Monday, March 18, 2013

The Problem With the Front Pew

The Problem With the Front Pew
(and my take on keeping Mass a family affair)

Yesterday, being Sunday, we packed up our little quartet of kiddos and went to Mass.  (We do this pretty much every Sunday, don't ya know.)  But my husband had been out very late the night before and we had agreed to take it easy Sunday morning and not rush around like crazy, tired, maniac people to get to our normal 8 o'clock Mass.  We thought it was a prudent decision to go to the 10 o'clock Mass. 

The 8 o'clock Mass is quiet, it's traditional, it has elderly ladies aplenty to fawn over the baby and tell the others how well they behaved ("Ahem.  You might not think so, Mrs. McGillicuddy, if you were sitting right next to them, as I was."  Ok, I have to be honest, that's not entirely fair... her last name was probably something Polish with a lot of w's and c's and z's!)  At the 8 o'clock we sit in the fifth row.  Close enough to be close - to see the altar and not be distracted by too many people in front of us - but not so close that something could accidentally (or *accidentally*) be thrown up onto the altar.  (Imagine the deacon leaning over, "Excuse me, Father, I believe a children's missal and baggie of cereal just landed in your lap.  And I may be mistaken, but it looks like the missal has... a bite... taken out of it.")

Anyway, yesterday we trooped in, and were a delightful sight for all the 10 o'clock elderly ladies who assumed we must be visitors.  I heard someone whisper, "the boys must be twins!"  Somehow, before I realized what was happening, we were in the front row.  I'm still not sure who chose the pew, but there we were.  I rolled my eyes but quickly thought, "Ok.  This could actually work very well today."  The three older kids had been plotting together throughout the morning how they were all going to have great behavior and participate loudly so that they would all earn after-Mass donuts.  (because, whether you approve of our sugary reward system or not, that is the current measure of did you have good behavior and participation at Mass today.  We have not yet graduated to the Mass is its own reward.  Rest assured, I regularly beg the Holy Spirit that He will move within the material limits of the donut system and win over some little hearts for love of the Mass.  He is known for His mysterious and powerful ways, you know.)  

Well, the front pew didn't work out as I had planned.  Not because my children were poorly behaved.  They are of course, occasionally poorly behaved (after all, we are only a very mediocre Catholic family, where piety is concerned).  But the disruptive behavior is becoming more and more rare, and on this particular Sunday there was none.   They did very well!  But before the readings began, the priest came forward and invited the children up to gather for prayer and then to leave the church for children's... I don't know what... Scripture and drawing time, I guess?  I didn't even know our parish did this.  My husband and I had talked about this practice some years ago and had agreed that we were not interested in having our kids leave the family during Mass.  We just don't do this.  But it took me by surprise and we were sitting in the front pew.  A dozen other kids came and gathered next to us, the priest came down and waved our kids over, and I didn't even know what to do!  I was completely caught off guard.  I let them go.  I would have felt really awkward shaking my head "no" and telling my kids to sit back down while everyone else in the church was watching the kiddie crowd gathering right beside us.  At least a few rows back I could have bowed my head in prayer or rifled through my purse and pretended like I had no idea what was going on.  

So my kids went, against my better judgement.  I missed them the whole time.  I kept thinking: this is the Mass, this is where they should be.  They were so prepped (and pumped!) for great behavior and participation and they missed out on exercising it during the whole Liturgy of the Word.  I don't exactly know what they did wherever they went, (and I confess I didn't ask anyone from the parish about the specifics) but I'm pretty sure it was a kiddie version of the readings and, based on a coloring sheet they brought out, an overview of Holy Week and the Triduum.  I am not against child-friendly Bible stories, prayers, meditations, crafts, etc...  In fact, we use many of those things at home, which is why I don't feel the need to pull my children out of the Mass and repeat those things with a stranger (admittedly, she was a "stranger" because I didn't introduce myself)  We use child-friendly (please don't mistake "child-friendly" for "childish") Bible readings and prayers and discussion at home so that our children will have that age-appropriate introduction and preparation to better understand and appreciate the actual Mass  that is for all human beings, not just adults.  

Lest I fall prey to a case of Holy Catholic Mom Judging What Other Presumably Less Holy Catholic Moms are Doing or Not Doing or Don't Even Realize What They're Doing or Not Doing.........  or even worse, is the case of Obnoxiously Opinionated Parish Mom Who Thinks She Knows Better Than the Pastor......
please allow me to state that I don't believe that it's wrong or misinformed to allow children to suspend participation in Mass to participate in another form of prayer or reading specifically geared towards the young.  It's in no way harmful.  I can imagine many instances in which it would be immensely helpful, especially a case in which a child didn't have age-appropriate Bible stories or related materials available to her at home or school.  I absolutely get that.  My purpose for writing this is primarily to revisit the reasons why this is not currently an option for our family, and to steel myself for the next time it comes up... even if we're sitting in the front pew. 

