What's the single most damaging innovation to Catholic churches over the last 50 years?
It's not the removal of altar rails or the electric vigil candles, or the fancy felt banners that hang from the ceiling. Guess again.
It's the "crying room." [...]
But is a crying baby really such a problem that it demands its own special room?
Clearly, some priests think so.
I once heard of a priest who would interrupt mass—smack in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer—if a baby started to howl. He'd wait until the baby stopped, or the parents took it away, before continuing.
Another priest I know was pacing the center aisle during his homily when a baby started to sputter and then scream. He stopped in his tracks, then walked over to the pew, glared at the baby and said, with a wink, "Knock it off, kid. I work alone."
My pastor takes a different approach. If a baby starts to cry, and the mother begins to slide down the pew to walk it out the door, he'll stop mass to stop HER. "Don't leave!" he'll call out. "Please stay! Let the baby cry. He belongs here with the rest of us." More than a few times, a mother has stopped, mortified and embarrassed, unsure what to do, while the baby lets forth a full-throated "Waaaaaaaaah!" and the congregation chuckles and my pastor coaxes her to stay.
"We'll find a place for him in the choir," he'll say to appreciative chuckles from the congregation, "he sounds like a tenor." (Of course, not everyone approves. One mother who watched this happen expressed annoyance to me after Mass one Sunday. "How does he know what's wrong with a baby and making it cry?" she huffed. "Let the mother decide. If my baby's crying, there's a good reason.")
Be that as it may: when a baby cries, and a mother is encouraged to take it out of church, to a place apart, the parish is sending a distinct and unsettling message. It's indicating, not-too-subtly, that crying children don't belong. We might as well amend the creed: "One, holy, catholic and apostolic church - except for crying babies, of course."
You think I'm kidding? Here are two comment samples--first, side one:
I use the cry room to keep others from getting distracted (or hurt - my daughter could probably shatter glass). When my kids cry, other people can't hear the readings or concentrate, so at first, I try to hush them in the pew, but if it continues, I take them to the cry room. When my kids calm back down, I take them back into the nave of the Church. It works well, without teaching them that Mass is playtime, but while also giving the people around me the respect they deserve.And second, side two:
Maybe what we need isn't to get rid of cry rooms, but to make them a place where parents take crying children only until they calm down. Remove the chairs? Alternatively, one parish in my area has no cry room, but has rocking chairs in the nave for mothers to soothe their criers.
A real culprit: nursery. How are kids supposed to learn how to behave in Mass if they don't go to Mass? Children's liturgy doesn't help, either, and at many parishes, it is accompanied by congregational pseudo-blessings and features a ton of kids over the age of reason. If we stop babying them, they might actually grow up.
So I think cry rooms are fine, but need to be used sparingly (and never automatically).
As one of the priests at my parish said, Mass isn't about us, it is about God, and when a crying baby means I can't hear Mass, how is that helpful? Or when I am trying to concentrate on the consecration, but hear a baby sucking on it's mother's breast, how is that helpful? The parents are often too distracted to concentrate on Mass, and so then are those around them. I just wish the crying rooms were full more often. Not because kids are inconsiderate -- but because inconsiderate parents expect others at Mass, who might need a deep Mass experience, to be instead centered on them, or the parents don't even have the courtesy to notice the distraction their kids are causing or who give their kids noisy toys to bang on the pews. At one Mass, a mother let her toddler walk up and down the side aisle with shoes that were designed to squeak like a rubber duck. I was in shock. Also, some parents seem like they are trying to achieve the record for public displays of affection regarding their kids during a Mass. Don't they realize that they are in the direct line of sight between those behind them and the altar? All I ask is that everyone at Mass sit still and be reverently silent. I don't think that's unreasonable or unkind or "misguided." Swim clubs have kids times in the pool and grown up times. Maybe we could have age-restricted Masses for those of us who don't need a wailing baby to remind us of the suffering of humanity or to evidence the fact that in all our messiness "the faith will go on."I sometimes think that there are two schools of thought as to whether or not to bring infants or toddlers to Mass; the first school says, "Hey, babies are part of God's family and the best way to get children to go to Mass when they're older is to bring them when they're young, so as long as Mom and Dad use some common sense to take the sweet things out when they're about to become tiny air-raid sirens it's all good to bring them!" and the second school says, "Hey, babies are sinless and don't need to be in Church, and moms of small children are excused from attending Mass (says so in the Catechism!) if split shifts don't work out for some reason, and there's really no point for any child younger than six or so to be at Mass but then they'd better be well-behaved even if they've never been there before, so what's the big deal if they get left at home when they're really little so the rest of us can pray in peace!"
As is often the case, I think the answer comes down to two principles: finding balance and common ground, and doing what works for each family. But there's a third principle involved that would go a long way toward reconciling the two schools: charity.
Charity demands that we see the harassed mother with the active, noisy infant or toddler as a human being with an immortal soul who is probably doing the absolute best she can, instead of judging her to be a clueless or careless parent who doesn't care if her little one is shrieking at a pitch even higher than the high soprano in the choir. It demands that we realize that when a child starts fussing, there's no "indicator light" that shows parents that a child is only thirty seconds or two minutes or ten minutes from total meltdown; it also demands that we realize that many parents sit there agonizing: is it more distracting to walk out now, when the Eucharist Prayer is beginning or when Father is about to incense the altar or in that hush following Communion, etc., or to try to wait until a moment when slipping out quietly won't draw 87 pairs of annoyed eyes on one's progress down the center aisle?
Charity also demands of parents that they be aware of their children's activities, and not excuse random bad behavior (like deep-sea bench diving or commando aisle-crawling or repeated soft-toy tossing) on the grounds that at least it is quiet. It demands that parents of little ones make an attempt to restrict truly naughty behavior and be willing to whisk a loudly crying baby out of Mass regardless of the feeling that to do so is to take a Walk of Shame down the center aisle.
If we would all try to out-do each other in charity towards small children and their parents, or parents of small children toward everyone else, then maybe we would actually be acting as if we remember that we are in God's presence--and that the wiggliest toddler is much more pleasing to Him than we often are, Sunday after Sunday.