Before going on my facebook fast, I noticed a review a friend did of her local megachurch. She mentioned how much she loved it but then made a curious comment. She said she wished that the children of the community were more present and that the congregation was more involved in seeing what the children were learning from and at church. She also mentioned just how segregated the services were with children exclusively in their variety of “kids” programs while the adults were at worship.
Her comment struck me as, first off, it is very rare to hear anything in the way of helpful suggestions for this particular church and never an outright criticism and also because the children’s programs are so highly lauded there. In fact, I’d never before heard someone say outloud that they disliked the segregated experience at this particular church before. Ever. In the following days, I began to find out many people felt as my friend does, she was just the only one brave enough to say it.
While her criticism was unusual for that particular church, I’ve heard many Protestant converts to Catholicism express the bad taste that “children’s church” left in their mouths. Some from their experience, some from the experience of their children. In fact, it happens to be one of the praises they have of their Catholic experience. Almost universally.
And almost equally universally from these converts I find a total disdain of nurseries, cry rooms and Children’s Liturgy of the Word. And I get it, I totally do. In fact, my children do not participate in CLoW and we’ve never used the nursery and only with Shelby do we use the cry room; and when we attended a parish where Faith Formation happened during mass, we went to a different mass and then waited for Faith Formation. I’ll get to the whys in just a minute. That all being said, I love that these are available at many parishes.
As Catholics we believe in an “age of reason,” which I have my own issues with but I digress. As such, very young children are not required to be in mass. And for many a weary mama or daddy, the option of having a place to put a squirmy toddler or joyful squealer is a little piece of heaven even for an hour. In fact, I’ve known parents who were loathe to even go to mass unless there was a nursery because while there is grace in just being there, they felt like they were in an unfit state to receive the Eucharist when the time came. For those reasons, I love a nursery. However, I agree that it should be optional at the parents’ discretion only. It should never be suggested by a parishoner agitated by a child during mass if the parents choose not to stick their baby or toddler there. No, not even a “just in case you didn’t know” from anyone who doesn’t have a child of the same age and uses the nursery themselves. It’s just uncharitable coming from anyone other than current nursery users.
Cry rooms give many parents a way to go to mass, be with their children and their children be of the age they are. Similarly, I’ve seen more kids like Shelby in the cry room or vestibule who can’t quite handle mass but parents still want them to receive that grace. Still, we don’t want ushers and greeters directing all parents of young children to the cry room! I witnessed this once with a young family with two very well behaved little boys when I was a teenager and I am still appalled by it. Parental discretion is just that. And fellow parishoners do not get a say.
And Children’s Liturgy of the Word is a wonderful gift both for parents and children. It gives the children a more relaxed atmosphere to here the readings and a homily at their level. It gives parents an opportunity to better concentrate on the readings and homily. At our current parish and the parish we occasionally attend close by, I’ve never seen this happen, but at a few parishes I’ve seen children tapped on the shoulder by other parishoners not in their family and told, “You need to leave with them now.” Not acceptable.
These programs can all be beneficial if utilized at the discretion of the parents of the children. And my personal discretion is that my children stay with me during mass. The main reason is that my children are at an age where they can be reasonably expected to behave during mass and that they learned this behavior by being in mass. I also believe that as they are both in sacrament preparation, both boys need to be in mass to more appropriately understand the sacraments they are preparing for. Finally, they prefer to stay in mass themselves. So, I can’t blame them for that.
And I am heartened to see and hear about stories where children and families are being more welcomed in mass as it were. In recent months, priests have been reported as removing signs that reserved seating for families with young children in the back of their church and encouraging families to sit wherever they feel most comfortable. (I have never encountered this kind of seating personally but have heard from friends, mostly in the Midwest, that this is totes a thing in some parishes.) While I believe the seating was well-intentioned but flawed. Yes, occasionally a parent needs to remove a child from mass, but to lump all families of young children in that group creates more, not less division.
We should welcome things that are helpful to parishoners but also remember that optional services are just that.