Monday, 13 September 2010

The problem of children

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. 

Better solutions?

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....


R J said...

I'm wondering if there are in fact two different factors at work here, which are being conflated into one. First, small kids yelling. Second, small kids engaging in regrettable behaviour of an actively physical kind.

In my experience of Latin Masses in this country, SSPX Masses are more likely to have small children at them than diocesan Latin Masses are. (Those Anglosphere Catholics whose fundamental preoccupations in life are staying single, getting rich, winning popularity contests, and carving out a fashionable career are not likely to frequent the SSPX.) Yet the very small kids at SSPX Masses where I've been present have comported themselves very respectfully indeed. I can recall precisely one - one - instance where a small boy (perhaps two years old) at an SSPX Mass really was yelling excessively - maybe he had teething troubles - and on that occasion his mother gave him a discreet but firm smack before lugging him outside. When mother and boy returned a few minutes later, he had not only calmed down, he was as good as gold for the rest of the ceremony. (Mind you, there are some countries where smacking kids is illegal ...)

There was just one time I really objected to a small kid at Mass. That was when, during a diocesan liturgy in an Australian capital city, a little girl (about three years old by the look of her) was not only yelling and screaming blue murder but repeatedly running up and down the nave in a manner afterwards made famous by Lady Gaga on pop video clips.

Now that was a total no-no, and eventually - far too "eventually", in my view - the priest sicced an altar-server to explain politely but firmly to the kid's parents why these antics were unacceptable to God, to the clergy, and to the congregation alike. Goodness only knows what trailer-park the parents had grown up in, if they thought that their daughter's disruptions were OK or "fun" or "cute" or "necessary to boost her self-esteem" or whatever other cliche they'd picked up from reading the tabloids' "lifestyle" sections.

I never saw the family again. This was possibly just as well for the family.

As I became a Catholic only in adulthood no childhood factors predisposed me to attending Mass. Since my upbringing was atheistic, the contrary is true.

Terra said...

RJ - I think we are all conditioned by what we see at the particular masses we attend, but I can assure you no confusion here between screaming children/undisciplined children - both have occurred all too frequently at masses I've attended for my taste!

Most parents, it is true, take their babies outside if the crying gets out of hand. But some seem perfectly able to ignore it. And the children running loose problem occurs all too frequently.

As to your cheap shots at diocesan Latin mass goers, I think they are very wide of the mark indeed. Very few people indeed are determinedly single for career or other reasons in my experience, quite the contrary.

I have no wish for this to degenerate into an SSPX vs diocesan debate, so please don't continue down this track. But in response to your comments, let me simply suggest that the reason one should attend diocesan massses rather than the SSPX is the desire to be in full communion with Rome, and to avoid any schismatic tendancies. Should the SSPX ever be truly reconciled and the suspension of its priests lifted then the story will be different. in the meantime...

In any case, certainly Adelaide and Canberra diocesan Latin Mass communities have always had large numbers of young families attending them.

I have heard tell however, that those who have attended both diocesan and SSPX masses in my town have noted that the children are rather better behaved at the SSPX.

A Canberra Observer said...

Not sure you are on a winner argument here (in fact sure you are not).

Complex problem, doubtless been with us for a long time, and the past is always rosy in remembrance.

Catechesis?: yes. As a parallel alternative to Mass?: no.

We can't throw everyone overboard. there's precious few in this boat as it is.

Terra said...

CO - Explain to me why taking the kiddies out isn't an option?

I take your point about small numbers, but from what I can see of the Campbell parish experiment, having such a thing brings people in, not the reverse (though its early days yet).

Of course the other solution is that of my geographical parish - just pretend that people under 70 don't exist (because they certainly don't appear at mass) and stick with those golden Marty Haugen favs from the golden years of the 60s and 70s...

A Canberra Observer said...

Dear Terra

My post was patchy to be sure. I expect we furiously agree on many points.

Should parents take children out if they are causing a disruption? Yes

Should parents NOT allow their children to run around the church? Yes

Should pastors take practical steps to catechise all the faithful in these matters? Yes. And that could be a very major undertaking. One that should be undertaken.

Will we achieve changed behaviours easily? Probably not.

The practice of childrens' events while Mass is going on is standard novus ordo fare. I suspect it in my bones.

I may not have a document to point to, but I believe there is something salutary in the whole family, as circumstances permit, worshipping together.

As to the sermon, well sometimes I think 'prince & priest and thrall' all put a little too much stock in that ...

Oh, and one last thing, for RJ really, it is worth contemplating walking in others shoes.

Terra said...

CO - Chesterton's words on the need for protection against lies and false comfort seem no less apt today - so I don't think the importance of sermons can be under-rated in this heterodox world, particularly for non-geographical communities (not withstanding that the actual ones on offer generally fall short of what is needed!).

