Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Are children welcome?

Well, I'm back! Did you have a nice Easter?

I did. Of course, our 12-year-old refrigerator decided that Holy Week was a good time to display threatening signs of imminent compressor failure, but we're sort of used to appliances picking holidays around which to die. The new fridge appears to be working fine. We went with a lowish-end model after reading horror stories galore about planned obsolescence and the notion that a fridge should really only last five or six years these days--you know, like cars. Grr. Arrgh. What happened to a nation that used to build appliances that could last two decades or more? Of course, the most amusing thing was that the new fridge is black and reflective (because that color was in stock), while we had a white non-reflective one before. It has taken the cats a couple of days to stop being jumpy when we open the fridge lest the other cats, the ones they can see in the door when they walk by, decide to jump out at them. Our main cat, Emmett, is still a little nervous, but Smidge has decided to make friends with the fridge-cat on the excellent grounds that the fridge-cat never interferes with him and has not made a single move in the direction of the cat food.

Between a busy Holy Week full of choir obligations, the fridge thing, and today's invasion of ants into our kitchen (ahh, spring! And to think that the pest control guy was just here on Monday...) I've been a little bit away from the Catholic blogosphere--but not so away that I didn't notice the latest Great Catholic Blogosphere Rant-Debate-Fight, over the subject of whether or not blessing children in the communion line is Terribly Wrong and must be eliminated posthaste or mildly annoying or really not such a bad thing after all. On the side of Terribly Wrong and must be eliminated: Father Cory Sticha, who started this latest round, and Father Z. On the side of perhaps mildly wrong or perhaps not so awful: Deacon Greg and the Anchoress. On both and neither and even more extreme positions: legions of commenters on each blog.

Now, I have a couple of things to say about this (you knew I would).

First, I have no strong opinion about the blessing of children in the communion line. If the Church says "It's wrong, so cut it out," that's fine by me. It has been years since my children were infants or toddlers, and I can guarantee you that back then, by the time we drove over an hour each way to Mass every Sunday from our home in the rural South with three children under the age of three, the only thing I was concerned about in the communion line was whether or not any of the children were reaching total nuclear meltdown point, and if so, whether it was more prudent to wait outside during the final blessing and the recessional hymn or to climb back into the bench while ignoring the grimly contemptuous scowls from those sitting around us who thought we belonged in the glassed-in Chaos Room in the back (which was always full to the brim with adults who arrived at Mass late and thus glared just as hard at the children, along with children who had clearly been told that Mass was playtime and behaved accordingly). In other words, I really don't care if priests everywhere stop blessing children in the communion line or even smiling at them there on the grounds that any notice given to toddlers in the communion line is liturgically incorrect; that's their call. I think that most parents of infants and toddlers would agree: it's already so excruciatingly difficult to get young children to Mass that a little tap on the head by Father isn't a make-or-break point for most people.

Second, where I disagree with Father Sticha it's here:

Of course, people don’t like to hear that. They think it makes the kids feel “special” that they receive this blessing. (As an aside, I think the parents and grandparents get the warm-fuzzies more than the kids do.) Of course, they can’t be blamed. For 30+ years, they’ve been fed a mindset that the liturgy is malleable to whatever we want to do with it. Blessing for kids? Sure, we can add that right during Communion. Having kids come up for the homily and sit with the priest on the sanctuary steps? Sure, we can do that. Holding hands during the Our Father and running around the nave greeting people during the Sign of Peace? Absolutely! Whatever makes you feel good!

As I’ve studied more about the theology of the liturgy, I’ve come to the realization that this “feel good” approach is sending the wrong message about the liturgy. I’ve also become concerned that this has dangerously damaged their relationship with God, and they are blissfully unaware that any damage has been done. Instead of liturgy being the community focusing their minds and hearts on worship of God, it has become a social activity, focusing on ourselves. Now, we don’t come to liturgy to turn to God, but to ourselves. For this reason alone, I despise blessing children in the Communion line (and yes, I chose that strong language very carefully), and encourage other priests to stop immediately.

