A huge thank you to Michele for writing this guest post for me while we are still settling in to our new home! And it's on a topic that is so important to me - taking my little one to Mass. Michele has a book with tips for teaching the faith to the little children and I can't wait to snag a copy for my own little family. Oh, and Michele just had a new, sweet baby girl, so you should definitely hop over to her blog to say, "Congratulations!" (After you read this post, of course.)
Hi, friends! And thanks to Mandi for letting me spend some time with you all!
I wanted to share with you something near and dear to my heart and yours - some thoughts on getting through Sunday Mass with little ones.
But first, I want to share with you a story from long before I became a mother.
The summer before I married my husband, I got a grant to return to a place that is near and dear to my heart. Misericordia is a residential community that serves a large number of people with varying degrees of disability. The work I did there that summer was primarily ministry work - starting up some Bible Study groups, doing mini-retreats with the residents, etc. My favorite part of my work, though, was the Sacramental preparation that I got to do.
One of the young men that I had the privilege of preparing for the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confirmation, was a teenager with very severe disabilities. We’ll call him “Francis,” since that was his Confirmation name. :-) Francis was in his late teens, in a wheelchair, mostly blind, mostly non-verbal (I think he could say, “Yeah,” and make various noises, but he couldn’t really talk), and had severe mental disabilities. We spent time together, each week, in the chapel in his residence, preparing to receive Jesus and the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
As you can imagine, preparing Francis to receive these Sacraments required me to have an entirely different mindset about Sacramental preparation and catechesis. Yes, when we sat together in the chapel, I would talk to him about the Scriptures behind the Sacraments (i.e. the Last Supper and Pentecost) and we would talk about how the bread became the Body of Christ, and how in Confirmation he would receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I did teach him all these basic catechetical facts. But, as you can imagine, I knew that with no possible way of getting feedback from him, I couldn’t rely on words alone to teach him.
So, I made our time together in the chapel special and set apart from the rest of his day. I had soft music playing when we entered the chapel together, and we always started our time together praying before Jesus in the tabernacle. You see, that was my greatest strategy with Francis - just putting him in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. I knew that I could teach him an awful lot, but I also knew he couldn’t understand everything I taught him. Where I lacked, Jesus would fill in.
The day of his First Communion and Confirmation arrived. I had been rehearsing receiving the Eucharist with him by giving him small pieces of unconsecrated host (because he had some oral issues, too), and explaining to him that when he received Jesus it would taste like that, but it wouldn’t be bread - it would be Jesus. Judging from his disgusted looks when he received mere bread from me, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The moment of his First Communion arrived. The priest gave him a small particle of Jesus. This normally serious looking young guy looked startled for a second and then...he smiled. It was a full, genuine look of joy. Nothing external prompted it either...it had to have been the fact that the Jesus who he had come to know during his times in the chapel had finally entered him and filled him with his infinite Love.
Fast forward a few years and my husband and I had our first little girl. As babies and toddlers go, she wasn’t (and isn’t) all that bad at Mass. Yes, she has her phases of misbehavior, and yes, she is not perfectly quiet or still during every Mass. Yes, I have had many Mass experiences with her where I inwardly cringe as I envision what the other people at our church must be thinking about her and her parents.
BUT I also keep in mind what Francis taught me.
Yes, I want my little girl to know how to behave at Mass (and she actually has made great strides in that area). Yes, I want her to learn about her faith, and to learn how to pray (including learning by rote the prayers we all learn in the course of our catechesis). But I want something more for her - a real love for Jesus and His Church. I want her to see Mass as a place where she comes to be with Jesus and know His love. Of course I try to get her to pay attention at Mass and behave properly (and we’re super blessed because she really does most of the time at this point!). But, more than that, I want her to desire Jesus and to long for Him. I want her to experience His love in a concrete way.
So with Francis in mind, I’ve altered how I correct her at Mass, and how I treat her. There were many Masses in her earlier days when I was just so frustrated with her - and it showed. I focused on my disappointment over her behavior (we’re talking about a one year old, here...) and wondered if she’d ever learn to behave at Mass. But slowly, that shifted. I began to see Mass as a time when my husband and I could model good behavior for her and lay out some basic, general rules to follow (i.e. don’t crawl around on the floor, no talking other than praying or occasional whispering to Mommy and Daddy, etc.). But beyond those basic rules- I just decided to love her, and to consciously place her in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Of course I teach her about her faith. (Between her dad and I we’ve got four degrees in theology and he’s working on adding a fifth one to our total...so we are pretty big on catechesis in our family!) Of course she is beginning to learn the basics. But I try not to get frustrated with her tuning in and out of Mass, needing to move and wiggle, occasionally forgetting herself and talking during consecration (okay, maybe more than occasionally), etc. etc. Instead, I focus on holding her tenderly and with love, modeling the love of Christ for her. I want Mass to be a place that she knows will be safe - a place where she must behave, but a place where she learns to behave so that she can come to know the peaceful stillness that only Christ’s love can bring to her little heart.
So practically, what do I do? I pass on my own immense love for Jesus in the Eucharist by talking to her about Him a lot, and by also making a point of teaching her to pray to Jesus who “loves her and is always there for her, waiting in the tabernacle.” After Communion, I tell her that Jesus is inside of me, and tells her that He is close to my heart because I love Him so much. I’ve taught her to tell Him that she loves Him each time she comes to Mass (and even to blow Him a kiss!). During the Mass, her dad and I try to keep our corrections gentle but firm. We both try to stay as calm as we can (not that we always succeed) to model for her the kind of calmness and quiet we must have at Mass. And when all else fails, we hold her - but we hold her with a lot of affection and tenderness. (We DO take her out if her misbehavior is disruptive and she needs to calmed down...but thankfully those times are pretty rare as she gets older. No worries...her new little baby sister will be throwing us for a loop as soon as she’s born!) Now, undoubtedly, that won’t work for every kid (my goddaughter comes to mind, little spark plug that she is!) but the key is finding some way to give your child a taste of God’s love at Mass. It may just be in trying to curb your frustration over their misbehavior so you can model God’s patience to them. It may be in holding them and giving them some extra attention. This will look different for every child.
The bottom line is, though - it’s not all on you. Even if you are frustrated and worn out during Mass with littles, you must not lose sight of the one thing you ARE doing right. You are putting them in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. And ultimately, over time, He can and will work more on their hearts than you ever could. Just as he did with Francis.
So, each time you go to Mass, rather than fretting about your ability to control your little crazy ones, focus on giving them to the care of Jesus in the Eucharist. Do your best to patiently and gently correct and re-direct them, but know that ultimately it isn’t about what you do. It’s about what He does, working in their little hearts. By bringing even your littlest ones to be with Him, week after week (and even weekday after weekday!), you are doing far more than you know. Keep up the good work!
If you’d like to hear even more thoughts (from me and another mom of little ones!) on surviving these early years with your littles, please check out my latest book! You can pick up a copy of Faith Beginnings from Liguori's website, Amazon, and hopefully soon at a Catholic bookstore near you!
Michele is the wife of a Ph.D student and mother to two precious little girls. In her spare time, she enjoys writing books for Liguori publications, where you can find her newest book, Faith Beginnings, a guide for parents raising their littlest ones in the faith. She blogs over at My Domestic Monastery, where she chronicles the daily rhythms of raising little ones in the faith and growing in the married vocation.