On January 26, Fr. Michael White of Nativity Church in Timonium, Maryland wrote an article entitled: “Why We Don’t Encourage (Little) Kids in Church.” I first encountered this line of argument in Fr. White’s book, written with Mr. Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt. While Rebuilt has a few good ideas to offer, it is almost entirely out of step with Catholic Tradition and will lead to the emptying and/or Protestantization of Catholicism in America, in my estimation.
In this article, I want to offer two things. First, I want to share a beautiful paragraph from Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s latest letter Complete My Joy on the family and parenthood. Then, I will go through Fr. White’s article paragraph by paragraph offering my commentary. His words will be in blue and mine in black. If, somehow, Fr. White finds his way to my site, I welcome him to write me a response.
So, first, from Bishop Olmsted: “You, Mom and Dad, have the God-given gift and responsibility of exercising authority in service of your children (Complete My Joy, 42).” He goes on to say very strongly and beautifully: “Your domestic church, as you continue to grow, educates your children powerfully. This begins when families introduce their young children to Jesus in the Eucharist. I want to especially encourage you to bring your young children to Mass. Your presence is wanted and needed among us in the family of the Church. While the squirming or crying of children may seem bothersome, these certainly do not block your reception of God’s grace. “If the Church is not crying, it is dying.” Present at Mass during these early years, your children are learning the rhythm of relationship with the Lord and His Church (Complete My Joy, 81).”
Now, for my response to Fr. Michael White. His full article can be found here.
This Sunday brings one of my favorite readings from one of my favorite books of the Bible. We are looking at a passage from Nehemiah, which is all about rebuilding.
Nehemiah gets permission from the king of Persia to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls around the city, which were broken and a source of disgrace. The passage we’re looking at takes place after the walls had been rebuilt. It describes a celebration of the achievement.
The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem was certainly a fantastic thing after the long Babylonian Captivity. Jerusalem had been sitting in ruins. And now, the people were able to start coming back home. Though, many of the Jews had remained in Babylon at that time. The enterprise of rebuilding the burned city would have been arduous and not many wanted to expend that much energy. However, the ones that did return were full of enthusiasm. They wanted to rebuild the Temple.
I have to wonder though if Fr. White understands the real meaning of Ezra and Nehemiah, or, rather, the consequences of the People of God’s continued infidelity and reliance on their own power and understanding. A lack of trust in God and a reliance on human power and understanding led to the Babylonian Captivity, and though the Temple would be rebuilt in the return from exile, it would never be the same. The Ark of the Covenant was gone. The Holy of Holies was empty.
The work of Ezra was to restore a true practice of the Law. He saw that the Israelites had begin marrying pagan women and ordered them to depart, lest the cycle of infidelity begin again. The whole success of the rebuilding and restoration depended on keeping Israel free from pagan entanglements.
With the Temple rebuilt and the walls restored, all that was left was a reclamation of tradition and faithful practice of religion.
Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women and those children old enough to understand. Nehemiah 8
I have nothing against the New American Bible, but the Revised Standard Version is much closer to the sources, and it reads in this way: “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:1-3).”
Pay attention to the language, in context. As a side note, one of Dr. Scott Hahn’s favorite expressions is this: a text without context is pretext for a prooftext. And Fr. White is prooftexting here to serve his own purposes. First, of all, he bolds the phrase “those children old enough to understand,” which is actually not present in the RSV. Regardless, if we look in the next line, it is clear that the author is showing that the men, women, and childre who are able to understand are the ones who are most “attentive to the book of the law.” What this passage does not show is who exactly is present. In fact, I would argue that it does implicitly show that young children are present. Literally everyone is gathered together in the assembly, meaning that there is no one at home to watch the children, so they must be there as well.
I think the very first line of the chapter points to the reality of Mass more readily: “And all the people gathered as one man…” I do not think that it is a stretch to see this is a foreshadowing or type of the Mystical Body of Christ, gathered as members of one Body.
Ezra was a religious teacher and prophet. After the walls were rebuilt, people were hungry to learn more about their Jewish heritage and faith much of which had been lost in the midst of the civil conflict that had destroyed the walls. So he reads the Scripture of the time: the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
I think this is misleading. Much of the preservation and editing of the Scriptures, an increase in oral tradition, and the like happened during the Exile. The people of God were more faithful in Exile than they had been prior. There faith was not lost, it was in many ways restored by the Exile. The book of Deuteronomy, for example, had been recovered just before the Exile and was retained during the Exile. And as far as the civil conflict with the Samaritans, this was why walls were needed, but it was not lost during this conflict. This is an example of subpar Scripture scholarship and inadequate historical understanding.
Notice that it says, “men women and children old enough to understand.” The little children and toddlers were not included because they couldn’t understand a long service intended for adults.
As I have already stated, this is a prooftext that it out of context and twisted to fit his needs. It has no bearing in reality and simply unlikely that his claim is true.
Which brings me to my point. There is something in Catholic Church culture that insists kids belong in the sanctuary for Mass. I must say I don’t totally understand it, but it is definitely a Catholic thing. Part of the thinking is that sheer exposure to the service imbues them with grace and other good things in some kind of effortless and mindless sort of way. But if they can’t understand the readings and they cannot take Communion, it is unclear what they are “receiving” Sacramentally.
First of all, some basic Catholic definitions. Back when altar rails were the norm, this would not be an issue… the sanctuary is the area where the altar is, usually raised up by three steps. The area where the people are during the liturgy is called the nave. Little children have never been expected in the sanctuary area. So, I definitely don’t understand what Fr. White is saying, nor does he, it seems.
