Now don’t get me wrong: I’m as obsessed with second-guessing what Peter might choose to bind or loose this month as the next Catholic columnist. And I have, of course, my own thoughts on the family synod. And yet, on an hour-to-hour basis, I must say that “the Pastoral Challenges of the Family” – the synod’s official theme – weighs rather less heavily on my heart than do the pastoral challenges of my own family.
“The sound of children crying, complaining, screaming is the most beautiful music to me,” Pope Francis told parents in the Sistine Chapel last year. (He is more than welcome to do the night shift with our two daughters, aged one and four, whenever he wishes.) The Pope’s reassurances are welcome: there are few enough cradle Catholics in our churches on a Sunday, so we can scarcely afford to alienate still-in-cradle Catholics or their families. As restaurant and pub chains realised long ago, parents won’t go where they don’t feel their children are fully welcome.
But an absence of young families is neither simply, nor primarily, a loss to our parish communities. Both parents and children themselves are missing out on a great deal – and I don’t only mean sacramental grace. You can forget about Catholic social teaching, or even Natural Family Planning, being “the Church’s best-kept secret”. The real secret is this: church is, or at least very often can be, a great way to occupy small children.
Imagine a large room of coloured windows and shiny surfaces, covered in pictures and statues. Kings and queens. Knights slaying dragons. Angels battling snakes. Young girls on horseback in full suits of armour (take that, gender stereotypes!). Even, perhaps, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars” (Revelation 12:1). Truly, Disney and CBeebies have little to rival the communion of saints, as traditionally depicted in our Catholic churches.
During a long hymn, or perhaps post-Communion, a quiet pilgrimage around the side chapels can prove a fruitful endeavour. As for us all, certain saints are likely to appeal more than others, and perhaps for odd reasons.
St Anthony of Padua – who, I’ve been reliably informed, is “babysitting Jesus while his Mummy is at work” – is a longstanding fixture of our eldest daughter’s social circle.
Mothers and babies are always, of course, liable to pique toddlers’ interest. Add in the rest of a Nativity scene, replete with farm animals, and you may have to physically restrain them (“But Daddy, please can I touch his nappy?”). Aren’t we always talking about Mass being “relevant” and of “meeting people where they are”? There is more than one way to fully, consciously and actively participate.
Rosaries, prayer cards, crucifixes, scapulars and all manner of other accoutrements are invaluable means of occupying a restive infant. So too are the glow-in-the-dark statues of the Infant of Prague, and the cuddly Jonah and zippy-mouthed whale that we have collected on various travels, which reside in what is known in our house as “the rucksack of piety”. (And be sure to check out the Catholic Truth Society’s attractive, and pleasingly priced, range of children’s books.)
Of course, things don’t always go quite so smoothly. There are plenty of days when, pace our Holy Father, “crying, complaining, screaming” are just the start of it. (And, with very young children, when “smelling of the sheep” would be a signal improvement.) The Extraordinary Form liberally adorned with the repertoire from Frozen? The use of “Poo, poo, poo!” as a response to “At the Saviour’s command, and informed by Divine teaching, we dare to say…”?
The thing is that small children are perfectly capable of disrupting almost every occasion. It is parenting itself that is difficult: there is little that is uniquely problematic about doing it in church. I have just as many horror stories about visits to supermarkets, for example, as I have anecdotes about gross “Mass-behaviour”. But the odd misadventure on a trip to Aldi would hardly dissuade me from ever going shopping (or putting it off “until the kids are older” – or, at least, old enough to sit quietly with a Nintendo DS).
I guess there are just some weekend morning family rituals that it’s important to make time for. And of all the weird and wonderful, unmissable items one comes across in Aldi, I have yet to find a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars.
Stephen Bullivant is consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and directs the Theology MA at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @ssbullivant