First, I'll say right off the bat - I love kids. Adore 'em. And as far as them being at Mass, my initial response is, they'd better be! I enjoy seeing children at Mass but my perspective has been shaped by all the years I've spent in non-Catholic churches. Over a month ago, I wrote an informal essay on what I found attractive about Catholicism. One of my points focused on children and the family. Here it is:
I remember very clearly a situation when I was disciplined for not obeying my father during church. I was three years old. I remember playing with the kneelers. My father, who never spoke to me during Mass, quietly snapped his fingers at me and shook his head to tell me to stop. (Only my dad could "quietly" snap his fingers, but he managed to do just that. ) Well, much to my detriment, I did not stop.
The Family - I noticed something when I started to attend a Protestant church. And it actually became a pattern within every church I belonged to, every church I visited: after worship, the children would be dismissed to attend their "children's class" which would focus on teaching them Christian truths at their own learning level. Children from five years old up to age fourteen would routinely leave the main sanctuary, allowing the adults to experience the rest of the service without, I thought, the bothersome behavior of children. What I also noticed was the constant requests for more people to be involved in the "Children's Ministry." Within the Catholic Church, children are not dismissed. They are embraced and encouraged to be a part of the service. I have fond memories of when the priest would invite the children up front and sit by him as he spoke about Jesus exhorting believers to have the faith of a small child. Do the younger children squirm and cry? Yes. But adults have also learned how to discipline their children by teaching them there is a time and place to talk and when in church, one is to be quiet. Children in turn learn how to worship God with their family instead of being separated from them. I think it was one of my father's high points if our family was asked to bring up the Offertory. I was brought up in church and it developed a strong appreciation of the phrase, "The family that prays together, stays together."
When we got home, I received a little spanking. I knew exactly why I was being disciplined and guess what? I never did it again.
I have told that story to some people when the topic of discipline came up. Personally, I feel there are far too few willing to discipline their children. Whether it is from fear of disapproval from others, worries that some government agency will crack down on them, or a belief that discipline "breaks the spirit" of a child - they are unable to do it. The result is unruly children who are self-centered and usually rude.
Is that the kind of children we want to send forth into the world? I think not. Children are a blessing from God and the parents are given a very solemn responsibility to raise them to respect and love themselves, others, and God. I agree wholeheartedly with Pro Veritas. Giving children toys to play with or Cheerios to munch on does not instill in them a sense of the sacred. After all, they're not at a preschool just before naptime. They're at church.
Children often want to copy adults. When little girls see older women wearing veils, they want one. When little boys see older boys serving the Mass, they want to do the same. They have a natural curiosity that should be encouraged and stoked, like a fire. Once they start to understand that Jesus Christ loved the little children and often included them in His teachings, they'll understand that they also are an important part of the church.
One of my favorite recent memories is of that young mother with four little ones under the age of eight. Her little boy, who looked around four years-old, was promptly sent out of the pew when he forgot to genuflect before entering. Later, he was caught sticking his tongue out at his sister. The mother quickly scooped him up and marched him out of the sanctuary for discipline. When they came back, he was made to sit in the pew in front of her. I admired her greatly for teaching her children there were consequences to acting up in church. Can you imagine the message that these precious children are receiving? God bless that mother!
I don't mind fussy children and have more patience for them than their parents may think. But I do mind when parents do not teach their little ones how to act in church. Maybe the next time you see a parent trying to do the right thing, thank them for their efforts. I know they'll appreciate it.