To me, this seems like a rather deplorable example of Blaming the Laity for what priests initially did wrong. I'm sorry, but I recall much of the past 30 years as a Catholic, and I can honestly say that there was never a spring day in, oh, 1978 or something when mobs of feel-good warm-fuzzy parents and grandparents stormed the communion line demanding a head-tap from Father for their little cherubs. No, what happened was that priests decided it would be nice to acknowledge the pre-first-communion kiddies in some way, and the blessing notion took off. Where, exactly, this came from, nobody seems to know. Commenters on various blogs have pointed to customs in other countries, to pre-Vatican II habits and postures, to the Eastern practice of giving even infants-in-arms the Eucharist, and to Novus Ordo-style disobedience and hippie-dippy stuff, but there doesn't seem to be a clear point of origin for this custom, except for this one incontrovertible fact: priests decided to do this, and then--only then, and after considerable time--did the laity come to expect it.

Which, when you think of it, is the truth for nearly all of the liturgical abnormalities of the post-Conciliar period (and probably before, but I don't know much about pre-Conciliar liturgical abnormalities). In fact, of all the liturgical irregularities I can think of, only one, the holding of hands during the Our Father, clearly originated from the laity. The others did not (no, not even the "running around the nave" during the Sign of Peace, because I can clearly recall many priests leaving the altar during the Sign of Peace to shake hands with as many parishioners as they could reach, something which is quite obviously forbidden). I say this not as a mere pointing of the fingers of blame, but just to point out, in charity, that it's sort of odd to hear a priest scolding his parishioners for having become accustomed to a liturgical abuse that was the fault of other priests, without mentioning that priests were ever at fault here. If the people seem to think--and I'm taking Father's word for it that they do--that their children will be missing out on something important if the blessing is eliminated, would it not be beneficial to apologize to them for the fact that they were misled by earlier shepherds, some of whom probably all but insisted that the little tykes be dragged up for a head-tap? To me, too many articles and posts like this written by priests fail to own up to the clerical responsibility for liturgical abuses. If the people got used to seeing the Mass as a personal plaything, they were led in that direction by Father Ad-Lib and Father Liturgical Loosey-Goosey; they did not wake up one day right after the Second Vatican Council full of the idea that lay people should demand things like the Rite of Dismissing the Children so They can Go Color Things.

Which brings me to my third point.

There is a question here, to me, which needs to be answered, and answered as soon as possible: Are young children, that is, infants, toddlers, and children below the age of reason, actually welcome at Mass or not? I know, I know, plenty of people say they are, and there are dear priests like this one who make a point of saying so very encouragingly. Yet there are lots of other voices to hear, and these voices are especially loud in the ears of parents: voices which point out that children below the age of reason don't actually need to be at Mass, that they can't participate in the Holy Sacrifice or receive Holy Communion (in the West), that their presence is distracting to those who are there for the real business of worshiping God, that mothers are excused from attending Mass when they have infants to care for anyway (so long as Mom makes her Easter Duty, that is), that split Masses are the best solution for families even if that means that Mom and Dad never attend Mass together until the last of their numerous progeny is old enough for Holy Communion, that "we have a nursery," that "we have a special Mass in the gym for families with children," that "Saturday night Mass has guitars--the kids love it!" and so on and so forth.

The message that parents are getting, loud and clear, is this: Don't bring your children to Sunday Mass. And if you look around at most parishes in most places in America, you will see how well parents are receiving that message, because you will see how few families with small children actually bother to show up on Sunday mornings. (Yes, I know that there are exceptions--but they are exceptions). Or, take a look at the children gathered for their First Communion Mass, and see how many of them actually come to Mass with their parents on a regular basis--sure, some pastors have instituted the laudable practice of making children who are going to receive the sacraments prove that they've been at Mass, but that only works for the time period immediately prior to First Communion. Lots of those children, and their parents and younger siblings, will disappear after First Communion and will next be seen when they register for Confirmation preparation--if they bother to come back then.

Now: does giving the children a liturgically-incorrect tap on the head with words of blessing (or without) when their parents come up for communion address this problem in any way? No, not really. But does the ambivalent attitude on display in far too many parishes about whether or not children are actually welcome to come to Sunday Mass with their parents when the children are still too young to sit angelically still and seraphically silent for an hour impact parents' decisions about whether to bring their families to Mass or not? Sure, it does. And do parents tire of the split-Mass Sunday routine, given the pressures of modern life, and eventually figure that they won't bother coming to Mass until the kids are old enough--especially given how many of them out there have never heard that it's a serious sin to miss Mass on Sundays without a valid reason, or who might think that "care of infants" covers both Mom and Dad until the youngest baby is five or so? I'm sure that plenty of them do.

