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The Young and the Childless

Reports are in from the Catholic mommy blogs: There is a cold war settling in at parishes throughout the land.

On one side of the aisle are parents with small children, struggling mightily to fulfill their Sunday obligation while caring for their wee ones. Reports are imprecise as to how many children; this is one area of Catholic life where the numbers of offspring each family has to heroically manage routinely swell to Duggar-sized proportions.

On the other side of the aisle are the childless, who reportedly spend Mass time shooting ice-coated glares and grimaces at the parents for allowing their children to be children. What “being children” means is equally imprecise, but usually has to do with making noise that breaks the tomb-like silence the childless are said to unreasonably expect at Mass.

(Nota bene: For the sake of simplicity, I will concede to the common assumption that those who are shooting glares at families with children are themselves childless. In truth, this is an unfounded assumption. I have heard from many veteran parents who have raised broods of their own and complain of the noise level at Mass. Just because someone is not currently surrounded by a herd of preschoolers does not necessarily mean that person has no experience raising children.)

These reports at the mommy blogs are met with a flood of comments from other parents crouched down in the trenches at Mass. All have horror stories to tell: The little old lady who shushed a six-week-old babe in arms; the middle-aged bachelor who started a petition to create a height requirement for admittance to the sanctuary; the usher who bounced a single mom and her toddler quintuplets from the pew, thereby leaving the family no choice but to stay away from Mass until the quintuplets graduated college.

There are heroes whose valor on the front lines is lauded. Usually Our Heroes are the priests and deacons who plead with families to bring the little children to Jesus, and who scold the rest of the parishioners to suffer those children to be brought to Jesus and to forbid them not—for to them belongs not just the kingdom of heaven but the future of the Church.

Problematic “Solutions”

Soon enough, discussion turns to how to end the cold war. The solutions offered generally fit into one of three categories:

Preaching: Bible verses are collected, always including the one about suffering the little children. Clergy are importuned to give a homily on this topic every year on Respect Life Sunday.

Shaming: Everyone is reminded just how hard it is to be a parent these days, and how unreasonable it is for the childless, presumed to know nothing about children because they have none, to suppose that small children can be taught to act appropriately at Mass.

Moralizing: The childless are the reason why we have a culture of death. If it were not for them, Catholic parents would throw away their NFP charts, and go forth and multiply. You can’t be both pro-life and expect quiet at Mass!

Perhaps it will not surprise you to hear that these solutions have yet to produce a lasting change in the hearts and minds of the childless. So perhaps it is time for a new strategy. I make no guarantees as to its ultimate success, but hey, if nothing else has worked so far then why not try?

To Be Resolved . . .

Here then are my suggestions to all parties in this war. If agreement is reached, the peace accords will be signed at next Sunday’s after-Mass coffee-and-doughnut klatsch at your local parish.

For the Clergy: Clergy shall agree to stop taking sides in this dispute and to search for solutions that meet the needs of all parishioners. Clergy shall remember that all parishioners have an equal claim upon the pastoral concern of their fathers in Christ, and so shall resolve not to make special pleas to one segment of their congregation at the expense of any other segment. They shall also remember that the Scripture verse about Jesus telling his disciples to suffer little children has been flogged to the point that mention of it will only elicit exasperation from those parishioners bringing concerns about noise to Father’s attention.

(Nota bene: It is worth noting that Matthew 19:14 should not be interpreted as a divine mandate to raise up holy terrors. Encouraging parents to bring children to Jesus does not exclude an expectation that those children will be taught how to behave while in the presence of Jesus.)

If a parish has a cry room, clergy shall do what is possible to make it as useful and comfortable as possible. Cry rooms have a bad reputation, but that reputation could be improved if attention was given to making a cry room more than just the parish juvenile detention center. If a parish has a nursery, clergy shall make regular appeals to all parishioners to contribute to its upkeep. If several pews can be set aside for families with older special-needs children near the front of the sanctuary (where the children can see better and thus participate more readily in the Mass), those pews shall be roped off and marked for the use of families who need them. Clergy may then suggest to the easily distracted that they choose seats far enough away from the designated family sections for their own comfort and spiritual peace.

For the Parents: Parents shall remember that the number-one duty of a parent is to teach his child how to interact appropriately with the larger world; likewise, they shall remember that it is not their duty to teach the world how to treat their children. Parents shall also remember that no one is going to care as much as they do about how difficult parenthood is for them.

With those principles in mind, parents shall resolve to treat their fellow congregants with all of the consideration and courtesy that they would like to be shown. All amenities offered by a parish to accommodate families shall be gratefully accepted, including the Church’s allowance of childcare as a justifiable excuse to miss Mass on days of obligation when a child is ill or experiencing a complete meltdown.

Glares from fellow congregants when one must stay in one’s pew may be met with a sympathetic smile and a quiet apology. Bonus points if a brief explanation can be given. Not many people, even the childless among us, are hardhearted enough not to be moved by an apologetic appeal along the lines of, “I’m so sorry; he needs a nap,” or “I wish I could take her outside, but I can’t leave my other children unsupervised.”

If all reasonable attempts to show consideration for others are met only with continued glares, parents shall resolve to ignore the sulky faces of fellow congregants and not construe such reactions to be a personal affront or insult. Prepare for the teenage years early! Practice now how to let the unreasonable and pouty to have their bad moods as long as they do so in silence. In short, be the mom, not just to your own children but to anyone else who acts childishly.

For the Childless: I have saved addressing the childless for last, mainly because they are my people. But I too must not play favorites, and so I now turn my attention to them.

The childless shall resolve to remember that it can indeed be a task of herculean proportions to shepherd little children to and from Mass week in and week out. Those parents who also make the effort to take their children to daily Mass on a regular basis surely have gold stars by their names in the Book of Life. We do not want to hear the King someday say to us, “Depart from me, you cursed, for I was a stranger chasing after small children at Mass and you did not help me.”

The childless shall support any and all amenities a parish offers for families—not just in spirit but with time, talent, and treasure. If a nursery is short of volunteers, a childless person shall volunteer to help occasionally. The childless shall also support parents at Mass with prayer, with minding their own business, and (where possible and appropriate) with offers to supervise children whose parents need to leave the sanctuary to feed, diaper, or soothe a sibling in distress.

The childless also shall resolve to avoid glaring, and to speak to a parent only on those occasions when a child’s misbehavior is directly affecting others (e.g., kicking seats, scattering food or toys, loudly and interminably wailing). If something must be said, they will remember that a polite offer of help usually will be more readily welcomed than a scolding.

The Path Forward

In his classic book on people skills, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie observed that people become the most cooperative when you make your appeal to their interests and needs, rather than to your own interests and needs. If you can meet their needs, they will become more willing to help you meet yours. As an analogy to illustrate his point, Carnegie noted:

Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: “Wouldn’t you like to have that?”

Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?

Clergy, parents, and childless congregants have a common goal: To be able to worship Christ at Mass. Where they differ is in the challenges they face to reach that goal. Clergy must shepherd all congregants without playing favorites. Parents must teach their children the importance of both attending and participating in the Mass on days of obligation. The childless must step outside their comfort zone and accept that some distractions during worship are inevitable and can be occasions to grow in heroic virtue.

If all sides take into account not just their own challenges but the challenges of others, resolving not just to solve their own challenges but to assist others in solving theirs, then perhaps we can help each other to heaven and fulfill the two great commandments of Christ:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:37–40).

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