isolation but a people to communion. Communion with each other and communion with Him!
The people who grumble at having their private prayers disturbed at Mass, have, however unwittingly, failed to grasp this point: that the Mass is not about you or me, it’s about us! Silent prayer and individual reflection are essential to develop one’s faith, but we should not expect that at Mass. Personal prayer happens apart from the liturgy, is nourished by the liturgy and flows from the liturgy, but the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, is never a personal prayer.
If we are tempted to moan or grumble at the young child who merely is doing what a young child does (making a bit of noise) we would do well to remind ourselves that our shared Baptism means that they have just as much right to be in Church as we do and our shared public worship is in fact a richer experience because of it.
When all is said and done, Christian charity should always be our guide. Balance is always needed: If children are throwing a tantrum then the sensible and charitable thing to do it to take them outside. But tantrums aside, we must all as the family of God, be welcoming, compassionate, and tolerant of a little noise from time to time. I have heard people complain that there aren’t any young people in the Church and then moan about the behaviour of young children in the same breath! Well it’s not rocket science folks! If children don’t feel welcome, they probably won’t feel welcome as young people either! As a Church, as a Christian community, we must always be compassionate. Being a parent is hard, and being a Christian parent is a real challenge in today’s world. Parents must feel welcome to attend Mass with their children, not least because they need to be nourished by the Mass as much as anyone does. Older members of our parish have so much to offer and can be a real support to younger families by acting as spiritual grandparents in the community. All of us, old and young, are members of the one family of Christ and it behoves us to have compassion on each other, especially those who are more vulnerable members of the flock and that can include young families.
In the end, we must as ever follow the example of our Master who said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Mt 19:14