Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Where's the charity in church pews and parking lots?

Twice a year our churches overflow with worshippers. Our faith family gathers to celebrate two occasions so important they can't be contained within one day, or even the eight (octave) dedicated to them. No, we do it right and celebrate an entire season in which we proclaim the glory of God with exuberance. We sing, pray, share food and are called to take that excitement into the world.

It lasts until we reach the parking lot. All the love and good-will gets sucked out of most people as quickly as the darkness of Mordor overcomes all but the purest of heart because it takes an extra seven minutes to get home.

Washing the feet of others in loving service, we embrace. Letting someone back out of their spot and get one full car length ahead of us? Well, let's not put words into Jesus's mouth and proclaim he meant for charity and service to extend that far.

That is assuming we let our rejoicing reach the parking lot. Instead of praising God for calling all his children home to worship on these most special of occasions (a priest friend reminded me many times there is grace in showing-up; don't be stingy with the grace and mercy of God, He's not) we get frustrated that our regular spot is taken, that people are still responding, "And also with you," and there are so many children with their "NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE*" Bonus points to readers who recognize the quote without looking at the footnote.

Bloggers are abuzz this week talking about noisy children at Mass. Who knew it could be such a polarizing issue? Me. My wife and I have experienced first-hand the scorn of people that don't appreciate sitting near four children.

Oh, we have stories. But first, let me make a few points:
  • We sit in the second or third row every week. Have for years. Even when we moved parishes we found a nice comfy spot right in front of the alter so our kids can see what's going on. Call me crazy, but I think it's easier to teach children about something if they can actually see it.
  • There are different kinds and levels of noise children make. Babies babble. Kids ask questions and don't always whisper. There's the occasional fight over who sits where or who had what book first. Our three-year-old blurts out, "I have to go pee!" because she seems to have some weird fascination with public washrooms. And, the odd time there is inconsolable crying that requires my wife take me out in respect for people that appreciate having their eardrums intact.
  • Kids aren't the only people that make noise during Mass. People clear their throat. The old guy with the hankie honks when he blows his nose. It can sound like drums when people slam their hymnal down. All can be distracting, but are considered "normal" sounds at Mass.
  • My children are baptized members of this community and are subject to the same privileges, rights and responsibilities as everyone else. 
  • I consider the crying room, or play room, nothing short of a ghetto that segregates vital members of the parish family. I do think a temporary space to take that screaming child is required, and I'm thankful we have one. But how did that noble concept ever gain traction and become incorporated into construction plans? Did the conversation go something like, "Hey, we really need to get more families coming to church. What can we do?" "I know, let's shove them into an isolation chamber and put toys in there so the kids never want to leave!" "We better pump some sound in there on the cheapest Radio Shack speakers we can find so parents feel welcome and connected to the liturgy." "Perfect! And that will help catechise the children and get them used to the idea of living their baptismal call."
Back to the stories. Most recently, my wife was given the evil eye by a woman in front of us when our 20-month-old daughter cried. My wife felt extremely uncomfortable, and being a sensitive woman (is that redundant?) she was on the verge of tears.

The very next week, I was reading a Bible story to our three-year-old before Mass, and the woman in front of me (not the same one that glared at my wife) turned to me, rosary in hand, and said, "Do you mind. I'm praying, and your reading is distracting me."

It's not often I'm lost for words, but I didn't know how to respond. Over the next several days I came up with all sorts of witty, yet charitable, zingers. But at that moment all I could muster was, "OK. I understand," and went back to quietly reading to my daughter. The woman left. I assumed she simply relocated, but she returned with reinforcements, who didn't seem at all perturbed by the sight or sound of a father reading Bible stories inside a church.

"Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more." (Rom 5:20)

The same week my wife was scolded, a woman behind us had her arms out while praying the Our Father. Our youngest, now calmed down, took the familiar gesture as an offer to get picked-up and held. The woman graciously obliged, picked her up and held her the rest of Mass.

For every negative encounter, I can recall several positive ones. There are the nuns that sat behind us at our former parish who would make faces and play peek-a-boo with the kids to keep them occupied. There was the couple who hadn't yet been able to see their grandchild born in Australia so cuddled our baby, who was about the same age, during the whole Mass. There are the teenage girls who just love to hold babies. And there are the priests and other parishioners who make a concerted effort to comment "how wonderful your children are" and they are "so happy to see young families at church." And perhaps the sweetest consolation is the fact that more young families with babies have gathered in the front few pews in the past few weeks. Look out cranky people, we're taking over the joint.

We are all members of this wonderful community, this family we call Church. We all bring our idiosyncrasies and isms, our personalities and experiences, and that’s what makes the Church so wonderfully alive and vibrant. I love the readings from the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season that drive home the importance of community, togetherness and unity among followers of Christ (cf Acts 4:32).

Our God is a kind God, and He wants us to exhibit the same kindness. He is a loving God, and He wants us to embrace and share that love. He is a big God who can't be bound by the artificial limits we place on His love and mercy because of our own preconceived notions of where and how to practice virtue—and that even includes parking lots and church pews.

Join the converstation. I'd love to hear your stories.

* The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss


  1. I am a Sister who sits behind families and make faces to entertain children...ahem... or me :( thanks for the great post!!!

    1. That's awesome! Think of the ripple effect of that simple interaction: it helps parents feel comfortable, it makes the kids feel welcome and it may even open kids' minds to a religious vocation because they see you as "normal" and even fun.

  2. I'm a mother of three young ones, 5, 3, and 6 months, and we also sit in the front. We've received a fair amount of negative comments, but also positive ones. I try to pray for God to bless the ones who are annoyed, and I know they don't know that my youngest is in pain (gallstones) and doesn't normally comfort nurse due to reflux and tongue & lip ties (they've been clipped, but it's still a bit of work for him). Even though the most vocal complainer knows about the gallstones, it isn't obvious that he's in pain unless you see him all the time. And of course they don't realize the 3-year-old is having a hard time not having my attention. It can be hard.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. I pray your fellow parishioners become quicker to ask how they can help instead of vocalize their displeasure. Persevere and know there is huge grace for you and your children. And you never know, maybe the Big Guy is working on the vocal complainers and silent grumblers too--we have faith and hope he is always working on all of us.