It’s fairly easy to get carried away by whatever kind of flow our life is busy with. The agitated flow of busyness, the aimless flow of boredom, the flooding flow of panic, the swirling flow of temptation. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that unmoving God has planted the rock of his Church, creed and all, for the express purpose of disrupting that flow.
Last week, a priest responded to the article “Five Rules for a Royal Bride” with a humble request: “I wish Catholics in the pews would write us new pastors and new ordained priests advices like these! Y’all help us to be men of God, men for others, and men that have joy in their lives! Send me your five advices before I become pastor . . .”
The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.
Image: By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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.
She was once brilliant (quantum-physics-as-a-hobby brilliant) and startlingly witty, with no time for nonsense. But now she has Alzheimer’s, and all she has is time and nonsense. Now she says things like, “I can use that for a sunapat. Sunapat with a T. I don’t know, I’m falling out of a tree.” Her nonsense often has a desperate, frustrated air, as if she knows people don’t understand her and she needs to try even harder to get her message across.
But I did hear her, when she could speak. I did hear her, when I did not even realize I was listening.
We are there to praise and worship God, to be spiritually nourished, and to unite our lives with the life of Christ as He offers Himself up to the Father. We are not there because we bought our ticket and are entitled to a certain experience.
The elderly gentleman thinks Pope Francis is some kind of pinko hippie, and there hasn’t been a real Pope in Rome since Giuseppe Siri, and he will tell you alllllll about it if he can get you cornered in the foyer.
The nun next to him is headed to a pro-choice rally after Mass, and is chilling some champagne for the day when women priests will finally be approved.
So … why are they at Mass?
Because Jesus is here, and He’s giving Himself away.
I have endless tolerance for boring sermons, weird sermons, silly sermons, scary sermons, tiresome sermons, corny sermons, uninspired sermons, irrelevant sermons, rambling sermons, goofy sermons, and sermons that make me wonder which will come first, the end of the homily or sweet, sweet death.
But I don’t complain! Most of the time. I do, however, have a short list of things I could do without, which I offer out of sheer, self-giving generosity, as your respectful daughter in the Faith.
Image: By BPL (originally posted to Flickr as Preaching) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe your church is different, but in all my life, I’ve found something to dislike about the music at Mass. When I was little, the freshly post-conciliar church was still struggling in the smothering arms of liturgical silliness, and the music followed suit (a clown suit, to be specific). Then there was the priest who seemed to be trying to swallow the microphone; the warbling cantor who thought she was a soprano despite all evidence; the crazy Poles with their hymns that sounded good, only they didn’t have any vowels in them; and then of course the banjos. Oh, my lord, the banjos.
Two people were facing the congregation at Mass last Sunday: The priest, of course, and an interpreter, who was signing for the deaf people in the pews.
Scratch that, there were three people facing the congregation. The third was a profoundly disabled man, his body twisted permanently into a pretzel, his skull misshapen, his features preternaturally mobile. He didn’t seem able to face the altar, but spend most of the hour bobbing and grinning and leering at the rest of us, while his caregiver patiently redirected him over and over again, calming him when he got agitated, soothing him when he got loud.
Why is it so hard to meet the gaze of folks like this? If ever there was a low-risk social interaction, it’s making eye contact with someone who can’t talk at all, much less expect something witty or suitable in response. “Just smile at him,” I tell myself. “Just be friendly and sincere, and then move along.” Still, I avoid eye contact. It’s obviously not about him. It’s about me.
That hour nagged at me. Two faces, the translator and the disabled man demanded our attention, their eyes shining, their hands busy with gestures that meant nothing to me. If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts. If today you see a face and it keeps grinning and winking and nodding at you, at least you could ask the Holy Spirit what’s up. Here’s what I think it is.
The sign language translator was there because there are some folks in the congregation with a disability. They cannot hear, so they need extra help to have God’s word conveyed to them.
I am disabled, too, spiritually. I need a translator. There is something in my heart that fears and rejects mentally and even physically disabled people, and I’d rather they just turn around and leave me alone with my smart, attractive children and friends. I’m a pro-lifer, so I am ashamed to respond this way to any of God’s children. It is a common but severe defect. I want to be open, but I am not, and I can only fake it about half the time. Most of the time, I just avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid. I’m not alone or unusual in this, but that doesn’t make it all right.
I don’t mean to reduce another human being to a symbol. This man was attending Mass, and certainly wasn’t there just for my benefit or edification. He has a name, and he obviously has at least one person who loves and cares for him. But he was also, for me, a translator, someone turning to face me to convey a message that I wasn’t able to hear on my own without his help. Sometimes you don’t realize you are deaf until a translator turns up.
So there is more. It made me ask myself: Who am I having the hardest time facing right now? Who do I not want to look in the face? Who am I reluctant to treat as fully human?
Easy to answer in January of 2017: Enthusiastic Trump supporters. Over and over again, despite my resolve, I lose my temper with them, I get nasty, I get personal. I am just so angry at what they have chosen for me and my family and my beloved country. There they stand, shamelessly twisted in their worldview, not even hiding their faces, just leering and gesticulating. Turn around! Shut up! Get away from me! I want to yell (and sometimes do).
I’m not proud of behaving this way. I call myself a pro-lifer. This is a severe defect, that I allow myself to respond to other human beings with open, personal contempt and derision. It’s especially egregious because I often write about our obligation to show love to each other.
I don’t know what to tell you. I’m working on it. Yes, this post is the best I can do right now. Those of you who happily voted for Trump and continue to champion him, I think you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and I will not apologize for calling it twisted and awry to admire and champion a wicked man. Whatever your motivation, you have done something objectively terrible to our country.
But the way I respond to you is my problem, not your problem. I have a defect, and I know it. Thank you for looking me in the face and helping me be more aware of my defect. Thank you for being the translator who alerts me to just how deaf I am. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. And then maybe we can all just turn around and face the altar, like we’re supposed to.