2 November 2007
Have you ever attended Mass in a big parish such as ours (Ss Peter and Paul) and felt insignificant, as though you were just one among many? Have you ever wondered if anyone at all was even aware that you were in the parish?
There’s a sure and certain way to solve this problem and ensure that all around you note your every coming and going: bring preschoolers to Mass with you! Many years ago, as a young newlywed, I joined a parish in Adelaide, but after several, isolated years I was not sure that anyone in the parish was aware I existed.
When we moved to Lower Hutt six years ago, however, there was no way to fade into the background, not with two (soon three) very noticeable wee ones accompanying me every week!
Initially it was very daunting: how would I manage every week to keep control of my very active little ones all by myself (my husband is not Catholic and doesn’t attend with us) and still participate in Mass? Would we be shunned by all and sundry? Would I be locked into the crying room for the next six years, until our youngest was ready to attend school?
This led to the question of whether I should even try? Should I leave the children at home with my husband until they were old enough to behave?
This wouldn’t have worked for us though. I believe that being Catholic is more than following the rules and knowing the doctrine. It’s about belonging to a community of believers.
I believe that for my children to feel that sense of belonging, it is important for them to be a physical part of the community, not occasional visitors.
I wanted them to have a sense that attending Mass was something we all did, every week and that this is a place that we all belong, not just the grownups.
If they believed that Mass was optional when they were two or three or six years old, why not when they’re 12, or when it’s raining, or when it’s just so much easier to stay home in bed on a Sunday morning? So for me the easiest choice was the simplest—we all go, every week.
But how to manage it? Our children are what people today like to call ‘spirited’. There were definitely weeks when I interpreted that as ‘possessed by evil spirits’, particularly when screams interrupted the consecration or an unsuspecting parishioner got a water bottle’s contents down the neck.
I had strategies galore. The world’s largest supply of religious children’s books accompanies us every week. There was a point when none of the children could last an hour without something to eat, so I (guiltily conscious of the new carpet) ensured that we always had chopped up apples (no crumbs!) and water bottles with us.
I reluctantly decided not to use the crying room or take them outside (lest it be seen as rewarding misbehaviour), but I gave rewards for good behaviour, distracted and interrupted potential scenes, watched them like a hawk, chased them, picked the best seats (far enough back to be discreet, but with quick exits available when nappy changes were needed), whispered a running commentary (‘Listen for the bell’) encouraged them to join in the singing, and in occasional desperation used the stroller to keep at least one of them immobile, while I chased, fed, cajoled, threatened, changed or searched for the other(s).
Most weeks, attending Mass was not exactly what one would call a spiritual experience. The truly spiritual experience for us was experiencing the love of our wonderful parish while this was going on. In nearly six years of coming every week I have had exactly one negative experience, someone sniffing in disdain and moving away to a more civilised spot. Every single other experience I have had with parishioners involved support and caring and encouragement. We were made to feel that our proper place was right where we were – in the midst of everyone. On the most dreadful weeks, when I felt utterly humiliated and wondered why I was even trying this hopeless task, without exception someone would stop me after Mass and tell me ‘how wonderful’ it was that I was bringing the children to Mass so faithfully – a gesture that nearly brought me to tears after some memorable Masses. I can’t think of a more potent example of God’s grace in action than the kindness of these people.
Through it all, the children have learned and grown in their faith and their sense of belonging here. They joyfully go for their blessings or to Communion, they sing, they listen, and they participate. They see our church as a place for them, where they belong and are welcome.
This is a gift to them that no money could buy, and I hope that that their sense of having found a spiritual home lasts them a lifetime.
First published in CrossWords, the newsletter of Ss Peter and Paul