Editor’s note: since a number of readers have overlooked the link, we would like to note that this “letter” is written in the style and format of another letter, to which it is a response. You may read that letter here.
UPDATE: After over 400 comments, I’ve written a followup post here.
We don’t really know each other, but I felt compelled to write you this letter after your article on Wednesday.
You don’t know me, but I’m the stressed-out, and yet still showered and shaved, non-snack-bringing, non-toy-bringing, spit-up-and-snot-stained, still coat-and-tie-wearing father of the seven kids you probably wouldn’t notice in Mass because after years of constant struggle, they’re actually starting to behave fairly well.
We’re never the reason folks miss the homily, because we think that’s pretty rude, so when our kids are fussing, we take them out back. We’ve consciously chosen the Church’s ancient, more reverent and authentic expression of worship — the pre-conciliar liturgy many folks disparagingly refer to as “tridentine” — so there are no loud exclamations of “Amen!” and no sign of peace, but when it’s a low Mass there is often silence so perfect you can hear a pin drop for long stretches at a time. I could go on and on.
I’m not sure you know this, but we’re also something else: vigilant and aware that the way our children behave not only affects the ability of others present to assist at the Holy Sacrifice, but also of the impropriety of loud and unruly behavior as we find ourselves mystically transported to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday.
I’m guessing that if you were in Mass next to us, you could probably tell that every time one of our “supreme gifts of marriage” speaks too loudly, drops a red book, plays with the kneeler or begins squirming around jostling for position with their siblings, we deal with it promptly so it doesn’t become an embarrassing distraction from others’ worship of Almighty God.
I’m realizing that this must seem overwhelming and impossible to you, because on Wednesday you felt inspired by the Holy Spirit (I’m assuming) to let the world know that the lady in your parish who was disrupted by your admittedly noisy kids handled the situation all wrong.
Didn’t you know that taking your kids to the cry room actually isn’t a bad idea, but that you still shouldn’t let them be as crazy as they want to be, since the goal is to teach them how to behave at Mass while minimizing disruptions to others? Couldn’t you recognize that taking a screaming baby outside is not only not outlandish, but is exactly what thousands of other parents do every Sunday when they can’t get things with their little ones under control? Didn’t you realize that it’s a great idea to inform your children at Mass (and even before you arrive) that dancing in the pews during the Gospel is not appropriate behavior? Don’t you know that people really are trying to pray, and that isn’t a punch-line?
I feel bad that you couldn’t recognize that the woman who was upset about these things might have been justified in her concerns, even if she didn’t handle them as well as she might have. To be honest, I’ve been on the receiving end of comments and glares from impossible-to-please grumpy people at Mass when only the tiniest peep came out of a happy infant mouth, so I know that it can be frustrating to get critical feedback. Still, it’s really kind of awkward reading that another man was “so crushed” by “comments” from a woman at Mass that he was rendered entirely speechless. It might be time to cowboy up just a tad.
On the way to quitting your article in frustration before finishing it, my mind started racing with all the things I wished I could say in reply. But then I remembered: I have a website where I can do exactly that!
So…I wish you could understand that just because you have a high tolerance for your kids’ rowdy behavior (and let’s face it: all normal kids are going to want to be rowdy when they’re made to sit still for something non-electronic) doesn’t mean that you don’t need to do something about it before the dirty looks and critical comments start coming in. This shouldn’t make you question whether you should be bringing your kids to Mass – it should simply make you question whether your strategy for dealing with them is working, and how you might fix it.
I wish I could get people like you to stop quoting Mark 10 as a justification for irresponsible parenting. I have always brought my children to Mass, letting the little children come unto Him…but I’ve also always reminded them that the Mass is a supreme act of worship of Our Lord on the Cross, not a friendly gathering where Jesus told the little guys cute parables. It’s not the children’s fault if they don’t understand the weight of a Mass – that falls on the parents. I’d venture to guess that if we fail to teach that to them, Jesus would be pretty indignant about that too.
I wish I could get you to understand that Pope Paul VI’s words in Gaudium Et Spes, where he reminds us all that, “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage…”, probably shouldn’t be used as a sarcastic reference to the frustrating little beasts if we want others to take those words seriously as an admonishment to put up with them.
The truth we all have to wrap our minds around is that there’s no reason why the unique challenges children present us with — which may, if we’re properly disposed, help us to become more virtuous as parents — should be indiscriminately inflicted on others during the central act of the Church’s worship, wherein is made present the Most Holy Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life.” There really are times children should be seen and not heard – and during Mass is the most important of those times. (For that matter, we, too, should be seen and not heard – because the Mass isn’t about us.)
I wish you would realize that there’s really no excuse for saying something as self-centered and immature as, “My children annoying you at Mass may be exactly what God wanted for you, as a way to help you overcome self-centered thinking and become the saint God created you to be! I know that’s what he’s got my kids doing for me.” Maybe your kids are doing that for you. But it’s not okay to assign your crosses to others through abdication of parental responsibility.
