Families, Sunday Mass, and Evangelisation

We arrived on time, picked seats near the front, and the Mass started swimmingly. We’d talked about God and love and creation on the drive in, and everything was on track. Then, a family came to join us in the pew, and within seconds I knew proceedings were about to go downhill. Little did I know that my just-4-year-old nephew knew this family’s 4-year-old, and in 10 more seconds everything would descend into chaos. The struggle was real as I used every trick in the book to keep my nephew’s focus on the Mass and away from games with his friend: I don’t remember one word of the homily, but I do know exactly which saints are featured around the walls of the church as together we named them in whispers. But how much is there you can distract a 4-year-old with during Mass? At the end of the hour, I understood why my sister’s routine every Sunday is to go home for coffee and croissants, because caffeine and carbs are needed after that little Sunday morning marathon.

Everyone is wiped out from the struggle.

And, yes, this was Mass with just one child.

Ever since my close friends and family started having children (and all their families are steadily growing), they seem to collectively agree that Sunday Mass is the most stressful hour of their week. These are faithful, young Catholics for whom daily Mass would have been the norm before the baby years. Occasionally – like this morning – I get glimpses into the struggle, and I realise that the grace of daily Mass without distractions is a tremendous, enormous grace, that I never, ever want to take for granted.

I have zero easy answers, but I have been thinking about the different realities involved:

Reality 1: The Mass is one of the least suitably age-appropriate realities you could imagine for a 0-5 year old. Everything else in their lives is more or less suited around them and their days are structured to keep boredom more or less to a minimum. This is just the reality of children’s lives, parenting, and our culture, and there’s little point in going into the rights and wrongs. It just makes for a situation where the only place a child is bored every week (and let’s face it, sometimes miserably so) is the Mass.

Reality 2: The child’s reality combined with the extra challenges for the parent (arriving on time, finding parking, constant worry of whether the baby will cry, the toddler will tantrum, the four-year-old will find enough to be occupied, how long the homily or the announcements will go on) means that, on a subjective level, parents’ experience is one of stress and anxiety – maybe one of the most stressful experiences of their entire week. Do we wonder why so many parents will willingly miss the entire Liturgy of the Word to attend the children’s version, simply because it is the least stressful option?

Reality 3: Maybe the impact of the above two realities could be mitigated, if this last one were different. The third reality is that for the vast majority of practising Catholic families, their only experience of the Church is this one hour Sunday morning gruelling slog. Church is therefore associated as a place of struggle and anxiety rather than nourishment and peace. If you wonder why families don’t come to anything during the week – yes, it is probably because of work and childcare – but it might also be because they’d rather ring-fence the stress to Sundays.

In my mind, the above three realities are a perfect recipe for anti-evangelisation. If the only experience of the Church is boredom for children and stress for adults, we don’t need to ask ourselves why so many are falling away.

Here are some honest thoughts about what parishes could consider if they want to be missional towards families:

  1. Work towards a high-quality Children’s Liturgy that is for children only, e.g. 4 – 6 year olds. Most children experience being left at nursery age 3, so after a few experiences, going out without parents should soon be familiar. This is often a better experience for everyone involved: children experience something for their own age they can share with their parents later; children’s liturgists can focus on the children without a big audience of parents; and parents get to hear the whole Liturgy of the Word and homily in relative peace.
  2. Create a creche for the under 4s. This might not sound doable, but we successfully launched this in Richmond. It took a small project team a few months to plan, recruit and train volunteers. There are 20 places every week (first come, first served). Children are dropped off before Mass and picked up at the end. The creche includes free play, songs, Bible story and activity. Parents each have a silent buzzer should they be needed during Mass. The creche idea is controversial for some who would prefer to have their children with them through the Mass. We created it as one option for parents who could make their own choice.
  3. Work towards a culture where Mass is not the only thing families go to. This is part of a much bigger, ‘Divine-Renovation-style’ project. Alpha, connect groups, spending time together… All of these show both children and parents the real face of Christianity as life-giving and joyful, not boring and stressful.
  4. Make a relentlessly welcoming, family culture. While in a thriving parish across the pond, a parishioner commented to me that one of the goals the parish had was to nurture in older generations (including the retired) a sense of the gift they could be for the younger generations. Creating meaningful community means really caring for each other: creating a meal train for a family with a newborn; visiting the housebound members of the parish; reaching out to help a mum struggling with her kids. When we know each other and share lives with each other, this becomes far easier and more natural. You can easily reach out to carry a friend’s baby while she wrestles with the toddler. But if you’re surrounded in church by a bunch of strangers, everything is much more isolating, anonymous and – yes – stressful.

My ultimate thought? Unless we sincerely tackle our parishes’ ways of working and cultures, the vast majority of toddlers you saw screeching through the Eucharistic Prayer this morning will not be in our pews in ten years’ time, let alone 20. And my hunch is that many of their parents won’t be either.

