Taking three small children to church is always a crapshoot.
Taking three small children to mass after a long night of merry-making and a morning of present-opening and candy-eating ups the ante even more.
Our three made it through the three readings from the Bible and the pastor’s homily surprisingly well. I’ve found, however, that it’s always the second half of mass where the clapper hits the bell.
The fidgets start: the foot-thumping, kneeler-diving, seat-switching. And that’s only the non-verbal. Then you have the inter-sibling jibes and jokes, the giggles and snorts. And the doctrinal observations and questions, which at any other juncture would be welcomed wholeheartedly, but not when presented in a stage whisper in the midst of a lull in the sound issuing from the PA system. They never make noise when the organ is grinding, do they?
My five year-old came out with some good ones this Christmas mass. When a prayer included a request for “eternal rest”, she turned to me incredulously: ‘a turtle?’ During the prayer of the faithful for the departed, I hushed her vehemently when she said what I thought was, ‘this is boring.’ Then I realized she was adding to the prayer, ‘like Grandpa Warren’, my deceased grandfather, the great-grandfather she never knew.
At what point do we as parents and parishioners expect children to behave “appropriately” at mass? There is no magic age at which they suddenly will learn to sit still and attend – especially if they’ve been excluded from mass up until that point. In my constant vigilance to keep her quiet, I nearly reprimanded my daughter for realizing the importance of a prayer and adding the memory of a loved one to it.
If we shut them down totally, we’ll miss gems like my two year-old last Christmas, who asked loudly enough for all those around us to hear, “Where’s Baby Jesus?” A woman with three teenaged boys approached me afterward and commented on how nice it was to hear her little voice, to see the innocence and wonder of the young; that she knew the true meaning of the season. At first, I laughed it off, a bit embarrassed at our disturbance, but then realized how nice it was to hear this older mother’s comment; a validation that this is how children are supposed to behave, that we need to appreciate it; and that it’s not a failing on the mother’s part to seal her child’s lips.
My favorite church faux pas by far, though, is when my eldest daughter was maybe four years old. She proudly belted out the words to the closing hymn of mass, “All the Ends of the Earth”. Only she didn’t know that was the refrain. Instead, she sang, “All the ants of the earth.” Classic. All of us can see the power of God if only we look closely enough. And watch for lessons all around us – even in the wee ones kicking the back of our pew as we try to pray.