By Kathy Berken
I just got home from Mass, where a little child was pretty much disrupting the service from the opening song. But it was during the homily that it became increasingly evident something needed to be done.
It was Mission Sunday, and our speaker was the director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps here in the Twin Cities. She was telling us ways to support people on the margins. It was obvious that this persistent, fussy child was not in the least bit interested in her stories of outreach and compassion. Twice during her talk, even she looked over to see what the problem was.
Finally, I saw a man get up with this child, who was about 2 years old, and carry him out. I’m sure everybody who was aware of this child was happy that the dad finally figured out he needed to take the child out of church. But, surprisingly, he didn’t. Instead, he just walked over to the chairs on the side and sat down. An elderly woman nearby got up and said something to him. Whatever it was, the man stayed sitting with his fussy son.
Honestly, it felt disruptive, even to me, and I tend to tolerate more than I used to. I could sense the discomfort in the room of some-800 people as well. “Just take the kid out to the back entry way and let him play on the floor there,” I thought, all the while feeling guilty for judging the dad’s parenting style.
Finally, the speaker was finished. Then with the music, the activity of the Offertory, and the actions at the altar, it was harder to hear the wailing child, still over there by the wall.
In my guilt, I kept thinking about Jesus’ request to let the children come to him, and how we are all to be like little children if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we are to let the children lead the way. I wondered also how different Mass is in developing countries and in churches where the very people our mission speaker was talking about worship. I’ve been at Masses where large families gather in a tiny church where there is often a lot of commotion, but the feeling I remember was simply acceptance of things as they are.
Of course, that’s not always the case. The church we belonged to when I was in high school was cross-shaped with balconies over the sides. One was a glassed-in and soundproof “crying room,” with piped in sound. But not everyone with a fussy child used it. One Sunday, a baby was wailing at the top of its lungs up in the other balcony. The young priest kept looking up there from the altar and during his homily he decided not to compete with the crying any longer. He looked up one last time, smiled and shouted, “You win!”
Today, Father Jim said nothing, as I am guessing he is used to this. Then, right after we finished singing the “Lamb of God” and all was quiet, what we heard next was a gift. A little child’s voice rang out “All done!” Good God, the place immediately erupted in laughter. It was that same crying child whose exasperated father likely told his son that Mass was almost over.
I saw Father Jim laugh, too. The moment was infinite and holy. Everybody in the church was laughing and chuckling, and the smiles kept up through Communion.
I felt somehow redeemed from my guilt because the outcome was positive, but way more than that, I learned once again not to be so hasty to judge a situation simply because I feel uncomfortable. If that dad had taken his son outside, we would have missed a simple opportunity to find joy together as a worshipping community. These are the God-times I cherish.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)