As someone put it to me the other day, it can take a considerable time and effort (two buses vs 5 minute walk) to get to some Latin masses compared to the local offering - so the sermon, music and community needs to be worth the trip!

As for the argument that families should worship together, nice in theory and will always happen sometimes, but in practice many families will often be split anyway due to helping out in choirs, at the altar etc.

Finally, I have to say I'm deeply disturbed at your third argument that novus ordo goers have Sunday school esq things so it must therefore be a bad idea. I'm not of course in favour of innovation for innovations sake, but sometimes other peoples ideas are worth considering. Sad to see that trad nation's walls are still intact and high, and the hermeneutic of suspicion about the mainstream Church is still going strong.

Salvatore said...

I too have some discomfort with the ‘Sunday School’ idea. I just can’t help feeling that being at the best way to train children to behave at mass is to have them at Mass; if for no other reason than that it allows them to learn from the adults around them how to behave.
A much more important thing is (IMO) to ensure that there’s a Mass to go to. For example, here where I live (let’s not name names) we are offered the choice between a Low mass at the crack of dawn (too early for parents with kids) and an interminable High Mass later on (which regularly goes for an hour and a half). Even the best behaved child is likely to become bored and fractious after that length of time (I know I do). A mid-morning Mass of moderate length would have families flocking in; but in its lack they simply make ‘other’ arrangements.

Terra said...

Salvatore - Take your point about mass timing/availability and children's behaviour (speaking from experience, even adults flag somewhat at a very long Mass over the lunch hour).

Indeed, even the low Mass mentioned in my post ran for an hour, a long time for a child to cope with almost complete silence (apart from readings/sermon) which may be another reason for their absence these days. While the thirty minute Sunday masses (including 10-15 min sermon) my mother remembers growing up might have been excessively short, there is surely a happy medium!

On the Sunday school thing, learning by example is surely the hard way of doing it - certainly children should be given some chance to absorb from example, but a little supplemental instruction surely does not go astray.

A Canberra Observer said...

Alas, I am still misunderstood.

My sentiment was that I suspect having activities for some of the 'faith community' (geographic or otherwise) conducted in parallel (and therefore potentially in opposition) to the celebration of Mass, of whatever form or rite.

I was not making any comment on the novus ordo missae but simply an observation that the children's parallel activities has been trialled since the introduction of said form. I argue no causal nexus with the ritual.

Pax et bonum

A Canberra Observer said...


My comment on the sermon was acidic - if 'stock' is to be 'invested' in the sermon, one hopes that the sermon will be such to deliver a return, and not only for all.

It seems rare in my (own) experience of trad Masses to have a sermon with even an element directed to the children, or the youth (even on occasions such as First Holy Communion and Confirmation). I find that odd.

I would give great praise to Fr John Rizzo FSSP in this regard - almost every sermon I have heard him give when children are present directed some of his comments to them.

Andrea said...

Perhaps catechesis outside of Mass, about the Mass, would help children (and adults) to appreciate the Mass more. In my experience, few of the parents, let alone the children, understand what the Mass is about, and I have heard precious few sermons which address this.
The Catechisis of the Good Shepherd is a weekly program for children aged 3-12, which is based in Scripture and Liturgy. One of the first works the children are shown, at the age of 3, gives them the names of all the things a priest uses on the altar. Parents could be encouraged to have their children attend programs such as this.

Mother of Ten Practicing Catholics said...

There may be an issue of lack of discipline at play here. Today's generation of children are often outspoken, over confident and sometimes disrespectful and this is a modern trend appearing in all quarters of society so of course it will appear at Mass too, but...
The crux of the matter is this statement from Terra...

"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. "

Children learn as they live. Taking them to Mass is vital to their Catholic upbringing regardless of the attitude of some 'childless' members of the congregation.
Good grief! Surely we would prefer hear the noise of the 'future of the church' than some of the boring empty homilies I have had to endure! We have our Missals...we can read the Gospel and follow the Mass and rejoice at the possibility that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not only supported by the childless and elderly and that it does indeed have a future.

Andrea said...

Mother of 10, I agree with you in the main, except that some parents use sentiments such as expressed in your last paragraph as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour.

Terra, I can't help but feel that the "children's liturgy" is yet another example of the parents handing over their responsibility for educating their children, and having "time to themselves".

Terra said...

Mother of Ten - I have to admit though that my childhood memories probably gained disproportinate importance because at the age of 6 I was sent off to protestant Sunday school classes instead of Mass, and only rediscovered the church as an adult.

Andrea - I am ambivalent about this, but parents have to delegate some things - and is it really so bad to have some time to yourselves? My only issue is the importance of a relatively undisturbed mass.