They said my kids don’t belong at Mass. Now what?

Hey, parents, how did Mass go yesterday?

Let me guess: Everyone was exhausted and cranky, the kids were still sticky and vibrating with last night’s sugar, several faces showed traces of whiskers and fake blood, and all in all, you kept thinking how nice it would be to venerate the saints any other day at all but this one.

The only thing that could make it harder? If another parishioner went out of his way to make it harder. Yes, it happens! If it’s never happened to you, you’re lucky.

Yesterday, a mom asked me how to get yourself to go back to Mass after it happens once too often. It wasn’t just a passing glare, sigh, or stink-eye from a crabby fellow Catholic, she explained, but the person actually hissed in her ear that her children do not belong at Mass. That she is doing a bad job as a mother. Incredibly, the complainer sought her out after Mass to double down and say it again: Your children don’t belong here. Do not bring them here.

Let’s be clear: This is a message straight from Hell. The Mass is humanity’s main source of grace and life, and if no one goes, then no one will have grace or life. Telling parents their kids don’t belong at Mass is like trampling down every seedling you find, then clucking your tongue over the poor harvest.

 

So, yes, children belong. Yes, even if there is a cry room and a nursery and a separate kiddie liturgy available.

You as parents may believe this with at least part of your heart. But what do you do about the people who don’t believe it? What if the prospect of setting yourself up for another public flogging next Sunday just feels crushingly impossible? You know how much you need Christ, but you also know you’re going to spend the entire hour feeling tense, angry, guilty, and defensive; and it’s not as if the kids are begging to be there, either. You know you need what Christ has to offer, and you know grace isn’t a matter of how you feel. But even knowing all of this, sometimes it just seems pointless, utterly pointless, to go. What to do?

Sometime before Sunday, talk to the priest. This may or may not work. Some priests over-value silence, and some underestimate how hard it is to keep kids quiet. Priests are human, and no human responds well to all situations.

But many priests will be horrified to hear that families are being discouraged from coming to Mass. When the pastor insists from the pulpit that true pro-lifers want, need, and love children in the pews, and insists that we act that way, it changes the culture of the parish. So ask your priest if he will say something, or put a note in the bulletin, or distribute some of these encouraging cards. Have more than one conversation, if need be. Yes, the priest is busy, but your complaint is not trivial.

Make a simple strategy ahead of time. Not necessarily a plan for how to manage your kids (although that’s important too; although some mornings, not arriving naked is triumph enough), but a plan for how to respond if someone does harass you. When I’m already frazzled by a rambunctious toddler, I’m not going to be able to improvise a sensible response to an equally unreasonable adult (hereafter referred to as “The Hisser”). It’s invaluable to have an all-purpose tool at the ready.

Suggested stock phrases: “Thanks, we’re doing the best we can!” or “We’re having a rough time. Let’s pray for each other” or “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” Well, maybe not that last one. But you get the idea. Smile blandly, stare just over The Hisser’s left ear, and repeat, repeat, repeat. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Just having a ready response and sticking to it helps you regain control.

Third, enlist help. This is a tall order, I know. If you had an army of helpers surrounding you, you wouldn’t be struggling to begin with. But often, we see our pews as little isolation chambers, everyone turning up with their own personal issues; but the Mass is supposed to be a communal experience that extends beyond the sign of peace. So look around and see if you can spot a sympathetic person to act as a buffer between you and The Hisser. People pick on parents because they can. If they discover those parents have bodyguards, they will be less bold.

Find a spot close to another family or a friendly elderly couple. Gather up your courage and whisper, “Hey, listen, could you help me out? I’m trying to teach my kids to behave, but sometimes they get away from me, and it would be so great to feel like not everyone’s mad at me! If anyone gives us a hard time, could I ask you to stick up for me?” It’s weird, I know. But it’s hard to imagine someone turning you down, and many people (especially those who wish they had kids of their own) might be honored.

Prepare spiritually. This one is indispensable. We rightly think of the Mass as a meal where we are nourished (although that nourishment may not be a lovely, cozy experience every time), but it is also where we go to offer ourselves to the Father along with Christ. The Eucharist may be an unbloody sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come away feeling bruised.

Sometimes Good Friday feels more present than Easter Sunday — even at Mass. Remember that Christ, too, was mocked. Christ, too, was castigated. Christ was told that He didn’t understand how to worship properly, that He was dishonoring God’s house, that He didn’t belong there. He knew it wasn’t true, but don’t you think it hurt Him anyway?

As you enter the Church, offer what is to come up to the Father. It is real suffering, and a worthy sacrifice to dedicate.

