A few weeks ago, I was at mass with my three kids. Daddy couldn't be with us, so I was braving the pews with my young children alone (they are 7, 5 and 3). This isn't usually a big deal. My kids aren't perfect (naturally), but they are pretty well behaved. They're used to mass, they know what is expected, and most of the time, they are just fine.
Not that Sunday.
My boys asked to sit in the front row, but that was clearly a mistake. Often the front row affords them an unobstructed view of the altar and the priest and they wind up watching what is happening a little more - and squirming and making noise a little less. That day it simply meant the whole parish had an unobstructed view of my kids being monkeys.
I did my best to keep them calm and quiet. I'm certain it was clear to anyone watching that I was struggling with my kids, but I wasn't letting them run rampant by any stretch of the imagination. And really, they weren't that bad. They were squirrely, and talking too much, and my oldest son kept making my 3 year old daughter laugh. But I've seen worse.
We'd almost made it through the entire mass. I had successfully navigated potty trips, discarded shoes, attempts to twirl, tickle, and drop things, and had hustled us back to our seats after receiving Communion. Then, as I held my daughter in my lap, insisting my other two keep to their seats, someone came up to me (an usher, I believe), knelt down and quickly said, "Could you please move to the back of the church? Your kids are distracting people."
<Insert me with my jaw on the floor here.>
He walked away quickly, not even giving me a chance to respond. I was floored. Absolutely floored. Communion was nearly over (which means mass was nearly over), and my kids were seated. Yes, we'd had a challenging time that morning, but it wasn't as if I'd had screaming and crying children and I did nothing. The worst thing they did was giggle loudly a lot.
Tears sprang to my eyes and I gathered up my kids and all our stuff and high tailed it to the parking lot. I just wanted out of there. I was so hurt and humiliated. I felt as if everyone in church must have been watching me, judging me. I felt betrayed and unwelcome.
In all the time we've attended mass at this parish, we have never been made to feel unwelcome or that our kids were a problem. We love our parish, and most of the time the atmosphere is very welcoming to families with children of all ages.
I was horrified that day, and also surprised that the comment hurt me so deeply. And then I got to thinking; what if it hadn't been me? What if it hadn't been someone who is a solid member of the parish community? What if it had been someone new? Perhaps someone who had been away from the church for a while? Someone who felt like I did when my first son was a baby, that taking kids to church just wasn't worth the hassle? I remember feeling that way very well. And if someone had asked me to move to the back of the church in those days - I never would have gone back.
As Catholics, we are called to be open to life. I'd wager most people assume that only applies to married couples. I say, it applies to each and every one of us. We have to be open to life, not just as families, but as faith communities. We cannot ask parents to be open to new life, and then shun them or shame them when they bring those new lives into our midst at mass. We have to embrace them, support them, love them all the more because they are bringing up the next generation of Catholics. If we drive them all away because someone doesn't like crying babies at mass, where will our church be in 10 years? In 20 years?
Being open to life means we must embrace the young families at our parishes. We must welcome them, smile at them knowingly when their babies cry and their toddlers throw a fit. We must help them pick up their spilt cheerios and offer scraps of drawing paper and pens to help distract their little ones. At the very least, we must not cast our eyes askance at them when their children act up. Children will be children, and I remember well how difficult mass can be when you are young. No, kids can't sit still; they can't always be quiet. They will be disruptive sometimes, but life with children is disruptive and messy and chaotic and wonderful. These children who are crying and squirming and interrupting - these children are the future of our church and their mothers and fathers are in desperate need of our loving support.
So if you see a mother at church, struggling to contain her young ones, consider offering to help or at least offering her a warm smile. She's probably doing the best she can, and I think we should praise God that she is there at all.