Recently a priest on Twitter argued that parents should never take their kids out of Mass, even if they are making a racket. He said, “Children are never a distraction.” His intention was to be welcoming—he didn’t want anyone, including young parents, to feel unwelcome at Mass.
Good intentions, bad advice.
As a father of seven, let me just be the first to say: children can be a distraction. Especially at Mass. There’s no shame in admitting that you can’t concentrate on the sacred mysteries when some toddler right behind you is screaming louder than a Boeing 747 at takeoff. Although the Mass is the heavenly banquet, we celebrate it here on earth, where we struggle with this mortal coil.
The best advice I’ve heard is from a priest who would say before each homily, “If your children get obstreperous, please take them out until they settle down. Then please feel free to return.” First, anyone who can use the word “obstreperous” in a sentence gets extra points from me (and yes, I did have to ask my wife what the word meant). Second, this is just common sense advice: take the child out to calm him down, then bring him back once that happens. This should be obvious, but apparently it’s not anymore.
Let me be even more practical, based on my own experiences after more than 20 years of having a baby or toddler at Mass (if your teenager is still distracting others at Mass, you’ve got bigger problems than I can address here). I have two guidelines: loudness and duration. If a child is making a noise that only your pew and perhaps one pew in front or behind can hear, don’t worry about it. I’ve heard elderly people “whisper” loud enough to be heard five pews over, and we don’t ask them to step out of church, so a semi-quiet noise like that can be tolerated. Second, if the noise lasts for less than ten seconds, don’t worry about it. By the time you collect the kid and do the walk of shame down the aisle to the back of church, the distraction is already over. (As an aside, never bring noisy toys to distract your child during Mass. They are usually much more distracting to everyone else around you.)
True story: One of our daughters was a “screamer” as a child. She had the lungs of an opera singer. One Sunday, I had to take her out of Mass, and as we walked to the back, she screamed at full volume, “NO! I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK, DADDY!” Good times.
So if a child is loud enough to be heard 2-3 pews over AND is making the noise for over ten seconds, I’d say that is “obstreperous” and you should probably find the nearest exit.
In my own experience, following these rules trains children to act properly at Mass. For all our kids, we usually had to take them out of Mass almost every single Sunday from the time they were 1 1/2 years old until they were 2 1/2 years old. When we first start taking a child out, there’s no punishment involved. But by the time she is around 2 1/2 years old, we make it so going out of the church is something she doesn’t want to do: she isn’t allowed to play in the back and she must stay still. Eventually she realizes she would just rather stay in the pew quietly. She also comes to realize that there’s a certain way to behave at Mass, because Mass is a special, sacred event.
Training Children in Reverence
This leads to an important point. Teaching children to be quiet at Mass is being courteous to other parishioners, but it’s also good for the children themselves. One of the most important duties of a parent is teaching our children how to act in the world. They need to look someone in the eye when they shake his hand; they need to say “thank you” when given something; and they need to replace the toilet paper roll when it runs out (for the love of all that is holy, replace the roll!!).
They also need to learn how to behave at Mass. The Sacrifice of the Mass is the most sacred event we can participate in. It’s our opportunity to be at the foot of the Cross on Calvary. We need to treat it as such. Would we blow a kazoo during the middle of a funeral? Would we attend a State dinner at the White House in cut-off jeans and a tank top? (Actually, we shouldn’t ever think that’s a good fashion combo.) Of course we wouldn’t. Likewise, we should treat the Mass with the reverence it deserves. This means maintaining silence as much as possible. It also means that toys and food are not appropriate to bring into the pew to distract the child. Instead, bring a Bible story book or a children’s lives of the Saints. The child needs to know that this is not playtime, but a time set aside for the sacred.
When I think of the priest who argued that it doesn’t really matter how kids act at Mass, I can’t help but see a larger problem. If we don’t care how kids act at Mass, then we won’t care how adults act outside of Mass. If attendance is all that matters, then we are not really asking people to change their lives to conform them to Christ’s. By telling a young child that it doesn’t matter how he acts during Mass, we are telling him that this activity is no different—and no more important—than playing on the McDonald’s playground. We need to teach our children from a young age the importance of reverence during sacred activities. This is a good first lesson on the importance of conforming our lives to Christ in all things.
Mass is the intersection of heaven and earth; it’s where we unite with the Saints and the angels in worshipping our Lord. But there are still earthly elements involved, such as toddlers who can’t sit still or keep quiet. Let’s train them properly to understand the sacredness of the Mass so that one day they fully appreciate the privilege they have in participating in these great mysteries.