The reasons we keep our children with us at Mass:

* Mass is a priority and a privilege for our whole family (and, oh yeah, an obligation on Sunday and Holy Days).  We make it a point to get to Mass on time, and we don't leave early, so it's natural that we wouldn't permit any of our family members to "skip out" on the middle portion of the Mass!
* My mother used to always bemoan the concept of "dumbing" down Scripture so that kids could understand it: for instance, referring to "Noah's big boat" because kids can't be expected to know what an "ark" is.  I'm not a certified child educator (unless doing it every day "certifies" me) but I'm pretty sure that my kids learned what an ark was when I used the word and then explained it to them.  Young children will obviously not be able to understand every word and meaning of the readings from the Old and New Testaments, but being exposed to them will help develop their ear for that type of language.  They will learn as they listen.  And it's not like it's a sin to whisper at Mass; we have been known to whisper meanings of words or passages to the kids during the readings.  (I have also been known to whisper things like, "Stop whispering!  Stop it!  This is not the time or place to whisper!  Just.  Stop.)  
* It's important to us to prepare our children for participating at Mass, and eventually in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, so we spend time, and expend effort,  at home explaining to them at a comprehensible level, what happens at Mass, what to expect, and how to join in.  When I can (and sometimes I forget) I try to read the Gospel to them ahead of time so that it sounds familiar.  And when I'm feeling really ambitious, I try to get the list of hymns from the organist ahead of time so that we can practice some of them.  Our kids love being able to sing confidently along with the hymns they know, and if I've taught a hymn at home, there's no excuse for not participating ;)  
* I especially don't want my children to miss out on singing the Responsorial Psalm, a portion of the Mass that they really enjoy.  (Participating through singing has the potential to earn a lot of points toward donuts.)  Again, here I indulge in a little whispering so that they know the correct words to sing.   
* I'd like my children to witness, and thereby learn, that Cannon Law dictates that a priest or deacon proclaims the Gospel and gives the homily.
*Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me," so it might be kind of disordered if my mindset was, "Keep my little children away from me while I meet Jesus in the Mass." (Kind of hyperbolic; just making a point.  I'm pretty sure that's not really what parents of children's-liturgy attendees are thinking!)
* My husband and I talk about this often with the kids so it might be losing it's oomph, but Mass is a gift.  And we will receive it together.  Physically staying with each other throughout the service is a substantive reinforcement of the words we spout all week long.  
* I like the feel of having my whole family with me throughout the Mass  (Obviously can't help stuff like emergency bathroom trips and the back-of-the-church-stroll you make with screechy babies!)
* With my children with me all Mass long, I may not be able to concentrate on every word that comes from the altar and ambo, but that is a sacrifice that I have recently come to accept and appreciate.  Squirming, chattering, nose-blowing, and hymnal-stacking are ok. It means my children are with me.  Our little "domestic church" is worshiping (and maybe whispering) in union with the Universal Church.  And that's not a problem for me.  It's the way I want it and next time we're in the front pew, I'll be better prepared!

Hangin' with Father and the servers after Mass

(family and Mass kit done by my lovely - and talented - friend Lori)


  1. I've been stalking your blog in hopes of getting our kids to behave like your kids during Mass some day.

    I agree with what you say about how the family should be together and the children should be in church during the Mass and all that in theory. In practice, when alll the other kids are going off somewhere at the urging of the priest, it is hard to keep our kids quiet and in our pew instead of loudly proclaiming "WHY CAN'T WE GO?!!". Even if we have discussed it ahead of time. Especially since my husband sees no problem with children's liturgy. Sometimes my kids go back and sometimes they don't.

    What I really wanted to write about is that children's liturgy at our church is actually extremely well done for a children's liturgy. I was impressed when I went back. Of course I didn't have high expectations (when I was a kid, children's liturgy was coloring and dirty jokes time) The leader emphasizes that they are still in church and they should behave with reverence. She does go over the readings, engaging the children, questioning them about the readings and making sure they understand. Also children's liturgy is only offered about half the time during the 10 o'clock Mass. It is kind of hit or miss.

    I bribe my children with vegetable juice boxes and felt a little guilty about that. Maybe if I used donuts, they would behave better.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, but I'm pretty sure we're not the family to emulate! Like I said, our hearts still need a lot of work and that's surely the most important! Also, I do recommend the donut system, but with a heads up: We had to quickly lay down rules like, Don't ask me in the middle of Mass if you've earned the donuts yet, and DON'T mention the donut system to Father when he greets us after Mass. (that last one is just to save me the embarrassment of having to acknowlege the unholy bribe!)
      Also - great to hear that the children's leader reiterates that they're still at Mass! That part's crucial to me! Thanks!
      And thanks for stopping by my blog! God bless.

  2. Totally agree. Our parish doesn't do that, and I'm grateful. How hard to have been put on the spot like that! We've been to places that have the children's 'liturgy' and it's a bit uncomfortable keeping your kids with you (often times my own kids are kind of clueless as to why there are a group of children leaving...) and not feeling like you're trying to make a statement of some sort. Great post!

  3. I agree too. We have always has our kids at mass with us. And our parish is not totally kid friendly . . . we do not have a children's liturgy, but we do have a nursery and 3-5 year old CCD DURING mass. I was told by an older parishioner that we have those things so that kids will not be at mass (yes, you read that correctly!)

    My 4 yr old is determined to ONLY sit in the front row from now on . .. I like it, but I often feel like we are in a fish bowl and if the boys act up at all, everyone can see it.


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