The problem I want to talk about today is not the lack of children altogether in some parishes, but their only too evident presence at Mass.
Children as a disruptive force at Mass
I was actually pleasantly surprised at low Mass yesterday by the relative lack of disruptive young children, courtesy of the absence of most of the usual culprits. I'm not sure whether this was the result of the ongoing "dialogue" on this subject between priest, parents of said children and other congregation members, or simply the short-term effect of the change of venue (unless the numbers attending this Mass have shrunk dramatically in the last few months, certainly a possibility, half the congregration seems to have gone missing in the first week of a move of location - though, due to an arrangement that privileged aesthetics over practicality, they wouldn't have fit in the allocated space had they turned up anyway). Whatever the reason, it was a most welcome development.
Still, in most parishes that actually do still have members under 70, the issue of what to do about children during Mass continues generally to be a problem in this age of a less disciplined approach to children's behaviour, evident even (especially?) in more conservative and traditionalist parish communities.
Hold the sermon, we'd rather listen to the screamers...
Indeed, there is a story today in the UK's Telegraph that the Provost of the London Oratory declined to give a sermon this Sunday saying there was no point given the noise of screaming babies and disruptive children.
As the author of the article says: "Good for Fr Harrison. Few priests are courageous enough to stand up to yummy mummies and their bellowing tots."
One can only sympathize with the priest, and rejoice with those members of the congregation who have no doubt long been waiting for action to be taken.
Best split Mass attendance and keep the kids at home?
All the same, I'm not sure that the correct solution is always, as the author of the article advocates, for parents to simply leave their children at home:
" I am all for small children getting used to going to church. But is there any point in whining babies and toddlers attending Mass, if they can’t stay calm and not disturb other people? They gain nothing from the experience, and in any case don’t need to be there.
Some parents seem to tune out the noise, or pretend it’s nothing to do with them. Why not just take the screamers out of the church – or not take them at all? As it happens, I missed Mass and my wife took the other children on her own. Why? Because the little baby just would not stop screaming – wind, probably – so one of us had to stay behind and pacify her. What would be the point of inflicting that on everybody else?"
But theologically and experientially...
I can't help feeling a frisson of unease with these arguments.
I am the first to resent my solemn worship being disrupted by noisy, disruptive, squirming children. I glare at parents who let their children run wild around the Church. Yet even as I react, I always feel a little guilty - because I have very strong, golden memories of going to Mass myself with my mother as a very young child, and sometimes wonder if perhaps I wouldn't be a practicing catholic today without those memories.
Secondly, although we have been conditioned to value 'active participation', whether internal or otherwise, as baptised Christians, I'm pretty sure that it can be argued theologically speaking, that babies and children actually are participating in an act of worship just by virtue of their presence - even if their active participation these days is, like so much activity at Mass, on the overactive side and their true inner participation is on the superficial side.
All that said, there is no obligation for children to attend Mass until they reach the age of reason. I do think preserving the solemnity of the worship, and the ability of the Congregation to actually hear the readings and allow the sermon to be preached uninterrupted must be a priority. But are there any better solutions than leaving the kids at home?
One most obvious question to ask is, is it really so hard to train children to be quiet through Mass? Yes, it does mean parents must be willing to escort their children out of the Church if necessary. But there are techniques that can be employed - I still have some evidence of the strategies my mother used to keep me occupied at Mass - the child's missal designed to be coloured in, and so forth. Why don't modern parents seem willing to use similar techniques? Perhaps parishes could run parenting techniques classes to share such techniques and help those struggling to maintain discipline with their kids?
But also what is wrong with the idea of taking the children out of the Church for part or all of the Mass for a bit of catechesis or some more targeted devotional activity? We all know our schools are failing dismally in this area, so a chance to provide some supplemental catechesis would be valuable. In fact at the main Mass in the Church the Latin Mass congregation here is now using for Low Mass (Campbell), the children go out for a 'children's liturgy' during the readings and sermon. I think it is a smart strategy, encouraging high Mass attendance in young families. All it requires is a supportive priest and a few committed volunteers....