Small children are engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to distract us during Mass. They wave at me during the opening procession. They sing the Agnus Dei with extreme enthusiasm and drown out the nearby adults, the babies loudly cheer during the homily. I love it. At Epiphany Parish in south St. Louis, the pews are overflowing with kids. These pint-size Catholics happily wiggle and pray right along with parishioners of all ages. I don’t truly believe they’re conspiring against us, but it’s true that keeping children participating with the adults can be a challenge.
We take Mass seriously. We challenge the children to make the faith their own, to learn the Latin parts, sing well, serve at the altar and become lectors. We do some things that appeal to them specifically, yes, and it’s a proven fact that kids love the sensible aspects of worship — incense, beautiful vestments, bells, chanting. These are the stuff of a kid-friendly Mass, creating a fully immersive experience.
It’s rare, but occasionally someone will question having children with us during Mass, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to leave them at a children’s church and retrieve them after Mass is over (a far different idea than giving children their own Liturgy of the Word). If I had space, I’d talk about how important family is, how turning Mass into a professional worship experience or a lecture from a priest is a mistake and how developing patience with children is good for us.
That doesn’t quite get to the point, though. It isn’t as if adults are so generous that we allow youngsters to participate in their imperfect way. What I’m saying is that children are the best at attending Mass. They notice everything. They engage in the awe and wonder of worship. During Mass, they murmur approvingly at the consecration of the Host and point out the priest while exclaiming to their younger siblings, “Jesus is here!” Wonder is the beginning of wisdom, and children have it in spades. Perhaps this is why the first prayer a priest traditionally says quietly at the foot of the altar is, “I shall go up to the altar of my youth.” He’s reminding himself to stay young.
Mass is the family of God kneeling together at the foot of the cross. We look at Jesus together and make space in our hearts for Him. We make ourselves a gift of love to Him. It’s as if we’re peering over the ledge of a mysterious and deep well. We cannot see the bottom and we struggle to explain it’s source, but as we drink it nourishes us nonetheless. The Mass comes to us like a ladder lowered from heaven or a gate ripped through the fabric of the universe. We do not make it. It makes us. If we have the attitude of small children, a sense of wonder and excitement, we might participate better.
Little kids belong at Mass, and so do the rest of us.
Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.