On any given Sunday, it’s a joy for me to see a whole family come to Mass and sit together in a pew. On one Sunday a while back, a family of six filled the church pew not far from the altar while I was celebrating Mass. Whether it was intended or not, that family quickly grabbed my attention. The pew was much larger than needed to accommodate a regular group of six. This family, in addition to the two parents, included four young children – two boys and two girls – all quite energetic and even rambunctious. Needless to say, the parents were kept busy throughout that Mass.
The kids took turns standing on the kneeler, sprawling out on the pew, playing with toys, and pawing at Mom and Dad. At one point, when two of the kids were occupying the parents’ attention, the youngest of the clan escaped — he dashed out of the pew and down the aisle to the altar. Dad chased him down (I smiled and even laughed to myself; it reminded me of the time I did the same thing). Some of the people nearby looked at the family in an annoying way and were exasperated; but I didn’t mind. I love seeing young families with their little children, attending Mass together. Frankly, I wish I saw more of them.
That’s one of the things that concern me about a lot of our churches in our part of Florida: not enough young families at Mass. Where are they? Some might be “church shopping” and may have found places they feel are more “with it”, more “modern,” more “welcoming” and less theologically demanding. They might be going there for the music or for other entertainment value. Some might have lost their faith, or deemed it not important in their lives. Some might be downright lazy or indifferent to the serious obligation to worship God. Some might not feel welcome. Some might feel embarrassed that they can’t “control” their children’s behavior at Mass. Some may not want the stares from “judgmental” churchgoers, who would prefer that life should fit into their own personal mold. Whatever the reason for their absence, the children and their young parents are really left out of the Church community when parents don’t come and teach their children the value of celebrating the Eucharist together – as a family.
While some children get their religious education by attending a parochial school, others get it by attending the parish Sunday program of Religious Education. Of that group, however, only a minor percentage actually attends Sunday Mass. Then there are countless other kids who were baptized but never came again to see the inside of a church, such as for First Holy Communion and Confirmation. The parents rationalize the situation by saying, “That’s alright; God will understand;” or “I won’t force them to go now; let them make that choice later in life;” or “I’ve got more important things to do.” Try telling that to God.
So, when children are missing from Sunday Mass — and their parents as well — part of our community is missing. We aren’t complete; we aren’t whole. All this as I remember something that “Harry Potter” author, J.K. Rowling, wrote: “Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”
I remember when my Dad and Mom brought us four young children to Mass every Sunday – the first three of us a year and a half apart. Their faith was strong, and their desire to expose their children to that faith was strong. So, we attended Mass regularly – no excuses other than illness allowed. Not only that, we sat in one of the church’s front pews, even when one of us would fall asleep on our Dad’s shoulder or Mom’s lap, or was wanting to be held, then wanting down, then wanting to be held again. Sometimes we spoke louder than our parents wished. Sometimes we crawled around on the floor. But, we were there, and they were there with us. They knew that Mass was the most important place to be on a Sunday morning, and they also knew the reasons why. They patiently taught us the right values, even when we stubbornly tried to resist.
In time, we learned how to behave – not just at Mass, but any public place. We learned to be reverent. We got to know the priests and the people who usually sat around us. We came to know these people as members of our parish family – our parish community.
Would we prefer that all children were perfectly behaved at Mass? Sure! It’s a special time for us — a time of prayer and to offer God worship; and I would prefer not to have my eyes and mind distracted — but never at the expense of losing some important members of our parish community – little children – who are still in the learning process.
I often think about Jesus teaching the people on one particular occasion. The little children came to Him for a blessing, but some of his disciples wanted to shoo those kids away. Jesus was adamant: “Let the children come to me. It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs!” I like to think that some of those children in Jesus’ time eventually grew up to be some of the first Christians.
Having kids at Mass won’t absolutely guarantee they’ll be devoted churchgoers when they grow up. But what chances do they have if they don’t go to church regularly? And how much poorer are we, both now and in the future, if we condone their absence?
Yes, Jesus knows our feeble excuses for not bringing children to Him at church each week; but that doesn’t mean He overlooks them. Commandment #3 is “Keep holy the Lord’s Day!” Do we believe that’s just a suggestion?