The bottom line, for me, is this: priests, by all means don't bother giving children in the communion line a silly head-tap of blessing, especially if it's not allowed. But if you don't figure out some way to make sure that infants, toddlers, and young children and their parents really are welcome at Sunday Mass--not barely tolerated with tight-lipped endurance, but truly welcome as Christ welcomed the children--then the question of whether or not to bless children in the communion line will become moot: there won't be any children coming to Mass anymore anyway.


scotch meg said...

Erin, you also touched on my favorite un-favorite Mass: the Teen Mass. Because no teen wants to go to Mass with parents and siblings. Ever.

In my parish, said Teen Mass occurs once a month and attendance is required from the Confirmation classes. Behavior is so bad that a special warning was sent to all teachers and parents concerning the necessity of good behavior on a Sunday when the auxiliary bishop was saying the Teen Mass.

My son was asked to serve this Mass at the beginning of the year, but if the Religious Ed secretary could have seen his horrified face at the mere suggestion, I'm sure she would have done as I did - drop the subject immediately.

My daughter used to bitterly resent playing the piano or organ at this Mass, because she was expected to do so for free (as opposed to playing for the "real" Masses, for which she was paid), because the choice of hymns was always atrocious, the cantor (a Teen) might or might not show up, no one sang (Teens sing even less than Other Catholics), and no one appreciated her time away from the family.

So it isn't just small children who aren't welcome at Mass - it's also teens, since they, too, evidently must be segregated from the rest of the parish.

Doesn't the Church believe in families any more?

Red Cardigan said...

"Doesn't the Church believe in families any more?"

You know, that's an important question, too. Lots of lip service is paid to the ideal of the Christian family, but families are expected to attend several different Masses sometimes: this one for the pre-first Communion class, this one for the Confirmation class, this one for the servers, this one for the can get crazy!

Maureen said...

Our asst priest, at the end of Easter Sunday Mass, made a point of saying how nice it was to see so many families and children at Mass. He then went on to say that no child has ever drowned him out with their noise, so don't worry about it, if you want to take them to the back to walk, fine, but don't feel you have to take them out or not bring them. He said, a couple of times, they belong at Mass, they belong in Church, it's how they learn to be there. I love him.

Rebecca in ID said...

I missed the fight (been busy). You make some great points. I definitely come down on the side of the traditional liturgy, sticking to norms, etc., but I have to say, I have noticed that the priests who are the most reverent and traditional priests, who give the most well-thought homilies, tend to be the ones who take the time to give each of my children a careful blessing in the communion line. It may not be liturgically indicated but it does seem in keeping with the spirit of the Mass. I encourage my small children to make a spiritual communion at that time and it is easier for them to do that when the priest takes the time to bless them with the Host or just with their hand and the Host right there. I don't think of it so much as making my children "feel special" so much as helping them feel that they can participate in their own way, to prepare them for fuller participation. Yeah, sometimes the snottiness of it all makes me want to go Byzantine.

Susan Miller said...

I get rather irate when people suggest we should go to Mass separately or that my children shouldn't go, or that I'm not obligated to go. One, surely it is not ideal to split the amply up. Second, my children, while sometimes loud, so learn at Mass. Third, although I am not obligated to go right now, I definitely need the grace, and I want to go! I cannot imagine not getting to see Jesus in the Eucharist when I am able to go! I try to take the kids to daily Mass, and they have learned a lot in doing that. Sometimes my daughter is loud. Thankfully, Monsignor commented that children pray in their own way and it was wonderful to see mothers bringing their children. I've been blessed in having wonderful, understanding priests.

Aimee said...

I seldom comment, but I have to offer a hearty "Amen!" to your post, Erin! I am 100% behind correct liturgical traditions and I have always felt that the blessings of children at communion sort of gums up the works, so to speak. We have six children, with only 2 being old enough to receive. We are usually carrying (at least) 2 at any given time and trying to corral those who are too young to wait in the pew. When we are trying to receive Our Lord, and also waiting for six different blessings while making sure that our 2 year old loose cannon doesn't make a complete break for the altar . . . . well, you can see how it takes extra time just to get us all moving! Our children, for their part, are not expecting a blessing as some sort of consolation prize for not being old enough to receive. And one child in particular, who is extremely shy, does not really like to be touched during a blessing. She just puts her head down and tries to melt into my shoulder.

But I think your most salient point regarding children being welcome at Mass is a valid one. We are currently blessed with a pastor who welcomes children at the Mass, even though we have gotten looks/hints from the DRE when she saw that we were not sending our children out to "children's church." (I think she has since given up on us.)
However, we have had a pastor who has commented that children really aren't meant to sit still for that long so it's okay not to bring them. He used himself as an example, saying that his mother never even brought him to mass until he was 5. I don't think he was anti-child, I think he just didn't like interruptions, but still.

