Catholic Activity: Taking Children to Mass
Newland advises that parents bring their children to Mass from a very early age.
There is no hard-and-fast rule about the minimum age at which to start taking children to Mass. I remember when I was very little going to Mass in a town along the Mexican border where the mothers brought their babies with them, set them in the aisle, and Mass was heard over a chorus of howls, chirps, and yammers. No one seemed to mind the noise, nor the puddles in the aisle afterwards. If you want to start your small fry when he is six months old, there is plenty of precedent.
North of the border, unaccustomed as we are to babies in the aisle, I personally believe that the temperament of a child is the determining factor. A tranquil baby can attend from infancy, disturb no one, and absorb much that will contribute to his growing affection for the Mass. A volatile child can be a scourge, not only to his parents and those around him, but especially to the priest who, for all he loves little children, is duty bound to get the announcements, the Gospel and the sermon across to his parishioners. This is the child who is better off waiting it out a while at home.
There is one reason for not taking a child to Mass which is no reason at all, and that is the high-sounding dodge that it doesn't make sense to take them until they can understand what is going on. How are they to learn if they don't go? Most children should be going by four, and all, it seems to me, by five.
When to start taking them is not the important issue. It is the assumption that anywhere from three to five to even ten years will have to be spent in quiet and unenlightened attention that is the great mistake. Even before they can read, children can be given a sense of the Mass, a rough knowledge of its form, and become as intelligent participants in the offering of it as many adults — more so, in some cases.
As a prayer ending in sacrifice, what the Mass contains is merely an elaboration of the four principles involved in a child's daily prayer: contrition, petition, offering, and thanksgiving. None of these ideas is over his head. If he has had any spiritual training at all, they ought to be quite familiar ideas. Helping him attend Mass intelligently is a matter of applying these familiar relationships to God and pointing out that the priest and the rest of the people are doing the same. From that point of view, the Mass is no longer a mystery. It is a form of prayer, the kind that gives God the highest praise it is possible to give. And in its simplest terms it says: "I am sorry," and "Please, will You . . ." and "I offer You," and "I thank You."
All this explaining, of course, should be done at home. At best, however, home study cannot substitute for being there; so it is inevitable that there be some whispering between parent and child at Mass. For this reason it is best to get nicely settled in the front pew. The view is unimpeded, distractions are at a minimum, and the rest of the people are least apt to be disturbed.
For little ones who are really too small, a Mass book (and not the kind with pictures showing the priest doing what looks like the same thing on every page) and a nodding acquaintance with the statues, the pictures on the windows, the symbols in the decoration, will help keep them occupied. Since satisfactory Mass books are sometimes hard to come by, if you cannot find one that suits, it is best to make one yourself with the children's help. A small album or notebook with holy pictures that symbolize what is going on is fun to make and will teach them at the same time. The more fun a thing is, the more it will teach.
Then there are the usual instructions about behavior at Mass. My own technique inclines to firmness. I am about as thick-skinned as any mother around, and can take plenty of distraction; but carrying on at Mass has nothing to do — at least not in the first place — with distraction. Mass is a solemn and holy occasion, and I think it is extremely important that children learn right from the start that they are to face the altar at all times, keep their feet still, and pay attention. I was briefing Peter, at three, about "no talking out loud," and failed to point out the one outstanding exception. He reminded me, loudly, from the front seat: "Father Burke is talking."
Though the Mass is the most formal kind of worship, it must be kept as informal as possible for a child, with constant reminding that Jesus Who is in the Tabernacle is the same Jesus Who is with him all day long. The chattier the relationship with God, the better; so let their greeting to Him when they arrive at church be reverently (though not audibly) chatty. You even have to tell them what to say in the beginning. Something like "Dear Blessed Jesus, I am so glad to be here, and I love You so much. Please help me to offer the Mass nicely."
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961