Husband & Wife Articles

Praying at Mass with Kids

A philosopher struggles with the mix of liturgy and little ones

By Andrew M. Haines

Our family has become a fixture in the narthex for the 11 o’clock Sunday Mass at our parish in Northern Virginia. I like to refer to that area in the back of the church as the refugium peccatorum — refuge of sinners – where I take our little ones when they act according to their age and we feel an excess of frustration.

Participating in Mass with kids is a whole new phenomenon for young parents, my wife and I included. Of course, we love our kids — our son is just over 2 and our daughter an adorable 1, and we’re blessed that they’re healthy, strong and very much alive. It’s just that those qualities hardly match up with the exacting standards of behavior required for a prayerful Catholic liturgy.

As I walk the tile floor of the narthex, holding the squirmiest of the two or coaxing one to cease the strange, echoing toddler groans, I often recall similar floors in the early Christian basilicas of Rome — Santa Maria in Cosmedin and San Clemente stick out in my mind. To the untrained eye, the marble floors of these basilicas might resemble the thoughtless patterns of a modern vestibule. Yet looking a bit closer, stronger patterns emerge (usually interwoven circles intended to form lines up and down the nave). In fact, for the early Christians, the floor was a central liturgical element, with patterns designed to guide liturgical and lay movement. Early Masses were movement-filled events, and this was codified even in the architecture.

As I continue to pace the narthex, my desire to “just be in there, sitting, standing, kneeling like everyone else” can become consuming. I try to remind myself that prayerfulness isn’t limited to one sacred place.

Of course, the refugium is never our first resort, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to avoid it. The goal is to get by without it, by behaving well — behaving normally — in the pew. Yet even a small amount of toddler trickery can be disruptive at the solemn Latin novus ordo we attend, where folks are struggling to keep up with responses, discern the lyrics of a Palestrina motet, and the antics of a mobile 1-year-old spell complete and utter distraction. My instinct is to sweep up the offender at the slightest peep and get to the back where we can “learn” to be still without causing a ruckus.

If participating in Mass with kids has taught me one thing especially, it’s that my own understanding of reverence and recollection has been mostly one-dimensional. I am in the habit of equating prayerfulness with stillness, calmness, and mental clarity. That’s the dominant theme of the Roman liturgy, after all, and something that we’re rightly taught to esteem as the highest expression of public prayer.

On the other hand, I’ve begun to realize that in liturgy — as with most things — the perfect can be the enemy of the good, and that trying too hard to fit all the pieces of solemnity together tends to result more quickly in their dissolution than their magnification. In other words, much of my own desire for tranquility at Mass stems from a desire for rest itself (i.e., a lack of conflict, or simply some peace and quiet); it lacks an awareness of the source of that rest, who is the Lord of the liturgy. Without a focus on the Eucharist, attempts at dignity are, for me, turned to dust.

Indeed, my wife and I aren’t the first ones to face the weekly trial of praying at Mass with little kids: commiseration is quick to surface over post-Mass donuts in the parish hall, and everyone has their own horror stories. Yet (quite understandably) there are few efforts to place children meaningfully within the matrix of beautiful liturgy. Despite a millennia-old Catholic patrimony of vibrant, sense-rich public prayer, there remains a basic obstacle for parents wishing to be truly prayerful in not-so-tranquil surroundings.

I suspect that if we dig a little deeper, we’ll continue to find that authentic Catholic liturgy is totally compatible with all ages of family life. Indeed, parish like the liturgical community — solidifies this awareness, since it, and its members, represent the full scope of human development. (It’s a good thing to see, as we do, your wife’s obstetrician singing in the parish choir.) In popular conversation, the dynamics of Catholic community are too often separated from the liturgical nexus that ties them together. In many ways, it’s incumbent upon us parents to help steer that conversation by our example; most importantly, by our actions and attitudes during Mass.

There’s no question that the liturgy should always call us to more reverence, more recollection, and deeper communion with the Lord. Perhaps there’s no better way to achieve this than when all reverence, recollection, and communion appear lost — and to do it all, moreover, in a way that helps to dignify and clarify participation in Mass even for others.

Andrew M. Haines is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, editor of the journal Ethika Politika, and a professional web developer. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their two children.