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The Church of Cheerios

Illustration by Amy Price

A lone Cheerio on the church floor prompts this author to reflect on the importance of nourishing children both physically and spiritually.

By Valerie Schultz

 

Supporting the Church's Youngest Members

Welcoming Them to the Table

My husband points to something on the church floor: a lone Cheerio. I look back at him and his eyes hold mine a moment. Then we smile. A river of communication flows between us, between the Kyrie and the Gloria. I know his thought, prompted by the leftover Cheerio from the previous Mass: Remember when we used to come to Mass armed with toys, books, little bags of Cheerios, anything that might keep the children quiet?

I glance down the pew at them now: four daughters in various poses of reverence and tolerance, the oldest 16 and licensed to drive a car, the youngest eight and proud to have made her First Communion yesterday. Today is the first time she will come forward to receive the Eucharist with us and not simply fold her arms and be blessed. I feel a pang of longing for the babies they were. At the same time I am delighted and awed by who they are.

It’s hard to remember the days of Cheerios. I don’t recall how to change a diaper. I can’t imagine nursing discreetly. I haven’t chased a toddler bent on reaching the altar in many years. I actually hear the homily now. I concentrate on the liturgy. What a relief to be past the days of Cheerios!

I am stung to think how quickly I have forgotten those Masses. I have become one of the intolerant pillars of the Church. I sometimes feel annoyed by the sound of a whining child or an unhappy baby in the back of the church. I think: Why don’t they take that kid to the nursery? But it wasn’t so many years ago that people were giving me the evil eye if I didn’t immediately leave the pew when a baby fussed. Back then I would think: Hey, this is her Church too! I may not focus on a word of this homily, but I am doing God’s will!

But I still felt guilty for having brought the little yapper to this holy place. So I would bring out the plastic bag of Cheerios—saving the most effective tool for last.

Supporting the Church's Youngest Members

Cheerios are the perfect church food. They aren’t sticky and they don’t crumble, so they’re easy to clean up. Babies like them, and the hole in the middle means less likelihood of your baby choking on one during the consecration. They do have a little sugar but they do not have preservatives, so you don’t feel too negligent for feeding them to your precious child. They don’t smell. They don’t roll very far. They don’t make noise. They are the Catholic parent’s joy and refuge.

And yet, The New York Times News Service recently reported that the vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Chicago finds it troubling that little bags of cereal are sometimes left in the pews.

“When you’re trying to reach a state of spiritual contemplation,” she says, “there is nothing like sitting on a bag of Cheerios to throw you off.”

I do understand that it is thoughtless and irreverent for people to leave their trash in the pews, but I think this statement reflects a basic trouble in the U.S. Catholic Church. While we pay lip service to responsible procreation and family values and all that, we would really rather not have to put up with the little howlers who are the tangible, breathing results of Holy Matrimony—especially during Mass.

I have been to churches with those abhorrent crying rooms—the social equivalent of the leper’s bell. Parents are shown that, while their donations are welcome, their participation in the Mass is not. Instead, they are provided with a soundproof booth where the entire family can be seen and not heard. It is a miserable environment in which to celebrate the Sunday liturgy. Have you ever seen anyone smiling in a crying room?

I have been in churches where the children are sent packing for the Liturgy of the Word. In effect, we are telling children that this part of the Mass is really boring unless we dumb it down for you. Rather than learn to participate in the Mass with your family, we think you’re better off coloring in a far-off, soundproof room with a bunch of other kids who also don’t get it.

Parents have told me that they dread bringing their children to Mass because they are unruly or rude or bored. But these are often the parents who have not brought their children to Mass until they have to, which is once they have received their First Communion. It is as though they are saying that, with the reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the jury is back with a conviction: Now the kid has to start doing hard time.

And sadly, some parents have told me that they’ve decided to attend a different church, a more child-friendly church, where they simply feel welcome.

We need to be supportive of young families, rather than treat them as noxious burdens that we contemplatives put up with. I remember being the mother with the inquisitive child whom I knew the others in my pew wished I would just take outside, even though it was snowing. I have sympathized with the father whose child sang out lustily, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” when the bells rang during the eucharistic prayer. I have in fact prayed that the priest would choose Eucharistic Prayer II, because it is the shortest and, therefore, the most squirm-resistant.

Truly, there are extreme times where you do need to remove your child from church. But mostly, young children who are brought to Mass from the cradle, and whose questions are engaged as they grow, learn to be enthusiastic liturgical participants.

Welcoming Them to the Table

As communities, we need to celebrate the essential contributions of families with young children to our parishes. Right now we are very good at making them feel they are disturbing us, the holy worshipers, who somehow have more of a right to occupy this sacred space. We are very good at making them stay away from Sunday Mass in droves.

We need to welcome our children with open arms, as Christ does. We all belong at the eucharistic celebration, which is, after all, a meal. We eat and drink together. We even do the dishes. My youngest daughter now comes to the table of the Lord with us, but I have to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that she was considered a problem parishioner.

As for those littlest Catholics in the pews who make such a joyful noise as they shout to the Lord, who says we can’t serve them Cheerios at the feast?


Valerie Schultz is a freelance author from Tehachapi, California, where she is also director of religious education at St. Malachy. She has had numerous essays and short fiction published, including “Walter Makes a Fourth,” which appeared in the June 1999 issue of St. Anthony Messenger and won second place for best short story from the Catholic Press Association of America.


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