We arrived for the 11am Mass early for a change, but we still gravitated to a pew towards the back – our usual spot. A bit after the processional hymn and introductory rites, Bob and Tess, a young couple of our acquaintance, parked themselves and their two young daughters in the pew just ahead of us. Right away, the rumpus began: One girl flopping down on the pew with an exaggerated writhe; the other, squirmy and squeaky, ready to dispense with Sunday obligation and go home.

As Bob and Tess exchanged children back and forth, my wife and I exchanged knowing glances and grins – been there! The floor show unfolded apace, and we anticipated the canon of parental interventions – like the distribution of hymnals and missalettes, which is a standard re-direction ploy that we knew wouldn’t last long. I was doing my best to stay focused on the readings, but I couldn’t help noticing that one of the girls was leaning out toward me from dad’s arms. I offered to help, and Bob readily accepted, so I took her up in one arm and rattled my keys with the other. In short order, she tired of my feeble attempt to entertain, and she reached back out for dad.

The show must go on.

After the recessional, Bob and Tess turned to thank us for our patience and forbearance. “I’m sorry for all the commotion,” mom said. We assured her that no apology was necessary; that it was a privilege and a pleasure to share in such happy hassles in church.

“I figured you’d feel that way,” came Tess’s reply, “which is why I was glad we ended up sitting in front of you guys.”

Can a Catholic family receive a bigger compliment? I beamed. This young couple was confident that my crew and I wouldn’t mind some adjacent exuberance during Mass – that we’d even welcome and relish it. Somehow or other we’d been able to communicate to them, subtly and silently, that we’d be safe pew neighbors that Sunday morning – that we’d not only understand their dilemma, but also support them in their plight.

And their dilemma? Their plight? Making it through the liturgy with young ones who can’t make it through the liturgy – at least without creating a scene.

Of course, this is only a dilemma in a world that has lost its bearings with regards to children and family life, and it’s only a dilemma for Catholics who’ve succumbed to that skewed perspective. Children belong in church by right, no question. Jesus himself made this plain when he told us that we had to become like them in order to be part of his kingdom (Mt 18.2-4). If that’s true, then those tykes fidgeting and flailing in the next pew are our role models. They’re already suited for the kingdom as they are, with a greater right to be in church with their King than we crusty grown-ups.

Yet we must avoid the temptation to merely tolerate kids in church as if it were some kind of onerous requirement. No, we need them there – we need their wild abandon and exuberance, we need them as incarnate reminders of what we ourselves are called to: innocence, transparency, vulnerability, receptivity. That’s why I can’t understand it when parishes elect to have nursery care during Mass or separate children’s liturgies. Such concessions to the zeitgeist seem to lean Protestant in their intent, for most Protestant worship is focused on cerebral activities that are indeed facilitated by quiet and stillness: listening to and reading the Scriptures, and then concentrating on a sermon’s exegesis and application of those Scriptures. If that’s what constitutes worship, then the removal of rambunctious children from our midst makes good sense.

But the Mass is not a classroom; it’s not a study hall. The Mass is focused on doing something, making something, confecting, as it were, a Eucharistic encounter. Yes, there’s also encounter in the Liturgy of the Word; yes, homilies and hymnody serve to enhance that loquacious communion. Nonetheless, the center and highpoint of the liturgy is the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary and our active participation in it. Not in some abstract way, not just in our minds, but really and truly by means of common bread and wine put to uncommon use. While stillness and silence, and the contemplation they foster, certainly have their time and place in the life of the church, the Mass is designed to engage our whole selves: soul and body and all the senses – hearing and sight, smell and touch, even taste and its associated digestive mechanisms.

Kids get that – they get what mealtime is all about – but their attention span is naturally limited, and mealtime doesn’t usually take an hour. That’s precisely why young kids belong at Mass with everybody else: It helps build up their liturgical chops. The young ones observe those of us who are older – parents, siblings, other folks around them in the pew – and they imitate. They see our postures, attitudes, and demeanors, and they learn, little by little, how to fit in to this thing they keep coming back to week after week. Moreover, they’re simultaneously absorbing not only the how of Mass participation, but also the why: That Christians go to church primarily to give something, namely themselves. What we get there is in direct proportion to how much we give – in interior dispositions and mindful presence, true enough, but also in the generosity we show our fellow worshippers, including the wee ones who are worshippers in training.

This relates to another reason we need kids at Mass: Their presence can motivate us to be more attentive and receptive in church so as to provide the best example to the young rookies in our midst.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks after our encounter with Bob and Tess and their girls.  It was the feast of St. Benedict, and the regular daily Mass crowd was supplemented by several young families who were there to share in the joy of a baptism to follow. Just as Mass was beginning, my four-year-old godson, Moses, arrived with his dad, Shawn, who tried to shuffle them both into a pew near the door. That’s when Moses spotted me and pointed – he wanted to sit with his godfather! – and he led the way down the aisle, dad in tow, to join me.

Sure he was squirmy, but no matter. I expected as much, and, besides, it was a rare treat to have Moses at my side. I handed over a Rosary to occupy his attention for a spell – another common Mass distractor from the parental playbook – but it had limited impact. He soon moved on to missalettes and a Bible story book provided by Shawn.

In any event, Moses’s restlessness didn’t hamper my Mass participation or prayer in the least. In fact, his presence spurred me on to an attentiveness often lacking in my daily Mass attendance. These days, my kneeling posture tends to bend backwards during the consecration, and my backside ends up resting on the bench. In this position, I’ve been known to nod off, although I’ve trained myself to normally reserve such liturgical naps for the homily.

With my godson so close, I resisted the urge to slouch, and sleeping was totally off the table. Whether Moses was watching me or not, I was keenly aware of his proximity, and I wanted to provide him with the best godparenting example possible. It was in keeping with something the celebrant, Father Brian, noted in his homily with reference to the day’s feast. He exhorted the many young congregants to live out their baptisms in a Benedictine manner, and that “we’re all called, by virtue of our baptism, to ora et labora – work and prayer.”

Here was my preschooler godson, right next to me, praying, in a sense, by means of his God-given kinetic energy, and working, in a sense, by wordlessly exhorting his godfather to greater heights of devotion. He was doing his job just fine, and I was spurred on to do mine better.

For the good of the next Catholic generation, and for our own good, let’s do all in our power to make room for young families at Mass. Let’s become harbors for them, oases of welcome and forbearance, unquestioned arenas where the parents can be assured of support as they wrestle with their squiggly broods. This, too, can be a Benedictine exercise, for monasteries are famous for their hospitality. And it doesn’t take much – really only the absence of glares and audible sighs when young families show up in your pew. If you want, you can create a destination isle of refuge by regularly camping out near the back of church. (Those who sit toward the front don’t need you – they’re probably already immune to the stares and glares.) Broad smiles help a ton, as do compliments on their progeny when Mass concludes. Plus, offer them praise them for avoiding the cry room except when it’s absolutely necessary.

Finally, firmly dismiss their apologies when it’s all over. If anything, we should apologize to them for any residual hint of disapproval which might give them pause about being exactly where they ought to be. Their children are the ones who are most at home at the foot of the altar. We should think of our own attendance there as tolerated only to the extent that we become as they are: abundantly themselves and ready to receive.