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.
the Church's Youngest Members
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
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