In my Catholic Answers article I sought to defend the idea that children should attend the liturgy at all, against the claim, that I have often heard, that children should not be taken to Mass “until they can behave.” This precept usually impossible for parents to follow, if they wish to attend the Traditional Mass, since they don’t have a choice of Masses to attend one at a time while the other looks after the children at home. More fundamentally, without early and consistent experience of the liturgy children would develop from uncontrollable small children to bored teenagers staring at their smart phones, without passing through any intermediate stage of sitting quietly and paying attention to the Mass.
Instead, I argued that children of all ages are part of the target audience of the liturgy, understood in a traditional way, because it does not only make its impression on us rationally, through the presentation of a series of propositions. Liturgy feeds us spiritually because it brings us to God, in the Prayer of the Church, with which prayer we can unite ourselves. This is not a matter of understanding the texts—though naturally the texts are edifying and should help us lift our hearts to God—but of contemplative prayer, and of receiving the blessings given in the liturgy. Even small children can unite themselves to the action of the Mass, in ways they could not articulate, when they glimpse the dignity of an activity clearly not directed to anything merely human.
The questions remain, of how parents and others can help children glimpse this, and how we can have them in church, perhaps for well over an hour, with the minimum of disruption to their parents and other worshippers.
Many experienced parents will know much more than I do about this, but I offer a few thoughts to those who do not have this experience, and may lack role models in their congregations. In addition, it seems that attitudes are somewhat different at the Novus Ordo than at the Traditional Mass. I have heard it said a number of times, by people who have seen both, that children are better-behaved at the Traditional Mass, despite the fact that there are often more of them, and that the Traditional Mass seems to make little concession to children. Making the transition to the Traditional Mass, therefore, may require the adoption of new strategies for managing children, for a different liturgical experience and set of expectations.
A modern conception of what makes for child-friendly entertainment is focused on trying to keep the children’s attention, and stop them from being bored with novelties, gimmicks, and music which supposedly appeals to children. When this approach is applied to the liturgy in the Novus Ordo it seems to have limited effectiveness, and frequently children are taken to a separate room for a large part of Mass for a ‘children’s liturgy,’ and/or confined to a ‘crying room’ where they can make noise without disturbing the main congregation.
This is all quite alien to the Traditional Mass, where children are given the example of silent, contemplative prayer, by the liturgy itself. Even if there is music, the Church’s traditional liturgical music, Gregorian Chant, is not designed to stir up the emotions (something which Protestant hymns aim to do, and which modern Catholic hymns often imitate), but to aid contemplation. Our management of children at the Traditional Mass, therefore, should aim to encourage them to develop a contemplative frame of mind. This is not the same as expecting them to maintain an attitude of conscious attention for long periods, which would be impossible for children, and indeed not easy for adults.
What I will describe is by no means a quick fix for difficult children. Bringing up children takes time; we must be prepared, over many years, to keep on reinforcing the favourable background conditions, to keep on reiterating the message, and to keep on intervening when necessary. This is true of the establishment of any kind of good habit in children, whether it be table manners or a willingness to do homework. In the meantime one has to accept both that the disturbance to others, and one’s own prayerful attendance at the liturgy, may fall short of what we want, but we parents endure this as part of the exercise of our vocation as parents. The patient and persistent moral education of our children is the duty of our state of life, which is our own path to holiness.
A Special Time and Place
The liturgical formation of children starts, I would suggest, with fostering a sense, even with infants, that church is a special place, and the liturgy a special time. This is not a matter of explaining anything in words, which is obviously impossible with pre-verbal children, but in helping them to pick up the atmosphere, to which small children are often very sensitive. Churches are unlike other places, and vestments, Latin, and Gregorian Chant are each quite unlike the clothes, language, and music of ordinary life. If parents and older children change their behaviour when they enter church, small children will notice, and this is something we can build on.
Taking Children Outside
Very small children—infants and toddlers—are quite capable of making a great deal of noise, but they generally do so for some reason: because they are uncomfortable, hungry, or tired, for example. If they are making a noise, it may be possible to quiet them there and then, but very often one has to take them outside: not just for the sake of other people, but to meet their own needs. I have found that with small children, taking them into the fresh air can sometimes solve the problem in itself, as can walking them up and down in a quiet part of the church. Sometimes it is possible to bring them back to one’s pew, after a few minutes; on other occasions one must be patient. Standing outside a church with a small child is, after all, a way of serving God, and canonists tell me that you are “morally present” at Mass as far as meeting your own obligation to attend is concerned.
