We recently took our 1½-year-old daughter to Mass in a nearby convent and were asked… to leave. Of course, the kind sister asked in a polite way. She walked to the back of the chapel, where I was struggling to entertain our active toddler and said, “Julie, would you mind stepping out with her for while?” This was surprising to me, because we had been in and out and because I actually thought she was behaving okay. Sometimes she was even singing along!
It also caught me off guard because I wasn’t expecting this from these sisters. I have had similar experiences in parish Masses (bad reactions from parishioners), but all priests have always been overwhelmingly positive. They have spoken out in homilies and after Mass, saying children are always welcome in Mass, and Jesus said to let children come to Him, no matter how rambunctious they might be. I just assumed that all people “in tune” with Jesus would be welcoming of children in prayer environments, including these sisters.
I read a wonderful article on CatholicStand a while back called “Catholic Family Circus at a Mass Near You” . This article takes into consideration the arguments against taking children for Mass, such as lack of a reverent environment, and argues in favor of children being present. I have to wholeheartedly agree in favor of children not only allowed but encouraged in the Mass, where Christ is physically present par excellence, and in all church environments. Why? Because all people deserve access to Christ. Because Christ spoke excessively about children. Because Christ was adamant when His disciples tried to block children from coming to Him.
Children, especially toddlers, and especially in groups, are naturally rambunctious. They are naturally more active and have less concentration than adults. This is a general characteristic of children whether or not some have calmer temperaments than others and whether or not some are taught (or threatened) to behave better than others. This makes children less welcome in some environments, and Mass is just one of them. They are generally less welcome in restaurants, depending on how formal the restaurant is this might even be explicit. They are sometimes not welcome at weddings. I have seen some wedding invitations here in Portugal explicitly ask children to stay at home.
This leads me to think that this debate on whether children should be welcome or not at Mass, and to which degree, is part of a larger debate. I read a great article by Haley Stewart some time ago and found this debate has a name: age discrimination.
Dictionary.com defines discriminating as “to make a distinction in favor of or against a person or thing on the basis of the group, class, or category to which the person or thing belongs rather than according to actual merit; show partiality:”. How is it not discrimination to say an entire age group is not fit to be at Mass or to attend a social event? How is it not partiality to adults to say for children to be welcome they must be absolutely silent and static, a burden which seems very heavy to parents who are just trying their best and really would like to go to Mass at a convent, for example?
There are fewer social events in which children are welcome nowadays. There are fewer community dances. There are fewer neighborhood events. There are fewer villages. Perhaps there are even fewer families. Age discrimination seems connected to a larger picture of a new social horizon, in which children are burdensome and generally not welcome. As Catholics, we are called to be counter-cultural in many ways and being “open to life” is one of them. Open to life could also embrace children that are noisy, babies that “get in the way” of Mass, well-behaved kids and not-so-well-behaved kids. This is a ministry field that is wide open.