Monday, 21 January 2008

Feed my lambs

Never let it be said that New Man is henpecked, but some of our conversations turn out to be a little short. Like this one, last Sunday:

New Man: "I suppose if we have children, we'll have to think about what is the appropriate age for them to start going to Mass with us."

Me (looking at him as if he's just grown an extra head): "From birth. Obviously."

New Man: "Oh... Right... OK."

So, let's be fair to New Man here. My nephews and nieces have all been taken to Mass from birth, as were my brothers and sisters and I. It seems a no-brainer to me. But obviously for some people, even people who really believe and are good Catholics, it isn't. So I need to look at the arguments.

They don't get anything out of it, because they don't understand what's going on. You can take them when they're old enough to understand.

But we do all sorts of things with babies before they can understand. We sing songs to them, talk to them, read them stories. Research has shown that you could read random lists of nonsense words, newspaper reports or even the draft of your biochemistry PhD thesis to them, and babies would enjoy hearing your voice just as much. But we don't - we read them stories and repeat rhymes and tell them what we're doing, and that's how they learn language. A child who is never exposed to language won't learn to talk.

So how do we expect them to figure out what Mass is all about if we never expose them to it? Sure, they won't understand at first. They might even learn to join in with some of the prayers and responses without having a clue what they mean. But gradually, it sinks in, as we tell them to watch what Father is doing, as we point out Jesus above the altar and the statue of Jesus' Mummy, as they learn to connect the bedtime prayers we say with them to the prayers that the family of God is saying together in church. They learn their religion as they learn everything else in early childhood - through experience, practice, a bit of loving explanation, a bit of watching others.

They don't know how to keep quiet, and they disturb other people.

A toddler who is learning to feed himself can be pretty messy. He might throw food on the floor, smear it over his head, bother other diners with his lack of table manners. Does that mean you never let him eat until he can do it tidily? No, he needs the opportunity to practise his hand-eye co-ordination and to experience how the food feels in his hands, on his spoon and in his mouth. Similarly, children learn to sit still and listen by doing it, and until they've learnt that, a couple of special quiet toys or books can help when they start to get restless.

Babies and toddlers can be noisy at times - but Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me". Now, I admit that I'm not always as tolerant as I should be of disruptions in church - I sometimes find the behaviour of some parents and older children fairly intolerable. But if I can't ignore the babbling of a baby or a little bit of wriggling from a toddler, maybe I need to take a good look at myself and think about whether I'm really concentrating on my prayer, or whether I'm too busy judging other people to understand what I'm really there for.

OK, I've seen the argument used in a slightly different way by a mother of five who taught her children that going to Mass was a privilege which they had to earn by proving that they could sit still, keep quiet and not disturb others. In some ways, this is great - to her children, Mass was a treat and a reward. But... God came to call sinners, and might it not be the case that the naturally exuberant and boisterous child can benefit from trying to stay still and listen for an hour or so, even if he can't quite manage it? And might it not also be the wrong message to give the child, implying that they won't be welcome at God's house if they haven't been good enough?

We don't have children yet, but I can't see my mind being changed on this. If I believe in God, and if I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, how can I deprive my children of the chance to develop a relationship with God and begin to develop a spiritual life of their own from the earliest possible opportunity?


Colleen said...

Great post! These are my thoughts exactly. We've always taken our kids to church with us, usually for the first time within about a week of birth.

Beth said...

Yay I missed your blog :)

We always take Madeleine, since the very beginning. During the consecration I always point up to the altar and tell her that Jesus is there. When I carry her up to communion I always tell her that the priest is going to bless her and we're going to go see Jesus. She even raises her hands during the Our Father and waves at everyone at the sign of Peace. She's learning already.

One of my friends who is pregnant with her 8th child, tells her kids when she takes them to Mass that if they are disrespectful and misbehave during Mass, they would have to stay and try again at the next mass. She told me she only had to stay one time. I think I'll use that when the time comes :)

newhousenewjob said...

Ooh, I like that idea, Beth! :¬)

Ambrose said...

Welcome back. I never even took you off my google reader:-)

I prefer to take my son to Mass rather than miss him all through Mass. Does that sound cheesy. However, I rarely take him to adoration or rosary/benediction, and Triduum he sometimes stays behind.

gemoftheocean said...

I agree, right from the start as soon as the child is safe enough where their immune system is built a little bit. I.E. If there are colds going around you don't want everyone breathing on a "just out of the chute" baby.

And go for teaching them prayers "they won't understand." They'll come to understand them if you teach them. Parents who make the mistake of waiting until the kid is 4 or 5 or 6 have waited too long. Mass needs to be incorporated and infused in them ASAP. Sure, those two year olds can sometimes "Get to ya" but if you sit near enough the door so if they happen to get very naughty at that age, you can take them out for a bit. Everybody understands or should.

And you're right, a little fussing is no big deal.

Abrose, I do hope you reconsider taking your kids to benediction. It's not that long and kids are attracted by the "Bells and smells" sort of thing. It's lovely.


Ma Beck said...

I'm with y'all, except one very small point of Kar's - immune, schimune.

Mary was at Mass a few days after birth, being hugged and kissed by every blue hair and small child in Chicago.
She has only had one illness, and it was a very minor cold.
And she wasn't even breastfed.
I guess the Good Lord gave her extra strong white blood cells.

"Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them."

Children who don't go to Mass til they're 2 will be hellions in church, guaranteed.

You take that baby and to heck with anyone who sneers at you. (Oh, yes, some will give you dirty looks. Whatever.)