 

Remember you won’t live in Babyland forever. I cannot say it often enough: This stage passes. You may feel like you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting dressed up once a week to be screamed at in a drafty lobby for an hour, but it will pass. Kids grow up. They turn a corner. Even if you have baby after baby, the older kids can help with the younger kids, and they can set a wonderful example for their siblings, too. Babyland is intense, but it is not a life sentence.

You may have to find another parish. I believe in blooming where you’re planted, and I believe in improving the soil when you can. But some churches simply don’t want kids. So shake the dust from your sandals and let them have their wish — not vindictively, but because you and your kids don’t deserve to feel like pariahs simply for existing.

Once you’ve found a friendlier home, let the old pastor know why you’ve left, in as civil terms as you can manage. If enough people do this, he’ll notice the trend and maybe turn things around before it’s too late.

Just don’t leave the Catholic Church altogether! If you have left for a time, do come back. No welcome is warm enough to substitute for the sacraments.

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Image: Detail of window in Lansdowne Church in Glasgow; photo by Tom Donald via Flickr (Creative Commons)

For all the saints (including all the jerks)

A few years ago, Max Lindenman asked “What saints can’t you stand?” The responses are pretty interesting: There are some saints that no one likes, because they were unpleasant weirdos. Then there are some that inspire and enchant some people, while repelling and disgusting others. For me, St. John Vianney is one of these repellant types. Every time I hear a saint quote that makes me go, “WHAT?!?!” it turns out to be St. John Vianney. Oh, well—there are plenty of other saints.

When John Paul II was canonized, all of my favorite people were overjoyed that this holy man was being honored, but some Catholics were dubious, even snotty. Some simply don’t like him (how??), while others had serious doubts about his worthiness. It occurs to me that, when people react differently to the saints, there are three lessons to be drawn.

First is that even saints are a product of their times. Sincere spirituality takes different forms according to fads and culture—that’s just the human condition. And so when Padre Pio threw the lady out of his confessional and refused to speak to her until she stopped selling pants to women—well, he was a man of his times. At the time, selling women’s pants truly was a deliberate assault against gender distinction as it existed in that time. The woman in question probably was doing something wrong, just as a woman from the Middle Ages would have been doing something wrong by showing her bare knees: It’s not because knees or pants are intrinsically evil, but because it’s all about context and intention.

Now, it’s very possible that a Padre Pio alive in 2014 would be just as furious at a female pants-seller of 2014. And there’s our second lesson, which is: Saints can be jerks, too. Saints are not infallible; saint are not flawless. Saints sin. They may say or do t hings which are false, silly or harmful. If a priest today threw a woman out of confession for selling pants, he’d be sinning. He might still be a saint: He’d just have to go to confession for that particular sin.

And the third lesson we can learn is that this variety in saintliness is a feature, not a bug. When I adore Saint Fonofrius, but you think he’s a drippy bore, that’s part of God’s plan. It’s one of those “Catholic with a small c” ideas: The Church is here for everybody. While there are certain things that every single living soul is called to, there is always a matter of proportion. For some saints, generosity is their talent. For others, it’s great physical courage. For some saints, their entire lives tell a story of incredible singlemindedness and purity of intention; for others, God used them as the finest living example of someone who kept screwing up, repenting and trying again.

God is the light, and the saints are various types of lamps: Some produce a lovely glow; some produce a brilliant beam. Some make more heat; others are better for atmosphere. Some are for ballrooms, some are for bedsides, some are for keeping traffic orderly. The light inside is the same, but different styles show that light in different ways. A surgeon wouldn’t use a Tiffany lamp in the operating room—but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the Tiffany lamp. It’s just not the right one for that particular job.

So, the grumblers against John Paul II wish he had been a better administrator? Me too. But it wasn’t his particular talent. They wish John Paul II had been more canny, more suspicious of Maciel? Me too, and can you even imagine how much he must have wished it himself. But that wasn’t his particular talent.

When he trusted Maciel, it was a mistake committed because he was a product of his times (nearly everyone trusted Maciel; the Legionaries were apparently bearing wonderful fruit; and false accusations of pedophilia were a common tactic in his home country). It’s also possible that he committed this mistake because of personal flaw: He was Pope, and should have been more careful. (That is absolutely not for me to say—but this is a man who went to confession daily, so he clearly thought he was a sinner.)

But let’s not forget the third lesson: A saint is someone who does the most he can with his particular gifts from God. John Paul’s particular talents were an incredible strength and courage, a contagious joy, a spectacularly original mind, and an unprecedented ability to reach out and draw people to Christ. All of his works were works of love. And that’s why he was declared a saint: He used what God gave him to reflect his share of the light of Christ.

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[This post originally ran in a slightly different form in 2011.]

At the Register: Don’t Shoot Those Helicopters Down

Why can’t gay people (or depressed people, or anxious people, or people with temptations that are not my temptations) just shut up and go to confession?

PIC helicopter rescue