Help for Mothers of Young Children During Mass

A patient mother tends to her baby and mantilla during liturgy.

So last week I had to go to confession. Yes, in case you were wondering, I am a big fat sinner. I usually go a minimum of once per month anyway, but I was intentionally trying to avoid the weeks leading up to Easter, because I knew the lines to the confessional would be especially crowded. Then, it happened. I sinned, and it was a sin big enough to need confession. So like a good and faithful Catholic, that's what I did.

I remember walking into the church after work, thinking to myself: "it's the Saturday before Holy Week, I'm going to be waiting a while." I walked into the chapel and there it was. A confessional line stretching around half the chapel. This wasn't the prayer chapel mind you. This was the main chapel. Dear Lord! It was the longest line I had ever sin. "Why? Oh why did I have to sin just before Holy Week?" I took my place at the back of the line, figuring this is my penance. The priest must have thought the same, because my official penance was especially simple. I was in line for literally one full hour!

I remember trying to remind myself how lucky I was. I need only spend an hour in a confessional line. The early Christians would spend months to years doing penance outside of chapels before they were even admitted back in. My sin wasn't that serious, but still, the Lord knows my weakness. I hate waiting.

However, divine providence must have been at work there, because I met a friend I hadn't seen for a long time. She was a nurse I used to work with in the hospital a while back. She was right in front of me in the confession line and we got to talking. I ended up sharing some parental wisdom that I'm going to share with you now.

If you are the Catholic mother of young children, then this essay is for you. I'll try to keep it short, sweet and to the point, because I know you're busy, and you don't have much time to read this.

The nurse I was talking with was a young mother. She had a couple of toddlers, and she was having the worst time dealing with them at mass. Every young mother knows exactly what I'm talking about. Anyway, the long story short is that she was nearly in tears talking about it with me. She needed help, and she was struggling going to mass when she can never follow along with the homily or the liturgy, because she's too busy with these toddlers. So this is what I told her...

  1. Your children need to be at mass because while there they are forming early memories. You need to make sure the earliest memories they have are at mass. That way when they get older, whether they are faithful or fall away, their childhood comfort memories will be of the mass, in a Catholic chapel. You want them to remember the sights, sounds and smells of the mass.
  2. When I was the father of young children, I would always make sure we were seated at the end of a pew. It didn't matter where in the chapel, just so long as it was at the end. This allowed me to get up quickly if needed. 
  3. Allowing young children to move around in the pew is natural and normal, just so long as their not rowdy or bothering people. So give them some room to move around within reason.
  4. When you know they're about to get fussy, pick them up and carry them to the back of the chapel. Gently walk around and move about the back of the chapel with the child on your shoulder or hip. Movement helps to calm them. The embrace of their mother (or father) always does the same. 
  5. The "cry room" in such churches that have them, is reserved for crying, or sometimes nursing too. To a toddler, this is a constricting and boring space. Most toddlers would rather be in the chapel, where the activity is, away from the cry room. So moving to the cry room should be reserved for crying or rowdiness. This lets the child know that if they can't behave themselves, they end up in this constricting and boring little room. Moving back and forth between the cry room and the chapel, sends a clear message to the child. When she is loud and rowdy, she goes to this little constricting and boring cry room. When she is quiet and cooperative, she gets to be in the big chapel where all the interesting activity is.
  6. Never underestimate the power of statues, icons and candles to interest a child. While safely in your arms, walk over to those areas in the back of the chapel, or the sides, where they can look at these things.
  7. When it's time for communion, carry the child up with you. Open your mouth and allow the priest to place the host on your tongue directly. This nearly eliminates all problems receiving the host. Don't even attempt partaking of the chalice. (Are you kidding me?) Just reverently bow your head as you walk by it and move on. Trust me, Jesus understands. Besides, official Church teaching states that so long as you have partaken in just one of the Eucharistic species (host or chalice), you have effectively partaken in both. There is no difference.
  8. Finally, remember why you are there. You are there to worship God. This means either you are going to receive communion, or else you're going to make an act of spiritual communion. It's going to be one or the other, but that is why you are there. That is the PRIMARY reason why you are there.
  9. Participation in the liturgy is important, as is listening to the homily, but that is NOT the primary reason why you are there. These reasons are secondary. So if you're missing out on some of this, or it's hit and miss, that's okay. You are forgiven and excused. You have a very important job to do, and both Jesus and his Church understand that. If you feel like you're missing too much of the homily, ask your pastor to record it. Then you can listen to it later, when you're able. If you're pastor won't do that, then get online and go to YouTube or EWTN, and watch a Sunday homily there. You have to understand, you're PRIMARY reason for being there is to worship God, which culminates in receiving communion, or making an act of spiritual communion. Listening to the homily, and fully participating in liturgy, comes SECONDARY when you're a mother (or a father) of toddlers and young children. You just do the best you can and then don't worry about it.
  10. If we were Protestants, then yes, missing the homily would be like missing the meat and potatoes of the whole service. But we're not Protestants. We're Catholics, and better yet, we're Catholics in the 21st century. That means our focus of worship is a little different, and we have luxuries not available to Catholics in previous centuries. Worst case scenario; we can get our weekly homily from EWTN if we have to. If you've missed the homily at mass, that is unfortunate but understandable, considering the circumstances, but you're going to be okay. What's more important is that you're there, and that you worship God through the adoration of the Eucharist, and its reception, either physical or spiritual. You see, the handling of a toddler (or toddlers) at mass, is in itself a form of sacrifice. You're giving yourself to God in the service of his children. Don't you know that Jesus watches your struggles from the altar? Don't you know that he completely understands? Don't you know that he sees your efforts as a sacrifice for him? Because he does! Every Catholic mother of young children needs to know this.
  11. Fathers need to be involved too. If you have just one toddler, there needs to be a trade off as you alternate Sunday duties, giving the other a break. If there are two toddlers, then you'll both have your hands full at the same time. That's how it should be.
  12. This last point is mainly for pastors, but it may take enough mothers to deliver it to him. Pastors, one of the best things you can do is assure mothers of young children that you are sympathetic to them, and please do defend them when they're doing their best. Granted, nobody likes a screaming child in the chapel, and granted, screaming children do need to be taken to the cry room, but if they're not making a whole lot of noise, they really should be with their parents in the chapel. That message needs to be relayed to your congregation on a regular basis. Lastly, if you really want to help young mothers, put a video camera inside the ambo, facing you in such a way that it cannot be seen by the congregation. You can click it on when you deliver your homily, and click it off at the conclusion. Then you, or a staff member, can upload the video to YouTube for the benefit of these mothers of young children, and others who have similar needs, including the sick and elderly who could not make it to mass.
This particular mother I spoke with in the confession line was very happy to hear this insight from my own experience with my own toddlers. I'll never forget just how exasperated my poor wife was with them, and how she dreaded going to mass because of it. Together, we learnt how to do it using the methods above. It worked through a process of trial and error. So I imagine it is the same for all parents. My advice is don't give up. Yes, they will outgrow this stage, though it may seem to take forever. Whether you realise it or not, their presence there is forming memories that will bless them for a lifetime, both consciously and subconsciously. What you're going through is normal, and every Catholic parent has dealt with it at least once. Their presence there is a blessing to them, even though they don't know it yet, and a personal sacrifice on your part that will not go unnoticed by our Lord. As for you, you're primarily there to worship our Lord, and that is all. If you miss the homily, and can't fully participate in the liturgy, that is okay. Adoration and communion are the real reasons why you're there. You can get the Sunday homily from other sources if you have to. 

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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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