What should you do when a child starts crying in church during Mass? This is a question that often arises, and has been brought to the fore by the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, as reported in the Daily Telegraph.
Children can make a lot of noise, and this question poses a challenge for three sets of people.
Firstly, the clergy. It may be very distracting for the priest, when, halfway through the Eucharistic Prayer, a child starts to make a loud noise. Some older priests in particular might find this makes the saying of the prayer more or less impossible. This may be particularly so in some modern churches that have a terrible acoustic that magnifies every noise, particularly those that are high pitched. One feels for such clergy, at least some of the time, but what they must do is really simple: grin, bear it, and carry on. They must raise mind and heart to God, and pray the Mass as if they were in the most silent of convent chapels. After all, back in the day, many priests celebrated Mass on battlefields with shells bursting around them. They too carried on and did not complain.
If the priest stops the Mass and demands the child be removed – and this does sometimes happen, though rarely, it has to be said – this will effectively hold the parents up to public blame, and ensure that they never come back to church. Besides which, the parents do not need to be told – they already know that the child’s behaviour is not good, and are already, probably, doing their best to keep the child quiet.
What should parents do? They are the second group to be challenged by the child. They are probably doing all they can already – after all, they live with their child full time. They are the experts in child management. They could take the child out, if this can be done quietly and unobtrusively; though sometimes this creates more fuss than it saves. They may feel very embarrassed by their child’s behaviour, and the priest should make it clear to them, I think, that he really doesn’t mind. After all, a very quiet church would also be a dead church, if it were child-free.
This brings us on to the third set of people: the rest of the congregation. They might be tempted to feel smug about the mother and father trying to control two or three seemingly unmanageable toddlers, and think that their own children, now long grown-up, were much better behaved, back in the day. Well, perhaps they were, because back in the day there was no wall-to-wall television, and things were a lot quieter generally. (In Africa, in my experience, children are perfectly behaved in church, and often sit through very long Masses without fidgeting – but their powers of concentration have not been ruined in the way that those of western children have.)
But smugness about how your own children would never have behaved thus is never attractive. The rest of the congregation needs to convey to the struggling parents that they do not disapprove of their children, that children are welcome, that they sympathise and that they are willing to give a hand if needed.
This last is rather important, to my mind. If a child breaks away from the family group and makes a dash to the votive candle stand, let us say, an adult standing by needs to intervene, particularly if the parent or parents are busy with the other children. We all need to help out and we all need to take responsibility. If a mother has some active children which she is trying to cope with on her own, why not offer to sit with her and give her a hand? This does not happen all that often, as far as I can see, and it is a pity. People often say that they do not know each other, which makes things awkward, or that they feel offers of help would be intrusive. This in itself is a sign that the congregation had not gelled, but is a group of strangers. If you know the child in question I think you would be far less likely to feel cross if that child makes a noise. Strangers are often annoying, friends usually much less so.
We have to make people feel welcome. Welcoming people includes children too, and their parents. A church that welcomes children will be a welcoming church, one that all people, with or without children, will feel happy in.