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10 Responses

  1. Rosie W says:

    Haha! We have had three children under the age of four for 6 months…how do we cope? Well, our Parish has a ‘Family Mass’ as one of the slots so people know it’s going to be full of children and babies so can choose another Mass if they so wish so young families feel less ‘judged’. Personally, we cope with difficulty depending on the mood of the children. Some weeks we can pray and hear everything and feel like we’ve been to Mass, others we hear hardly anything and come out exhausted! Our Children’s Liturgy is split into age 2 through 6 then age 7 through 11 ish. Parents can attend or not for the younger group, but not for the older. It works well, but we still have to allow the children to bring something for the rest so as to have ammunition for maintaining their good behaviour, and here I’m talking about Bible story books, relevant sticker books and colouring books, but also something that they choose (at the moment for our eldest it’s a Lego sticker book for example). Also water (so dehydration doesn’t affect their behaviour) and quiet snacks as a last resort. They are I would say well-behaved, good and holy children, but a toddler simply cannot sit still and quiet for an hour – it’s just not in their make up! Our eldest (just turned 4) now joins in with the formal prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary etc.) and we are teaching him the other prayers slowly so that he can join in. Other than that, we allow them to sit or lie on the kneelers/benches as long as they are quiet. We don’t allow them to run around and as long as we give them a little freedom of movement within the benches they know not to run out but stay quietly with us. We also try to point out to them the essential bits of what is happening in a whisper during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That helps too. Could write more but I need to go to bed! As ever, love the piece Hannah 🙂

  2. Paula Flynn says:

    How well I remember all this! the noise, the fighting in the pew, the moments that I still cringe to remember forty years later. When our youngest son was 4, he announced that he found Mass boring, so a friend and I had the idea of producing simple, attractive drawings illustrating the Gospel of the day, with a short résumé on the back of the sheet. We supplied a huge box of coloured pencils and invited children under the age of about 7 to colour the pictures during Mass. This was hugely successful, and the noise level was reduced considerably; and the pictures are still in use after twenty five years.
    The solution that my son and daughter-in-law have reluctantly adopted is to go to different Masses. At least the noisiest children can then be left at home.

  3. Lucy de Vregille says:

    Living this situation from the point of view of a mother with 2 yr old and 1yr old boys.. Mass is now lived in snapshots for me, stolen lines of the homily or perhaps half the Our Father prayed from the heart, sometimes I question whether I should recieve Communion or not as I’ve not been able to be present for so much of the Mass! We are lucky to have a large stone parish church with huge empty side aisles where to be honest we let the children run up and down (noiselessly) with a train or elephant or toy of the moment..At this age it’s hard work keeping noise to a minimum as a child of 1 year has not the self awareness to limit his volume. It can be incredibly stressful, but our rule is that if they are not crying/screaming/having a full on meltdown then they stay with us and we stay firmly in the church. We are a family and even at this very young age it incredibly beautiful to see how they pray and Love Jesus. We are incredibly lucky as our priest is quite wonderful and has said jokingly on many occasions that he was disappointed to not have heard the boys during Mass today.

  4. Lucy de Vregille says:

    (Continued) But it isn’t the same in every parish.. On holiday I was once faced with the dreaded ‘crying room’ which I’m afraid has been my only experience of it. There were designated ushers to show you to The Room as soon as your child gurgled or dropped a hymnbook. Once in The Room, which was overheated and entirely separate to the church building, you were invited to follow the Mass on a flickering live link screen with no sound as the speakers were broken. I tried to sneak back in a few times but was quickly discovered and hurried away again. I must admit this was not the best experiance of the Body of Christ that I have lived. If faithful parishioners believe that Mass is for everyone and even pray that young familes join the Church, it needs to become generally accepted that the background noise to the Eucharistic prayer will be, without exception, to the chorus of gurging babies, dropped hymn books and fidgety toddlers getting a little tired and hungry as lunchtime approaches. This would also help immensely with the stress levels of parents who are themselves thirsting to be able to follow deeply the Mass.

  5. Claudia says:

    I have the answer to your prayers. Look at the Catechises of the Good Shepherd program and change your parish forever.

    • Anne-Marie says:

      The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is amazing but it is so hard to find a parish with trained CGS catechists. Also the training is difficult to access. Do you know of any UK based catechists and any who are qualified to train new ones?

      • Transformed in Christ says:

        Hi Anne-Marie,
        There was a training in Richmond in July, led by 3 UK-based trainers. I am sure there will be more: http://www.cgsuk.org Yes, CGS for children is the absolute ideal if you can get volunteers to do the training and are able to set up an Atrium, and gradually win over parents. Overall, a very big project, but I agree it would bear enormous fruit in a parish.

        • Anne-Marie Kershaw says:

          Thank you! I know of the atrium at Maddx a Farm, Surrey so it is good to hear of others. Don’t suppose there’s one in Oxford or nearabouts?

  6. Anne-Marie says:

    Great article Hannah!

    With 4 children (currently 12,9,8 and 4) we have had many similar experiences. Community Mases have generally been a much better prayerful experience with the children catching something of the charged level of engaged prayer and hungry souls and adults who really wanted to be there and really believed Jesus becomes present in the Mass. Having a shared meal together straightafter with families and adults meant they felt they belonged to this community of worshippers too and have their own friendships with their peers. They also love praise and worship and will sing out but can also respond to the quieter songs and chants and show great reverence in the quieter parts of the Mass.

    We also had some funny moments when my husband would be leading the music at the parish family Mass and my youngest son, about 2 or 3, would get fed up of me restraining him and toddle off to his Dad for a cuddle and then climb into the empty guitar case (which had a lovely soft, tactile inner layer) and just lie back and day dream/ pray?! Occasionally you would spot a little leg raised up and swaying in time to the music! As soon as they made their 1st Communions the boys wanted to serve and now they take their serving role very seriously and are prayerful on the sanctuary. They also are learning piano and guitar and I think a time will come when they might express a wish to join the music group…they have largely self taught themselves their favourite praise songs, Rend Collective music is their top choice at the moment) but they are already asking lots of questions about why the parish experience is so different to the Community experience or to Masses at Celebrate or New Dawn…why indeed?

  1. 22 September 2017

    […] mentioned in my last post my (somewhat unsuccessful) trip to Mass with my four-year-old nephew. He maybe wasn’t as […]

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