By Fr. Jake Greiner
One of my parishes recently received the following anonymous feedback from a parishioner: “Some young families feel that some parish lay leaders disapprove of their young children being kids at church.” Before I give my personal response to this comment, what was the first thought that came to your mind when you read this comment?
When I shared this feedback with several of my parish leaders, many different responses came about in our discussion of this parishioner’s comment. I wanted to share a couple of thoughts that we have been discussing at my parish in order to help others who might receive similar feedback in their parish.
As a priest presiding at Mass I can see everything, especially since I still enjoy relatively good eyesight. People are sleeping. People are doing things on their phones. People are reading the bulletins. People are staring off into space. It seems, at least from my perspective, that some parishioners have a difficult time focusing on the Mass even when the church is quiet. When we hear a baby crying, or the sound of a dropped toy or any other noise, or see something that is distracting, these are easy targets for our inability to focus on the awesome experience of the Mass.
Each of us must take ownership of not letting things distract us from letting grace upon grace flow upon us during the Mass. We need to pay attention to Mass, not other people. Even if something does happen, making a big commotion out of this reality is not helpful. As the feedback above demonstrates, making a big deal out of a situation by commenting or staring a hole through someone makes people feel as if they are no longer welcome in church.
This sense of a lack of welcome can be especially true for those with young children. These individuals need to be involved with the life of the parish because they are probably trying their best to form their children in the faith of the Catholic Church. They need all the help they can get from their parishes. If congregations do not give some sympathy to these families, what is the message that is being sent? Whatever it may be, it is definitely not a good message.
It also must be acknowledged that parenting styles differ dramatically among parents and guardians, and this reality is especially frustrating to many of our older parishioners. A common response is something like the following, “Why can’t they control their children?” The simple answer is that no one can truly control another person, even when they are young, and this is the reason that parenting is so difficult, especially in this contemporary environment when everything needs to be entertaining.
Most parents and guardians are doing their very best, but it may seem at times that these individuals are struggling as they bring their families to church. I firmly believe that those of us who do not have young children, or are many years removed from having young children, need to be more sympathetic. Newborns do not magically become 8-year-olds. If a child does not understand that going to church is important by the time s/he receives first Communion, there is a difficult road ahead in forming that child in our Catholic faith.
Some of us were holy terrors during Mass when we were children, and we have somehow grown up to be adults who are now reading a Catholic newspaper as an essential aspect of our Catholic faith. What would have happened if our parents would have stopped going to Mass when we were children because they felt unwelcomed when we were acting up at church? There is an increased chance that we would not be at this point in our faith life, and our lives could have been dramatically different.
One last plea: In this Year of Mercy, maybe we just need to be a little more merciful to the children and babies in our congregations. These are future Catholic leaders whose parents are doing their best to model their faith by attendance at Mass every weekend. Let’s show them some sympathy and make them feel welcome when they come to church.
(Fr. Greiner is pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Knoxville and Sacred Heart Parish in Melcher.)