Wednesday, March 05, 2003

What to do about noisy children at mass. (CNS story)

Fussing youngsters at worship services draw differing responses

By Ed Langlois
Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- Msgr. Philip Murnion of the New York-based National Pastoral Life Center tells this joke: "A baby starts crying loudly in Mass during the sermon. The mother stands up to take him out. 'Don't worry, he can stay,' the priest says from the pulpit. 'He's not bothering me.' The woman says, 'Thanks, Father, but it's you who are bothering him.'"

Other than that, Msgr. Murnion is not sure what to say about the topic of noisy or restless children in church. "I'd just be making it up," the expert on parish life says of the highly sensitive and universal issue.

He is not the only Catholic who is ambivalent and confused. In most U.S. parishes there seem to be three main beliefs about fussing youngsters and worship.

Some pastors and parents welcome the sounds as signs of parish vibrancy. Others think parents are shirking their duty to teach children how to behave at Mass. The third -- and largest -- group of priests and parishioners tend to accept that children make noise, but favor nurseries and cry rooms as a way to keep the peace.

"It is a very interesting dance that goes on in parishes about this," said Jesuit Father Thomas Sweetser, director of the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project. "If the pastor copes, the parish can. The pastor sets the tone."

At Sacred Heart Parish in the small eastern Oregon town of Union, Father Hank Albrecht makes an effort to include children in Mass, asking them if they have prayer intentions or announcements.

Toddlers sometimes wander near the altar and stand by watching him. When it is time for the recessional, the lanky priest invites children to emerge from the pews and walk out with him.

"We see kids in church as a sign of hope that we will continue," said Sacred Heart parishioner Kathy Goodman.

The pastor at St. Irene Byzantine Church in Portland, Father Kurt Burnette, said he has told parishioners to "pin me down and tickle me until I change my attitude" if he ever becomes irritated with children at church. "Of course, the small children don't like the sermon, but I just have to get over that."

The priest said the continual singing, icons and incense swinging of the Byzantine liturgy seem especially interesting to children. He urges families to sit up front and has heard good reports about that arrangement.

At St. Philip Neri Parish in Portland, some parents take noisy children to the foyer. There is even a parent-initiated nursery at one Mass. But the pastor would prefer to have them all stay.

"I sometimes suggest they move to the side aisles and walk them around, but stay in the church where they are part of the assembly," said Paulist Father Steve Bossi. "It seems a contradiction to me to baptize these children during Mass, celebrate the membership of these newest members in our faith community, and then reject their presence when they do the things children do."

But other priests and parish leaders think parents could be doing better.

"I am dumbfounded that people don't know how to behave in church and that parents don't want to correct their children and adults won't correct other parents," said one Portland-area priest who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At St. Mary Parish in Vernonia, some people with hearing loss have raised the issue of noisy children. That has led parish leaders to seek out literature for parents on responsibility in worship.

"We generally have agreed that we want kids in church," said Juanita Dennis, pastoral associate of St. Mary's. "How are they going to learn if they have to stay away?"

Father John McGrann, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Eugene, said priests do not want to offend parents, but have the broader worship life of the parish to keep in mind.

"I just hope that parents take their children out when they disturb others, but sometimes they seem to move a bit slowly," Father McGrann said. "When they are noisy, I do not say anything about it, except I put a notice about child care in the bulletin often, so parishioners know we encourage that."

New construction at St. Jude will include what the priest is calling a "family room." He hopes to encourage it as a place where parents and cranky children can stay for short breaks, not the entire Mass.

Perhaps the most popular solution for children age 5 and older is the children's Liturgy of the Word. But most of the disruption in Mass seems to come from infants or children younger than 5.

So, in Charlotte, S.C., one parish decided to have a complete parallel Mass for parents and children of all ages. On Sunday mornings at St. Gabriel Parish, two Masses start at 9 a.m. The one in the church has mostly adults. The other, in the school cafeteria, is for families with children.

"It will be a little disruptive and very wild, but people know that, and they feel comfortable there," said the pastor of St. Gabriel's, Msgr. Richard Bellow.

For parents, unruly children can be a source of angst. Parents say they want to be with their children, but do not want to disturb other worshippers and want to be able to pay heed themselves. In any case, smiles from fellow worshippers put parents at ease.

"A few weeks ago, I had two foster kids along with my crew, for a total of five kids in our pew," said Cindy Brown, a member of small St. Mary Parish in Wasco. "The little boy, age 2, was noisy and wiggly the whole time. My 8-year-old took him out during the Liturgy of the Eucharist to give the adults some peace and quiet. After Mass, I apologized to the retired couple behind us. They were all smiles and joyful to see youth in our little church. ...

"Without our youth, our future is grim," she added. "I think our parishioners would welcome any young families with open arms."

As a parent I say children are not the enemy, welcome them at Mass. This was precisely Jesus' issue when the disciples saw Jesus exhausted and did not want him bothered by children. Jesus forbade them from chasing the kids away because "of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." If children become a burden to us in our worship and ministry, then we need to review what exactly it is that we are all about. The Church that welcomes and reaches out specially to its children is the Church that will grow and prosper.


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