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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.