A parish in which there are no children might be silent and prayerful, but it is a parish with no future, says Fr Jamie McMorrin
Once, as a newly ordained deacon on summer placement, I preached a homily on the passage in the Gospel in which Jesus holds up a little child as the model of discipleship. I was very nervous and eager to impress.
I’d put a lot of work into preparing what I was going to say, spending many hours in prayer, looking up commentaries and editing and re-editing the text until I was satisfied. In my homily, I contrasted the bickering, self-aggrandising talk of the disciples and the humble silence of the little child. I thought, in the end, that it was rather good.
But when it came time for me to preach, there was a little child in the congregation who was very far from silent.
There, in the front row, was a toddler who screamed and shouted the whole way through the homily, drowning out my carefully crafted theological subtleties with an eloquence all of his own.
It was an important lesson for me. I realised that the crying child had perfectly illustrated the very point I was trying to make: his piercing cries had burst, at least momentarily, the bubble of my own vanity and, through him, the Lord had forcefully reminded me that humility is the most important requirement for discipleship.
That experience is fresh in my mind because last week my little sister gave birth to her second child. When I saw her last Saturday night, she was brimming over with joy at the safe arrival of her baby and couldn’t wait to show her off to her fellow parishioners at Mass the following day.
But she was a bit worried too. She already has her hands full at Mass. My young nephew, who is almost two, is energetic, chatty, curious and full of life— thanks be to God! But keeping him quiet and occupied for almost an hour each Sunday requires a lot of energy and most of her concentration.
She’s mortified when he has a tantrum, when he wriggles out of her grasp and when he tries out the latest word he’s learned at full volume, over and over again.
And yet she perseveres, week in, week out. So to her, and to any parents or grandparents reading these words: thank you! Thank you, first, for bringing children into the world. In the last three months of 2018, the birth rate in Scotland reached its lowest point since records began in 1855. Children are a precious, precious gift and the future of our society.
They’re also the future of our Church. So thank you—sincerely—for bringing them to Mass each week. They’re a reminder to all of us that the Church is alive, that the Church is young and that the Church is always fruitful with new life. A parish in which there are no children might be silent and it might be prayerful: but it is a parish with no future.
Perhaps you’ve been discouraged by tuts and sighs, eye-rolling and muttered comments from your fellow parishioners. Maybe you’ve been the recipient of unsolicited and unhelpful parenting advice from people who think they could do a better job than you. Perhaps you’ve been advised to leave the children at home until they’re old enough to understand, and perhaps you’re tempted to give up. Please don’t!
In bringing your children to Mass, you’re bringing them to Jesus. He loves them—if you can believe it—even more than you do. Like you, he loves them even when they’re noisy, even when they’re wriggly, even when they’re messy.
In the Gospels, when the disciples — perhaps with the same eye-rolling, muttered comments you overhear at Sunday Mass — try to prevent parents from bringing their children to Jesus, He gets angry. He says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them.”
He doesn’t say: “Let the well-behaved children come to me. Let the quiet children come to me. Let the children who’re old enough to understand come to me.” Thanks be to God—for all our sakes!—he doesn’t love the ‘perfect’ child who exists only in our imaginations. He loves the child in your arms, just as he is.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to be learned from the experience of others. There are many Catholic parent forums online with tips, ideas and mutual encouragement.
In my previous parish, some parishioners came up with the idea of making up activity packs for tots and toddlers. These wonderful ladies would stand at the door of the Church, give each family with small children an enthusiastic welcome, learning their names, helping them to find a seat and doing everything they could to remind them how glad we were that they were at Mass.
However we do it, it’s up to all of us to support, encourage and welcome our young families. Our future depends on it.
So, if you’re at Mass this weekend and you’re sat next to a crying baby or a troublesome toddler and exasperated parents, say a little prayer for them. A prayer not only for the patient fortitude of the parents, for abundant blessing on the little ones, but a prayer of thanksgiving for the generous welcome given to us all—young and old, well-behaved and otherwise—by the Lord Jesus.