Children are in Church to Be Saints, not Statues
“Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
(Disclaimer. Yes, I am 100 percent positive that this is a topic that many parents and non-parents have strong opinions about. No, our kids are not perfect in church. This is not the end of the conversation but the beginning.)
During the time of our dating, engagement and first years of marriage, Ryan and I attended a beautiful Carmelite monastery near our home every Sunday. It was the closest church to the little house I was renting when I first moved to Louisiana. Where I had lived in Virginia, the closest church had been a Poor Clare monastery (where I had discerned entering) and this Carmelite oasis was heavenly. The place felt and smelled holy, prayed in, and peaceful. The sound of the sisters’ chanting floated over the air, mixed with the scent of beeswax, incense, and linen starch, and echoed off the sparkling clean floors.
The sisters were so excited to hear we were expecting our first child, assured us that she would be welcome and that the sound of a child is the song of the Church. When she was born we passed her through the grille of the cloister and the sisters showered her with roses and asked her if she would join them one day. She was a quiet baby and all was well... until she started walking and talking and singing and yodeling and wiggling and tripping over the extern nun’s feet during the consecration. The echoing floors and the silence were now a liability. The ushers gave us looks that we could feel even when we were not looking. She would not, could not, sit still. There was no cry room so we took turns pacing the halls trying to shush the happy, yodeling toddler who was alternately blowing kisses to Jesus, throwing her sippy cup at unsuspecting strangers, and crying because her pretzel was broken.
Our babymoon was ending. We had to get serious about finding a church where we could worship without impairing anyone else’s worship. Soon after our second child was born we decided it was time to leave the sweet haven of the monastery and find a new parish. We decided to go back to the church where we were married since it was about the same distance from our new home and where we should be going anyway. We wanted our kids to kneel and adore their Creator where Ryan’s family had been worshipping since the 1700s when they arrived on the banks of the Bayou Teche as exiles from Acadia (present day Nova Scotia). We had been going for only a few weeks when it happened. The worst thing you can imagine. At least the worst thing I can imagine.
Our one month old was getting cranky and needed to be bounced to sleep. It was an unseasonably chilly May morning so instead of standing in the drafty entryway I stood in the very back of church. The beauty of this old church, the Easter flowers, remembering our wedding here, looking at our baby boy drifting off in my arms, I barely heard a whining toddler somewhere in my vicinity. I had stopped hearing the words of the homily as I was absorbed in my ponderings. Suddenly there was silence and I looked up to see half of the congregation looking back at me. Was it me? I caught Ryan’s panicked glance my way. What was going on? I looked around. What did everyone else see that I didn’t? What was wrong? The priest stated “Will the lady in the back with the crying baby please step behind the glass. I cannot hear myself think!” I realized that the priest had confused the whining toddler in front of me with the sound of a crying newborn. Perhaps? I waited because at this point I had frozen and I was still not sure if he was referring to me. He said it again. “Please go behind the glass doors.” I wanted to say, “It is not my kid. I just had a C-section. My baby is asleep. It is cold out there. Can I go back to the pew and get my jacket? How about my purse so I can just leave? My kid is asleep.” I waited for the floor to swallow me but no such luck. I backed out into the cold lobby. Too cold for a newborn. I went outside. Too windy. I found a corner where the wind was blocked and leaned against the wall. I cried. I was angry.
Even if it were my kid that would have been rude. What about the poor parent whose kid it was? I bet they never went back to church there. I was never going back. It seemed like eternity for the next 30 minutes to go by so that we could all leave. What sort of message did that encounter send to the congregation? Again we were without a church. Maybe we cared too much, but personally I could not pray in a place where kids were not welcome. Way too stressful!
The next logical thing to do was to find a place with a nice cry room so we could sit together as a family and not worry about every squeak our babies made. So began the season of our life spent in a cry room. The speakers did not always work (actually never), the air conditioning did not work, when one kid started crying the babies would all scream, food was everywhere, parents talked during the consecration, some kids played games on their parent’s phones during Mass (hey, at least they came), and we were constantly getting sick. Done. Can’t do it. We took turns standing outside the church so that the very loud and wiggly one could let everyone worship in peace and at least Ryan and I could each enjoy half of Mass. We discussed going to church separately and leaving the kids at home but decided we were determined to push through.
One day the pastor announced from the pulpit (gulp) that he liked the sound of kids in church. WHAT????!!! That sound meant the Church was ALIVE not dead. Pass the word. He did not mind, and we should not either. Did that mean we could leave the confines of the cry room and the pacing outside the doors of the church? Were we welcome to sit with everyone else even if our kids made a few kid noises?
So began the journey to the front three rows. The next Sunday we sat in the front row. Ten minutes later we had to leave to change a diaper and clean up spit-up. Maybe a bit too ambitious? The next Sunday, three rows from the front on the far-right side. It was a short pew with a dead end. Yes! They were stuck and could not get out. We now had three kids, 4 and under, and we were in the front. Then No. 3 started walking and talking and jibber-jabbering. Back we went to the last pew again but not the cry room or pacing outside the church.
Over the journey of our now 4 kids, 8 and under, we have traveled around the church to find a pew and set up that allows us to pray and everyone else too. Again we are in the front, far right, and three rows back. Yes, we have to leave sometimes. Yes, people stare, but every so often there is someone who says, “I’m so glad to see you bring your children to church. I know it is hard, I know that you think they are not sitting still enough, but let me tell you that from where I sit I can see that you are trying, they are trying and Jesus loves that you are here with them.” To all those mostly grandmothers who have said this to us over the years — thank you and please don’t stop. Because of you we just might make it through. To all of those families who are discouraged — talk to your parish priest. Tell him how hard it is. Suggest some solutions. Ask him to remind families that their children are the life of the church and that they are welcome. Thank them for coming and remind them that we are called to become saints not statues.
To those churches who are doing a great job at this — thank you. To those of you who, like us, are still trying to figure it out — don’t give up. Kids in church is not for the faint of heart.