My first preparations to be a parent at Mass began ten years ago. I was living in Jamaica in a rural mountain town helping the diocese with teaching at the parish and school. Mass was absolutely beautiful. I adjusted quickly the to change in worship style and music. One thing that took longer was the constant movement and chaos during Mass.
There were kids everywhere – tons of commotion, distractions galore, and I never really got a silent moment during Mass to pray and meditate. It was just the area and the culture and it was completely ordinary to the parishioners. For me, the foreigner, it was Mass culture shock.
I did eventually adjust and learn to pray deeply amidst the visual and audio noise around me. And some of those Masses remain some of my most treasured memories.
Little did I know ten years later I’d be a mother of three, almost four, children, wading my way through my own sort of chaos at Mass.
The reality is as much as parents want well behaved children at Mass (or anywhere), short of physically forcing them to act certain ways, there is only so much we can do. We form, teach, model, and encourage. But ultimately, they are their own person.
I know all the “tricks” – sit near the front so they can see, go right after a meal time so they aren’t hungry, prepare them beforehand prayerfully, work on good manners at home, prep them (or bribe them) to sit through Mass, etc etc etc etc. But you know what? They are still their own person.
So sometimes, all three just aren’t going to be on the exact same schedule or mood for me to plan perfectly. And there’s only so many Mass times to go around for me to get that sweet spot every Sunday.
Thanks to my mission experience, I learned long before motherhood that Mass isn’t about me – it’s not a self oriented time of worship. There may always be things I have a personal like or distaste for (the music, the smell of cologne on the man in front of me, the cleanliness of the pews, the homily, the servers, etc.) And there may be things I really love (the musicians, the priest, the stain glass, etc.) But ultimately, the Mass is about the Eucharist. It’s about Jesus more than anything around me. And while some of these do need to be done well to enhance worship or to make sure the Mass is valid, we are all still there for one purpose: to worship the Lamb.
When people begin pointing out how those around them are “doing” Mass wrong (families with loud kids, elderly making comments to loud families, teens checking their phones) and complain to anyone who will listen, it creates division. There’s no charity when we start picking apart those we are meant to worship together with.
You know that catchy song (that’s way overplayed), “they’ll know we are Christians by our love (by our love!)”? When I witness people going on and on about how one person made them feel unwelcome or read articles about how parents are doing such a poor job at preparing kids to be quiet during Mass, I just keep thinking of that song. I feel like we sometimes do a good job at this revision of the song … “yes they’ll know we are Christians by our contempt!”
The truth is, I can’t control the parishioners around me. If I see something truly sacrilegious or wrong, it’s my responsibility to do the appropriate thing (alert an usher, talk to the priest after Mass, etc). But when it comes to things that really annoy me, it’s just not my job to do anything at all about it. Except maybe pray – for patience and for the person I find bothersome.
When we start spewing our opinions on things, we stop loving those around us and truly trying to understand them. It’s always a challenge when we feel we are right, but our charity needs to trump our preferences. Especially when it comes to the Mass – aren’t we all there for the same reason anyway? Let’s stay on the same side, shall we?
It helps me remember that if God wanted me to teach someone a lesson, He would open that door. Taking time to turn and glare at someone at Mass is not that door. And neither is letting my kid hit the pew in front of him over and over to teach granny a lesson.
So, will they know we are Christians by how we treat each other at Mass and how we speak of other parishioners outside of Mass? You decide. As for me, I’m just trying to remember what St. Josemaria Escriva said when people get under my skin: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.'”