No one is arguing that “sheer exposure” to the… service?!? Mass is not a service. It is the Son offering Himself to the Father in the Spirit, in which we internally offer ourselves as sacrifice and take part. Calling Mass a “service” is pure Protestantism and shortchanges the Mass as Sacrifice. Grace and “other good things” do flow through the Holy Mass whether we are aware or not. By being in the presence of Almighty God in the Eucharist, children do receive that grace readily by merits of their Baptism. Children recieve an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, sanctifying grace, and many other gratuitous blessings through the Sacrament of Baptism as early as a few days old.
Understanding the Readings and taking part in Communion are possibilities given the proper formation, disposition, and so forth. But, they are not requisite for being a Christian. By this line of thinking, I suppose Fr. White would also be adverse to those with mental disabilities being in Mass. Or perhaps previously baptized but uncatechized adults should not take part in the liturgy before the Act of Reception?
By being in the presence of Christ, we are transformed by that encoutner. To say that understanding is necessary for grace to be effective is neo-Gnosticism. To say that our actions are more important that what God is doing in the liturgy through imperfect human beings is neo-Pelagian. To diminish the divine in favor of a more human understanding and liturgical action is neo-Nestorian. All three tendencies run through Rebuilt. So, this article does not surprise me.
Another argument suggests that kids need to “learn the Mass” and that can only happen through physical attendance. I liken it to bringing a toddler to a lecture or presentation intended for adults, because there is information you want your kids to have. Nobody would ever do that, because it obviously wouldn’t work. They must be introduced to the information in age appropriate ways if they are to learn. Everybody knows this, and yet we ignore it in church.
Another argument suggests that kids need to “learn soccer” and that can only happen through physical practice… Like anything else in the world, we as embodied souls or ensouled bodies need the physical and spiritual. It is not enough to intellectual (spiritually) understand the Mass, we need to physically live it.
Mass is not about the homily, it is about Christ transforming us in His Spirit. It is about our becoming more like unto God. If Fr. White thinks Mass is like a lecture or a presentation intended for adults, then he needs to go back to seminary before continuing to practice the Sacraments.
If there was incense to capture the senses… if there was music to lift the soul to the heavenly and otherworldly… if there were bells to draw attention… all of these things and more engage our physical senses to train our spiritual senses. We are human beings. We encounter spiritual realities through sensible signs and symbols which become sacramental and actualized in the liturgy in a privleged way. Fr. White’s sacramental vision is very limited if he can reduce the Mass to a lecture or adult-focused presentation.
To this end, I will sometimes see a Mom sitting in the very front row with her child. The front row so the kids can “see the altar” (as if they’re looking ). Then, a tormented exercise is undertaken in which the kid, who can be distracted with Cheerios for only so long, becomes disruptive.
The only reason this is a “tormented exercise” is because Fr. White believes himself to be the focus, as seen by his desire to refer to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a lecture or presentation. Sitting in the front row is a useful strategy if there is something good, true, and beautiful to look at that is recognizable. This poor mother does need to move spots.. She needs to get up from her pew, walk out the door, and go an actually faithful Catholic Church with a priest who doesn’t see himself as a presenter. A solid Catholic liturgy engages all five senses and is something to see.
Also, who is being disrupted? Fr. White? We have children who occassionally make a caucophonic chatter, but my pastor continues on unabated because he has his focus on Jesus.
Which becomes a distraction for everyone, including liturgical ministers and the homilist. I cannot begin to tell you how incredibly difficult it is to try and preach over a crying baby.
No one is distracted by a crying baby except for a few moments. It is appropriate to take a very loud disruptive child to the narthex for a while (just to make we know the difference between a sanctuary, nave, and narthex… the narthex is the entrance way to the church that is separate from the nave itself). Also, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE notice Fr. White’s wording here. He does not say celebrant. He does not say presider. He does not say priest. He does not say minister. He says HOMILIST. Mass at Nativity is the Fr. Michael White show, by his own wording. Everyone is distracted by this dang crying baby, so they cannot hear the homily which is clearly the most important part of the Mass… okay. Fine. I’m a little fired up. But seriously, dear homilists of the world, have a little humility and know that a child being reared in the Faith by a faithful parent is more important than any words you have to say, no matter how witty or brilliant.
In this exercise the parents are fighting a losing battle, and sometimes suffer the unkind, but understandably disapproving glances of the congregation. Saddest of all is the experience for the kids themselves, which can be something approaching agony. Church can easily becomes a place they grow to hate…
They are fighting a losing battle because of misguided and unsupportive pastors. From what I have read and heard from friends, churches like Nativity, which are becoming all too common, is why church is a place that children can grow to hate. If you have beautiful and faithful liturgies and you, as a pastor, have built a community that welcomes children, then no one is suffering. At my parish, I talk to parents who are agonizing about the behavior of their children. When I talk to them, I give them advice for best practices and assure them that they are welcome, the pastor supports them, and I support them. And I foster that mentality in the other families. And we have a beautiful Family Mass at our parish with a beautiful, faithful, and engaging liturgy. The children (as young as 2nd grade) proclaim the readings, we have altar servers, the children are sacristans, the children are greeters and ushers, there is a children and teen choir, and everyone actually wants to be involved.
The losing battle is with pastors like Fr. White. Children, in general, have not changed. The entitled generations after the Great Generation have sought to ruin the Church and our society, and we can and must fight this trend.
This is why we invest in our children’s programs. We love the children of this parish so much we want them to have a great time and learn to love the Lord too, through age appropriate messages and worship. Meanwhile their parents can devote their full attention to worship.
At my parish, we invest in our children, not programs. We invest in families. We invest in empowering parents to be parents and the primary catechists of their children, as is clearly shown from the mind of the Church. We invest in the future of the Church when we invest in our children.
Parents devote their full attention to worship in giving their full attention to the great gift that God has given them: their children. The parish must support this or the Church in America will die.
If the Church is not crying, She is dying.