A friend shared this post about bringing kids to Mass on Facebook. I don’t really want to renew that hoary old debate, though I did get into it in the comments on her post. What I really want to explore is something kind of tangential that came up in that discussion.
I’m not here to throw stones or to remove splinters from other people’s eyes. Mainly I’m looking at the plank in my own eye here and wondering how it got there and what to do about it. And I’m hoping that by describing it I might help some other people with their motes.
Anyway, all the disclaimers out of the way, what I wont to consider is this: Many people (and I include myself in this) have this ideal of a contemplative, solemn Mass that we cling to, even when our experience seldom lives up to the ideal. More and more I’m coming to believe that this ideal Mass is really an idol, a false god that can even get in the way of our relationship with God. I’m jumping off of Elizabeth Scalia’s excellent book, Strange Gods, which explores at length the question of how our ideals can become idols, things that stand in between us and God.) I think you can see how it gets in the way most clearly when you look at how fiercely people (and again I include myself) cling to it, even when doing so stirs up feelings of enmity between oneself and one’s neighbors.
This insight has become clearer to me as I think about our call to evangelization and the task of the new evangelization which means reaching out to our fellow baptized Catholics who for whatever reason have not yet heard the Good News proclaimed in a way that they have left all to follow Christ as disciples. During this discussion it suddenly occurred to me that this ideal of the perfectly solemn, uninterrupted Mass gets in the way of evangelization because it leads us to treat other people as disturbances and distractions and to lose sight of the fact that their inability to behave the way we think they should is really a signal to us– or at least it should be– of their need. Instead of shunning them, we should be welcoming them. If they don’t know Christ, and their gossiping during Mass suggests they don’t, then shouldn’t our job be to be the face of Christ to them?
If they can’t discern Christ in the Eucharist then all the more they need to discern him in the faces of the people around them. If they are getting the stinkeye, even if they do deserve it, why would they come back? Why would they seek Christ?
First the New Evanglization and the great commission: Go out and make disciples of all men.
This new evanglization isn’t really new, just a new awareness that we have failed to live up to the great commission and most of all an awareness that the mission territory isn’t “out there,” that often the people most in need of evangelization are sitting in the pews every Sunday.
I think there is definitely a place for, a need for contemplative silence in the Christian life, but I’m not convinced that Sunday Mass– or even daily Mass– at your local parish is really ideal for that kind of prayer. If it isn’t the squawking baby it’s the little old lady with the noisy oxygen tank or her deaf husband. Or the autistic guy with his noise reducing headphones who sometimes barks and yips a bit. Or someone’s aunt and cousins who haven’t ever been to a Catholic Mass before, or at least that’s what you’d think form their behavior. Or the homeless guy in the back. Or… or… or. Maybe part of the problem is that we are too focused on ourselves and making an idol out of the “perfect Mass” convinced that unless we achieve that perfect silence of contemplation we haven’t “got anything out of it.” If you want to spend time alone in quiet with Christ, you can visit a monastery, go to Adoration, close the door to your room, walk in the woods. But don’t expect to get it during Mass because if you spend your Mass chasing that contemplative moment and giving every person who distracts you the stinkeye, you’re doing it wrong.
And now on to a particular thread of the conversation that got me thinking:
Someone complains: “Most parents seem to do their best to pretend nothing is happening though and that little Bobby will just be quiet in a few minutes.”
That interpretation doesn’t seem at all inclined to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. In my experience as a parent of five, many fussy babies do indeed calm down after a minute or two.
Sure, some parents might in fact be clueless and rude (and then again the question really is how can we reach out to them in love in a way that makes them feel welcome), but most parents do have the experience to know that kids make noise but they will indeed calm down. Me, I have scale of reaction depending on the degree of fussiness. No, I don’t take out a fussy baby at the first hint of noise, I try to calm him first. But a screaming baby gets taken out right away. And yes, I’ve been known to wait a few minutes to see if the fussy baby can be distracted or will calm down and often they do. Sometimes a little bump causes a cry that will settle down long before you even get to the back of the church. An experienced parent knows their kids and will give them a chance to calm themselves. But if it’s a scream or a tantrum, then out they go immediately. But parents should not have to be permanently exiled to a cry room, or cry rooms not really existing in my part of the country, to the Church entrance.
But back to those rude and clueless parents…. I know Bobby’s mother. She is just coming back to the Church after having drifted away in college. Her faith is tenuous at best. Her husband is an atheist but she convinced him to come to Mass with her for the first time today. And because the little old lady in front of them glared at her and another guy said something rude about Bobby’s fussing (Bobby is cutting his first tooth and didn’t sleep well last night, but she was really hoping he’d make it to communion) because of the cold reception, she’s taking the hint and next Sunday she’s going to try the Baptist church down the street. Or maybe she’ll just take her husband’s advice and sleep in, after all she can try again later when Bobby is older. Maybe she won’t come back for another ten years. Maybe she’ll never come back at all.
I know Bobby’s mother. Her husband is on deployment in Iraq and she’s alone with the three kids. One of them is on the autisim spectrum and acts out terribly, but he looks too old to be acting that way. Unfortunately autism isn’t detectable just by looking and so people at Church just think she’s a bad mother who can’t be bothered to control her kid. But she keeps going to Mass by herself with the baby and the toddler and the autistic son because God is the only thing getting her through this deployment.
Perhaps all of us should go to Mass with the intention of finding the most annoying person there and making them feel welcome. Recently I read an article (can’t find the link now) about how most people, even many Catholics, don’t know that God loves them unconditionally. How can we make the parents of small children feel that they are loved unconditionally when they are only welcome to come in if their kids are perfect angels?
On Facebook a friend asks a good question, I thought I’d include that and my answer because it is some of what I meant to include here but my thoughts got scattered and I forgot.
I do sometimes find it hard to understand how to balance/reconcile/? the reverence we owe God with the love of neighbor — how much are we supposed to tolerate those who seem to know not what they do (when it’s beyond a mere personal annoyance but really objectively inappropriate) and are also unlikely to accept attempted fraternal correction? I guess I need to make sure I’m not “judging” people who say they are offended not on their own behalf but on behalf of the holiness of God’s house, the Mass, etc. You know? It’s not something that was drilled into me as a kid in ’80s and ’90s Catholic school, that’s for sure, the reverence for God’s majesty, but some people must have that more deeply-rooted than I do, and per se, I think that’s a good thing for those people, even if it might be the kind of virtue that’s unfortunately easy to allow to trump the higher virtue of charity. Does that make any sense?
For me the balance is this: I do my best to be as reverent as I can and to teach my children reverence. We dress up for Mass, we behave appropriately– or as much as we can for our ages. We love God, we worship him to the best of our meager ability. But we also try our hardest not to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. If I’m worried about what other people are doing, if they distract me, I try to make that an opportunity to pray for them. But I think fraternal correction is most properly offered in the context of a relationship. If you really want to help people who don’t know what to do, isn’t the best way to first get to know them, earn their trust? You have to first establish the fraternal before you can offer correction. If there is any question at all in your mind about whether you can offer fraternal correction without someone being offended, the answer is no, you can’t because you don’t have the relationship to do so.
Mind you, this is the ideal I strive for. The part that I forgot to include in the blog post was a list of all the instances in which I’ve failed to live up to this and the ways in which I hope the merciful Father will not let me have been a stumbling block on other people’s journey to Him. And that to me is sort of key: we’re all on a journey and our goal should be to help each other to get to know Christ.