Giving Older Children Something to Do
Even older children, from 4 to 7, have to be able to move around, and it is possible for them to have their own things to do. It is a good idea to have things for them to look at and play with in church which they like, but which are not used elsewhere, to underline the special nature of the place. Children’s books about Mass are available, for example. I have on occasion threaded a collection of holy pictures from old Christmas cards onto a keyring for small children to look at. It is even possible to find holy pictures for small children to colour in. Ordinary toys need not be excluded, but it is good to consider how they will work in church. Anything hard (wood, metal, plastic) can make a huge noise on a hard floor or pew in a quiet church; soft toys are easier to manage. The easiest thing may be to have a bag of appropriate things the you always take to church, which you can just pick up when you leave for Mass: things the children like, that become special to church.
Another way one can encourage the children’s response to the atmosphere of the liturgy is to encourage them to whisper, not talk or shout; not to bang things or run up and down the aisle, and so on. This is consistent with allowing them to play at the back of church, or in a side aisle, or whatever: it is a matter of getting them used to the idea that they can do those things, but only in a quiet way. This is also the crucial period of time in which we can begin to point things in the liturgy out to them, to encourage them to kneel for the consecration, and so on.
The Liturgy of the Home
There are also things which we can do, or not do, at home, which will help how children engage with the liturgy. First, I should mention in passing the problem of screens. Twenty years ago people were pointing out the negative effects of television on children’s ability to concentrate and engage in imaginative play. Today things are far worse, with smartphones, video games, and social media. This is not the place for an extended discussion, but the effect of these things, particularly on small children, can go very deep, to affect their ability to behave even when the devices have been put away.
More positively, the Mass should not be the only time our children encounter people trying to pray. Just as the discipline of school or family meals can help children get used to the idea that they can’t always do exactly what they like, so family prayers should introduce them to the idea that older children and adults are doing something serious and directed towards God. As with Mass, in the earlier years they can experience this as an unusual time when they should be as quiet as possible; later they can begin to take part like the others. Small children behaving themselves during ten minutes of family prayers is far easier to imagine than an hour or 90 minutes of Mass, but if it happens every day, it will be a powerful preparation for and reminder of the public prayer of the Church.
As soon as they can begin to understand a child’s catechism, they can begin to be taught the most familiar prayers, the basic articles of the faith, and about the Mass, as well as being prepared for the reception of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. This is something Catholics often expect the parish to do for them, but the ultimate responsibility is on the parents, and many excellent resources exist to help them in this. Even if your parish does put on classes for children, there are many benefits from parents doing catechism, including a liturgical catechism, at home, in addition to group classes. I am not ashamed to say that I have grown in my own understanding of the Mass and of the basics of the Faith by working through books designed for young children, with my own children; certainly by the fourth child I was able to recite all Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit from memory, and the symbolism of the maniple and the stole: things which no one had ever taken the trouble to teach me when I was a child myself.
I should not neglect to mention the usefulness of boys serving Mass. Boys generally find it more difficult than girls to sit still through Mass, but serving can have a transformative effect on their behaviour, as well as drawing them to a more intimate understanding of the liturgy. This is not what serving the altar is for, but it is a very happy side effect.
Encouraging boys of all ages to serve is one thing priests can do to assist parents in their obligations. Something else which some churches I know do, is to have children’s books and games in some accessible place at the back of church for small children to look at and play with. Not only does this give them something to do, but the pastor can ensure that they will be appropriate. It also sends a powerful message that small children are expected and welcomed.
Bringing children to Mass can feel like a risk, and I would like Catholic parents to see it more as simply what you do. The strategies and skills useful to managing them there are things parents gradually develop, and involve many things I have not mentioned here, some of which would be difficult to put into words. The first step is appreciating the special form of participation which the Traditional Mass offers us: that of contemplation. Once we are used to this ourselves, we can nurture its development in our children.
Photo by Allison Girone.