Why don’t parents take their crying babies out of Mass?

Q. I don’t know if the number of screaming babies in our parish has increased, or whether parents are just clueless about not bringing them to church. I think there should be reverent silence at Mass, and the sound of babies crying is distracting. Don’t you agree?

A. The first thing I think of is a great story from Bishop Sheen. The story goes that a baby was crying very loudly during Mass. In this case, the mother picked up her child, who was crying loudly, and began carrying him out of church. Archbishop Sheen interrupted his homily and said, “My dear lady, that’s OK. Your baby isn’t bothering me.” The woman swung around and replied, “Maybe not, but you’re really bothering him!”

Isn’t that great? As I look over your question, I can read your frustration and promise you that it’s one a lot of people share. Like everything else in life and in love, let’s look at this in as balanced a way as possible.

Personally, when I hear a child screaming, I confess that my first reaction is to be distracted. Like most priests, I don’t have children and am not around them much. So, as a result, my brain doesn’t have that filter that so many moms’ and dads’ brains have. Often, if there is too much noise, the noise becomes all I can hear.

The challenge here for me personally is to thank God for a couple of beautiful things: first, that someone, somewhere chose life and that gift is before me. Not only did that person choose life, but also, by bringing that life to church, they are showing a radical and beautiful commitment to teach that life to live and love well. It really is a beautiful thing.

Also, this is a chance to exercise control over the only thing you have control over: You! I know that often, as a priest, I struggle during Mass because, in my mind, the noise is so loud I that I exert mighty effort to focus. What happens then, when my desire to pray the Mass clashes with my love for God’s children and my joy that they are there? I pray! I pray that God will focus my mind and help me be more grateful for the gift of life and the passing on of the faith that is happening.

It seems to me that if the choice is between bringing a child to Mass and not, then bring your child to Mass! We, as God’s people need to cowboy up and deal with the distractions that come our way.

One of my friends pointed this out to me in a discussion about this issue and I really like what she had to say:

The thing to remember here is that Mass is not just some social occasion. It’s really not the same thing as going out to dinner in a fancy restaurant or going to the movies. It’s more like going to Thanksgiving at your parents’ house – the whole family gathered together in one place, present to each other. Sometimes loudly. We don’t expect our nieces and nephews to be absent from the table just because they are not quiet (well, at least we don’t in my family!)

So, practically speaking, what does that mean? I’d like to see all of us act with charity. You know, the mother of that baby may not have gotten any sleep last night, and can barely see straight, but she’s here to worship God and be part of this community. How do we charitably welcome her – by glaring at her when her baby starts fussing? Or maybe by giving the baby a smile to distract him? Do we consider the fact that she may be there with several children, and it would be quite a production to haul them all out when one starts crying – but she has nobody to watch them while she just takes one out?”

Of course, we also need to balance out the equation: here’s a couple rules to help those who have children and want to engage in the Mass as best they can without being a distraction:

• If there is a cry room, consider using it

• There are very few (or no) circumstances where your child should be running in church or playing up in the sanctuary.

• The consecration is a particularly sacred moment and any bathroom breaks should wait until that part of the Mass is complete.

In the end, we all understand that Mass is an amazing and sacred celebration and we want to teach our children to behave and pay attention when they are there. But there is a learning curve that usually comes with age and we all need to be patient with those at different stages on that curve. If your baby is screaming inconsolably at the top of his or her lungs then, yes, you may want to think about stepping outside with your baby and seeing if you can help her feel better and settle down. That is simple charity for your child and your neighbors. But a little fussing? A little happy baby noise? I think Jesus is happy to hear the sounds of children in his house. I know I am.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!