Welcoming Children at Mass: An Advent Lesson in Patience

A mother holds her children during Mass at Jesus the Divine Word Church in Huntingtown, Maryland. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Advent is a time for cultivating our patience in anticipation of Christmas and the coming of Christ. What more fitting way to welcome the infant Jesus into our hearts (and to practice patience) than to go out of our way to celebrate the presence of children at Mass! Here are some tips for folks with and without kids for making Mass a welcoming place for the little ones who are so dear to Jesus.

Tips for Parents

  • Feed Them: Little people who are too young to receive Holy Communion are not obligated to fast before Mass. So feed them! I recommend a big breakfast with lots of protein and easy on the sugar. Nobody finds it easy to sit still on an empty stomach.
  • Sit Up Front: Imagine attending a liturgy (or a play or concert, for that matter) where you couldn’t see what was going on. It would be hard to pay attention, wouldn’t it? Sit as close to the front as you can. You can quietly explain what all of the objects in the sanctuary are (the tabernacle, the Gospel, the candles, the chalice, etc.) and who all of the people are (the priest, the deacon, the altar servers, the readers, etc.). If your church has stained glass windows or statues, name the people and symbols they contain (i.e. “I see Mama Mary, can you find her?).
  • Skip the Cry Room: I have to admit that at times I have been grateful for the presence of a cry room, but, for the most part, it just doesn’t work for our family. Use the cry room for meltdowns and emergencies. Remember, just because you have young children doesn’t mean that you’re required to be in there (no matter what other well-meaning fellow parishioners might have you believe).
  • Think Twice About Children’s Masses: While I’m sure these are a godsend for some families, we have found that the casual atmosphere of most Children’s Masses actually makes it harder for our kids to pay attention. Kids understand and respect solemnity (really, I promise). Just because you attend Mass with kids doesn’t mean you can’t attend your parish’s most formal liturgy. Do what works best for your family. Everybody should be welcome at every Mass. Period.
  • To Toy or Not to Toy: There have been quite a few Sundays that a small bag of toys and books has made it possible for us to make it through Mass. I put together some books with religious themes and toys like a small plush Noah’s Ark that our little ones could only look at during Mass (novelty goes a long way). As our family has grown we’ve found that this is more of a distraction than a help and skip it altogether, but for a while it was essential. It’s definitely worth a try.

Tips for Folks Without Kids

  • Mass Is About Community: Mass is not about private time with Jesus. It’s about the family of God gathering to pray together and to receive the Eucharist. I know (honest, I do) how frustrating it can be when the homily or the Eucharistic prayer or the Agnes Dei is interrupted by a ringing cell phone or a crying baby. But, here’s the thing: we’re a family. Families include colicky newborns and sassy toddlers and fidgeting kids and high schoolers who text at warp speed and people with awful coughs who are always overly eager to shake your hand during the passing of the peace and the man who sits behind you every week who loudly refuses to learn the new responses and the woman who sings off key … you know what I mean. We’re all in it together. If someone is making it hard for you to concentrate during Mass, offer up a prayer on her or his behalf. They are part of the family of God, which makes them part of YOUR family, and precious in the sight of God. If you’re in need of some quiet time with the Lord (and we all need that from time to time), try attending adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Think of Jesus: Advent is the time of year when we’re thinking of the miracle of our God coming to us as a tiny, vulnerable infant. The next time you hear a baby crying or cooing in Mass, thank God for the presence of that little one who reminds us of the mercy and goodness reflected in the Incarnation.
  • Lend a Hand: If you are a person who enjoys kids, why not offer your help to a family with small children during Mass. You can offer to take the hand of a little one at Communion or hold open a hymnal for a mother or father with their hands full. Once (in the midst of a particularly difficult morning) our kids were given a holy card with a gilded guardian angel on it by a very sweet woman sitting behind us. It made them feel so special and it distracted them for the rest of Mass. Holy cards can be found at your local Catholic bookstore and are generally very inexpensive. Why not keep a few in your purse or missal? If little people aren’t your cup of tea (and they aren’t everybody’s … no judgment here), simply smiling at a parent who’s trying to juggle a fussy little one can mean a lot. Make it your Advent mission to welcome the little ones in your parish in your own way.

And for all of us

  • Be Patient: Kids are, well, kids. Sometimes they’ll have a rough morning. Sometimes they’ll need to step outside for a break. Sometimes they’ll announce really loudly (and always during the consecration, bless their little hearts) that they have to potty. God loves them just as they are. Jesus wants them to draw near to him. They are the Church just as much as the rest of us. They need to feel welcomed and loved because their early memories of Church as a safe place where people are happy to see them and where they matter is essential to them growing into the future leaders and preachers and saints we know they can be. During Advent, let’s make it a spiritual practice to welcome them and celebrate their presence. Let’s do it as an act of adoration of the Christ child.

    Do you have a funny story about little people at church? Do you have a tip to add? I’d love to hear about it!