Lastly, I want to remind you that our Catholic faith is pro-life. And as much as it can be inconvenient and difficult, welcoming children into our marriages doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of teaching them how to behave, or removing them when age or inability makes it impossible for them to really understand that. Because being open to life isn’t a blank check for us to throw up our hands and shrug and say, “Kids! What are ya’ gonna do with ’em, amirite?” Being a parent is a hard job, filled with more than its share of both joys and frustrations, and it takes a lot of work to even get close to doing it right. Trust me. My seven children range in age from 18 down to four months old, and I still don’t have it all figured out. In fact, I’m maybe only just now beginning to understand the effects of all the failures and bad decisions I’ve made.
When I think of Jesus looking down at our parish, I have to imagine He looks approvingly upon those parents who have the presence of mind to recognize the hierarchy of goods; the higher and more transcendent things; and who are willing, even when tired and frustrated and overwhelmed and just wishing more than anything to have a chance to really pray, to do what they have to do to ensure that the “most beautiful thing this side of heaven” is not interrupted unnecessarily because they lack the wherewithal to teach and discipline their kids. I also think of how He must be happy when parents describe to their children in awe-struck whispers the miracle that takes place on the altar, appealing to their sense of wonder and fantasy to instill belief from their earliest years in the greatest mystery of our Faith. He must be so pleased when those parents are able to impart to their little ones an appropriate sense of reverence so that they, too, will always remember that the Eucharist is more important than their whims and desires, and is in fact Our Lord and God, before whom we should wish to throw ourselves prostrate in adoration.
As I was writing this response to your article, I made sure to keep these responses at the forefront of my mind, finally ready to let you know what I really thought of your comments in what you wrote.
And that’s when it hit me.
What if you buried the lede because the first part of your article was the part you really felt most strongly, but you recognized as you were writing it how petulant it sounded? What if your complaints about other people’s complaints about your children’s behavior at Mass has absolutely nothing to do with that lady? What if you’re actually just making excuses for being a lazy “hipster husband” and member of the “Me Generation” because you honestly don’t know any better? What if you have no strong sense of how people should act at Mass because you’ve grown up with banal, uninspiring, insipid liturgies and a cultural sense of entitlement, and you honestly don’t realize there’s a better way, even if it’s a harder one?
Your quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a good one. You need to put a stop to the “all about me” thinking, “humbly, regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests but [also] everyone for those of others.”
Did you ever stop to think that the woman’s comment may have come not because she was a wounded or cruel individual, but because you neglected the responsible fulfillment of your parental duties?
Did you ever stop to think to think that your self-aggrandizing public commentary was not really mitigated by your supposed epiphany that only arrived after 680 words of passive-aggressive criticism posed as introspection?
Did you ever stop to think that your comments came from a place of insufficient reflection about what Mass truly is and why it should be treated with utmost care, silence, and respect, even at the cost of your own comfort and convenience?
I’ll bet you didn’t.
Instead, you let it be all about you. And even worse, you let yourself be consumed with thoughts of what you could have said to put that woman “in her place,” and then you wrote those things, out loud, in public, on a highly-trafficked Catholic website, and in so doing put her in her place before offering your compassionate conclusion.
And so, if I’m going to suggest that you recognize God wants you to keep your family from being unruly, loud, and annoying at Mass for the sake of helping all those present (including yourself and your children) become saints, I’m going to also have to acknowledge that you probably just don’t know that there’s a better way, or that you’re actually perfectly capable of handling it.
It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to take up your little, loud, messy crosses and follow Him. It’s up to you decide that you’re OK with never hearing a homily or having your butt touch a pew for eight or ten years so that others who have done that duty with their own children can. It’s up to you to start the practice at home, having your kids sit quietly with mom and dad (or kneel, if they’re a bit older) during the family rosary, even if that means they cry through the whole thing every night for months until they realize that when it’s prayer time, it’s not time to play. It’s up to you to come to an understanding that parents sometimes need to think in terms of duties instead of rights, that if you find a truly reverent liturgy that doesn’t look and sound like a circus — even if you have to drive over an hour each way, like we do — maybe your kids will catch on that it’s not the place to act like they’re part of one, and that what happens on the altar is important and special and worth paying attention to. Heck, maybe you’ll even realize that the Canon of Saints includes children who were willing to die for the Eucharist at an age your kids could relate to.
If they could do that, good behavior at Mass seems just a bit more achievable.
I know it isn’t easy, because I’ve been living it for as long as I can remember. I miss the days when I could go to Mass and just immerse myself in the sacred instead of doing battle with a small nemesis with nearly infinite stamina. But I also know that the Mass doesn’t require my participation at all to be efficacious. That my presence alone is sufficient, and nothing I do adds one iota to the ministerial action of the priest. That by living my state in life as a husband and father and teaching my children that Mass is a place where the faithful come together to pray in mutual respect and Christian love for one another and their crucified Lord, I am doing what God wants. That sometimes, the best way to teach the little ones that Mass is important is by showing them it’s too special for them to be allowed to disturb with bad behavior, because God comes first.
I understand that this is a form of fraternal correction that can come across as harsh, but I honestly would welcome you into my home or the Masses I attend and offer any help I could to work with you on getting this right. I understand that we all need to learn and grow and support each other in the living of our faith. I understand that many of us have never been given an example of how we should behave or what we should do, and this makes finding the right thing at times incredibly difficult. I understand that good Catholic friends who understand our struggles can sometimes be hard to find.
I’m praying for you, and I’m asking you to pray for me too.
We all need it, but that’s no reason to make excuses.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.