In our entire parish, which is not tiny, we have the largest family. Some of the comments I have gotten from parishioners have been discouraging ("Think you have enough now?" "When are you going to be done?" "Are you pregnant again?!") Thankfully, we've never heard anything like this from the clergy. I'm starting to think that the original verse "suffer the little children unto me" is the one Jesus really meant . . .

PS: as an aside, people always ask me how I manage to get all our children to sit so well through Mass (for the most part). I always say the same thing -- it's because they go every single week. How can kids know how to behave in a specific environment if they are never exposed to that environment?

Tony said...

Over the years, I have found myself mellowing with regard to some liturgical practices. Our pastor also knows that some things he does is verboten so he doesn't do them when the bishop comes. (Proves he knows they're wrong but does them anyway).

One thing we had to correct, was the EMHCs giving blessings. We had to let those who wanted blessings know they needed to be in the priest or deacon's line.

Our former pastor used to bless the children once a month who had not received their first Holy Communion. I never got radical about that either.

However I help our deacon facilitate the RCIA process, and the deacon is kind of "Kumbaya", and I'm a stickler for the rules.

He says we work well together. :)

Anonymous said...

It's unclear to me that the practice is *illegal*. It reads as if bishops have gone either way, and some fellow (undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship) has written, in a *private correspondence*, against it. Which means precisely: "well, that's your opinion, man, until the Pope says 'no'."

Does anyone know where it is written that the Church has banned the practice entirely? I don't mean "expressed negative blah blah blah", I mean *ban*.

On kids: they ought to be especially welcomed at Mass and given seats in the front row: this shouldn't even be a question in the Catholic Church. Perhaps they'll grow up more charitable and less selfish than the child-haters of today. (And I don't even have any kids, haha.)


Scott W. said...

Children well-trained to behave at Mass should be welcome. This IS possible even for very young ages, but in this age of "let it all hang out", people haven't tried this and found it wanting, they have found it difficult and therefore, left untried.

Lindsey said...

We belong to a suburban parish outside Houston, and we frequent at least 2 other parishes, as well. All three have burgeoning populations, with many families in Sunday morning Mass attendance. Most families have 1, 2, or 3 young babies/children. Some, like mine, have 4, and then there are a fair number with families of 5 or more children. These are parishes of 5000+ registered families, 9000 families, and 2000 families, respectively. The suburban churches are like mega-churches (minus the screens and projectors, thank God!). We have the option of "children's liturgy" on some weeks, but I've never gotten looks for not sending my kids. (We tried it once, and my kids said they don't want to go back.) We're definitely not the only family that does not participate and keeps their kids in Mass. I'm pleased to say that my kids do know how to participate (to the best of their abilities), and that we have never been made to feel unwelcome in our Catholic church(es) in Houston.

SarahD said...

Let me give you a bit of a different perspective. Not about the blessing of children in the communion line, which I don’t have an opinion about one way or the other, but about bringing children to mass.

First of all, I completely agree that children should be welcome at mass, and we shouldn’t give parents dirty looks every time their child makes a peep. Other people’s kids at mass don’t bother me. But I am bothered by MY kids at mass. I have suffered through many masses with small children where I had no idea what the readings or homily were about because I couldn’t pay attention. I felt like I hadn’t even gone to mass.

You said that parishes often send the message that children aren’t welcome at mass, but in the conservative Catholic blogosphere, it seems like the message is that parents HAVE TO bring their kids to mass. I certainly don’t think parents should feel like they MUST leave their kids at home or in the nursery, or sit in the cry room. There are many good reasons parents might have for not using those things. But some of us parents actually PREFER to use those options. The cry room is a lifesaver. I don’t know what we’d do without it.

But according to many conservative Catholics, I’m “depriving my children of graces” by not bringing them to mass or “not teaching them to behave” by sitting in the cry room. Even if we’re talking about a one or two-year-old who has no idea where they are anyway and aren’t capable of sitting still yet. Yes, you should teach your kids to behave at mass – eventually. But at a certain age, it’s just asking too much.

Parishes need to be accommodating to people with small children. This certainly means welcoming them if the parents choose to bring them and being tolerant of the noises they will inevitably make. But it also means, ideally, having both a cry room and a nursery available for parents who prefer to go that route, and being understanding of parents who prefer to go to different masses while leaving the kids at home with the other parent.