Ours is a house divided. By which I mean my wife takes the girls to Mass on Sunday and I take John-Jo to Saturday vigil. It’s not ideal. The family that prays together stays together and all that. But in a society where Sunday mornings represent prime recreational real estate, it’s a choice faced by many Catholics. Put simply, if our son wanted to play rugby for his local team, it was Sunday mornings or nothing.
There are compensations. I enjoy the chance to sit companionably with a boy who, with five older sisters, sometimes struggles to be heard. It’s also a relief not to experience Mass as an exercise in crowd control. For years the finer points of liturgy have come second to the suppression of squawks, guffaws, shrieks and tears. “Offer it up,” my wife would mutter as one of our toddlers hurled a chewed biscuit/car key over the balcony onto the congregation below.
Four of our girls are now in their teens, so the pew hooliganism has stopped. It’s been replaced by sulks and stares interspersed by occasional flashes of humanity. In short, I have the better Mass run.
All of us can sometimes be reminded how hard being a parent of young children in church can be. Recently I saw a parish priest forced to gently upbraid a parishioner whose toddlers were running amok. The poor mum, on her own, had two youngsters who were ventilating their lungs with brio. It was one of those situations where, just as she seemed to have pacified them, a new and higher pitch was attained at a moment in the Mass most apt to reverence and silence.
I don’t think the mother was from Britain, and those ever-so-English inflexions of the head, designed to communicate disapproval without melodrama, were a signal too subtle to be translated by a parent preoccupied with the interception of chewed biscuits/car keys.
A decade ago at an English-speaking Mass in Brussels I witnessed an American priest chastise his flock for “tutting at noisy children”, who were, he reminded us, the future. It continues to be a vexed question and not one, I think, inspiring an easy answer. All I would say is that, in a culture where Sunday mornings are no longer ring-fenced for faith, some parents cannot always attend the more “family friendly” services. I do have a choice.
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