Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Their Tenderest Years

I tried to take 5 kids, ages 3-9, to Mass by myself.

As the homily began, my 3-year-old started to quack persistently—about the rate of a smoke detector's low battery warning—so I carried him to the back of the church. The prospect of parading all of my children down the aisle proved too embarrassing, so I left twin 5-year-olds and an 8-year-old alone in the pew.

"Well, what a dumb call," every Catholic parent just said in unison. Yes, yes, it was undoubtedly dumb.

But all of us brilliantly knowing this today sure didn't help that poor mom hiking to the back of Mass with a quacking 3-year-old while abandoning three children in a pew with nothing but three MagnifiKid! magazines, one hardcover songbook, two precariously-bound missalettes, a burp cloth, a Bible, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and their own imaginations.

Safely behind the last row of pews, my ducky preschooler crawled quietly in circles around a pillar, easily ignored—until he shifted into reverse: "Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeep."

Surely the homily would end any moment. Catholic liturgy is usually a perfect cover for errant duck quacks and truck horns; the joyful noise of collective prayers and singing easily blends with the ambient sounds of children. But this homily wouldn't end.

Summoning my inner Blessed Mother, I stepped directly into my son's bulldozing path, scooped him into my arms like the expert parent I am, and never once broke eye contact with my trio of well-behaved kids—such cherubs!—left alone in our third-row pew. Or that's how I imagined it would happen one holy moment before stepping directly onto my baby's bulldozer fingers, instinctively scooping him high into my arms for comfort, and creating a truly statue-worthy Madonna and Child image as his whimpering amplified into siren-like wails in the stone echo chamber of our parish nave.

I rushed for the nearest door. Unfortunately, the nearest door was also a one-way secured exit to the parking lot.

Determined not to disrupt the [world's longest] homily and gifted with the problem-solving optimism of any Catholic parent at Mass, I wedged one foot in the gap of the closing fire door and deep lunged in a maxi skirt as far from the cracked door as possible while cradling my bawling toddler.

I don't know what happened next. Did I put him down intentionally? Did he squirm out of my arms? All I saw was his back, running away, down the sidewalk. As grace would have it, after whisper-yelling my best threats to "GET BACK IN CHURCH THIS INSTANT," my baby listened and obeyed his Momma as cheerfully as any three-year-old might, which is to say, not in the least.

Divine help arrived in the form of a teenage boy playing hooky from Mass. Realizing my plight—one foot jammed in the secured exit door of the church while my delirious preschooler spun circles down the sidewalk—this bemused teenager acted with all the compassion and kindness of Jesus as he chased down my runaway child and held the door open for us to rush, flustered, back into Mass.

From behind all the pews, I could see my pre-kindergarteners' identical bobbleheads shoving each other jovially. Having rolled up their children's Mass books, they seemed to be... sword fighting? My 8-year-old was nowhere in sight.

I hustled intemperately down the aisle, toddler on hip, and arrived at the third row to find my 8-year-old laying on his stomach across four seats of the pew intensively reading his Bible. My annoyance with his posture—"The pew is not a bed!"—far outweighed my delight at his captive immersion in scripture.

Had I paused, rather than raining down weary parental justice, I'm sure I would have glimpsed my son's guardian angel, casually seated on the kneeler beside him, wings to the homilist, pointing out something absolutely fascinating in whatever passage they were reading.

Instead, I huffily confiscated the 5-year-olds' book-swords, swept my 8-year-old's feet to the floor, and returned an armament of songbooks and missalettes to the shelf on the back of the pew.

It was my own fault, leaving three young kids unsupervised in a pew during the longest of homilies. I determined—with a resolve familiar to anyone who's ever taken an indoor cat on a leash to the parish's outdoor Blessing of Animals on the Feast of St. Francis—to just calm down.

The homily, unaffected, meandered on; my 3-year-old quacked; and I lost it.

What's the point of coming to Mass when my kids just can't sit calmly in a pew for an hour? Everyone here must think I'm a terrible parent. If my children can't behave nicely in public, then I just can't bring them to church.

I gathered up our stuff and led my kids on the parade of shame to the back of the church. Had my 9-year-old not been altar serving—there's number five, for anyone counting kids through this story and continually coming up short—I'm sure we would have left.

It's worth mentioning that I only sensed pity and compassion from those around us. No one shook their heads disapprovingly at my perceived parenting fail. No one nodded in agreement with my choice to give up. Excepting one woman, everyone in the congregation simply accepted with chagrin and a shrug that it was what it was: a futile attempt to bring young kids to Mass.

That one exceptional woman was a family friend sitting on the other side of the church. She sent her husband to meet us in the narthex on our way out and invited my 8-year-old and twin 5-year-olds to sit with them. This mother and her family just spent an entire eternal homily distracted by my family of crazy kids, and rather than smile contentedly down her row of eight saintly children, she sent her husband to come collect my kids too.

I happily sent them.

For the rest of Mass, I sat in timeout in the narthex with my 3-year-old.

I thought about why "kids behaving nicely" seems so important to me at church. Why was I more concerned with my children's reputation than their reverence? And why is it fair to judge a young child's reverence solely by time impositions of posture and stillness?

If God wants us, as adults, to come to Mass in all our messy honesty, how much must He delight in the natural honest presence of our children? We're exhorted, as parents, to "associate [our children] from their tenderest years with the life of the Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2225). Surely God is not surprised by the peculiar antics of our kids in their "tenderest years" at Mass!

Some Sundays, my kids are impressively robotic in their liturgical presence: sit, stand, kneel, sing, stand, bow, kneel... Other Sundays, I've got sword-fighting five-year-olds, an 8-year-old who's two pillows short a reading nook, an altar-serving 9-year-old, and one foot wedged in the fire door while chasing down a toddler.

To God be the glory. He's always happy to see us.

What does it mean for your family to be genuinely present at Mass? Do you believe God is happy to see you?

Photo by Russell Ward (2015) via Freely.

*Also published January 2021 at Sacred Heart Blog and January 2020 at

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