Non Solum: Children at Mass

The presence of children at Mass is key to their religious development and the life of the community. Unfortunately, their presence is often ignored until they become “distractions.” More can be done to engage children at Mass and to foster a community environment which contributes to their faith formation.

The Lutheran church I grew up in always provided special “worship aids” for children based on a story from the lectionary that Sunday. The “worship aids” had pictures of Jesus we could color, games we could play, and much more. It helped ensure that we were calm, quiet, and engaged. However, there were no resources to help parents begin to transition their children into celebrating the liturgy with the community. There was also nothing directed toward the community outlining their role in the formation of children in the parish.

A reader recently wrote to me concerning hospitality toward families with children:

A photo of a pew card reassuring parents that they and their children are welcome at Mass is making the rounds on Facebook and other social media.

pew card

It also offers some practical suggestions for engaging young children in the liturgy (sit up front!). We put out hymnals and worship aids for adults, but I have never been in a parish that provides age appropriate worship aids to children. Should parishes provide materials? If you do, what do you provide?”

My favorite line is: “The presence of children is a gift to the Church and they are a reminder that our parish is growing.” I wish communities would stop seeing children as a “distraction” and instead embrace them as the future of the Church.

What does your community do to foster the faith formation of children at Mass?

Please comment below.






32 responses to “Non Solum: Children at Mass”

  1. Charles Day Avatar
    Charles Day

    It is true that children are a gift to the Church, but so are old cranky people trying to participate without distraction. In my parish, with multiple Mass times, this gets sorted out:

    5:30 Saturday Vigil – mostly God’s waiting room Mass, with some young adults who want to party Saturday evening and sleep in Sunday. Just enough kids to provide servers, i. e., no small infants

    8:15 Sunday – Saturday Vigil redux; not many families with small children can get everyone ready in time

    10:00, 11:45, 6:00 Sunday – All comers especially during CCD classes, but everyone knows it ahead of time.

    With multiple Mass times you can choose when you go; in a parish with limited choices I don’t know what you do.

    1. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

      @Charles Day – comment #1:

      Having posed the question, I think I can say it’s not about amusing the children so they don’t bother other people, but about material to engage them in the celebration of the liturgy — as much their right by virtue of their baptism as it is the right of people made cranky by children at liturgy. We are called to “full, conscious, and active participation.” All of us. Not just the distracting and the distracted.

      How do we form our children so that they will be able to not just endure the liturgy, but participate in it actively and consciously? And specifically, what public steps can a parish take to help parents in this work?

  2. Mary Hess Avatar

    We invite the young children present to bring up the gifts and prepare the altar for the liturgy of the table. The youngest ones (3 year olds) come holding an adult’s hand. Sometimes there are as many as 8 or 10 kids who come forward, and their joint bow at the end of the preparation (with our priest joining them) is a joy to behold. They always come back to their families in the pews with big grins of leadership on their faces.

    1. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
      Chuck Middendorf

      @Mary Hess – comment #2:
      I completely forgot about a Benedictine parish (99% German) in the shadow of St. John’s where I used to work, where the pastor invited the kids to come (run?) up to the front with their (or their parents’) financial offering. Almost instantly, it stopped all of the squirrely unorganized bathroom runs (dozens), and other disruptions during Mass, because they had some organized running time. For the 3 through 7 year olds, it worked very well.

      And, then at an African American Catholic Church where I was later employed, crying babies were never an issue. The crying baby basically got passed around from adult to adult until the right person was found who had the special touch to calm him or her down. No crying room here–it would have been unimaginable, and insulting. A reminder to this stoic German that norms of how children should behave are cultural & local, not universal.

  3. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    Full, conscious, and active participation is the clarion call to individuals old enough to comprehend what that means. For the little ones who have not yet attained the age of reason, it is a matter of growing into this calling through the example of their parents and parishioners. We show that young children are an important part of our growing community by providing special places for them and their parents. We invite those with the smallest–and least disciplined–children to begin inside the church. We tell them that there is nothing wrong with children behaving like children, but there is also nothing wrong with teaching the virtue of consideration by moving–when necessary–to the baptisty which is separated from the sanctuary by only a glass wall. We further tell them that if the little ones need a little more space to run around, they can move out into the commons which is separated from the sanctuary and baptistry by another glass wall. There are clear sigh lines to the altar and the sound is fully available in both areas. No one has any problem with the occasional whimper or even a quick scream, but is it really a good idea for parents to allow children not yet old enough to understand to whimper/and or cry and/or scream throughout the Mass? I think there’s a healthy tension here between the needs of the elders and the needs of the little ones.
    If there’s one solution I do not favor it’s the use of smallish, smelly, noisy “cry rooms”. What a horrible place from which to attempt to offer Mass.

    1. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

      @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #5:

      Good design helps! I spent a year at a parish which repurposed an unused choir loft for families. Every seat had a great view (which helped develop attentiveness to the liturgy) and there was a quick escape route to a back room and the outside.

      Being able to see the liturgy and to watch their parents continue to celebrate (even from a distance) helps to sharpen their eyes on what is happening. And I agree with you about those cry rooms with a TV tucked into a corner with the liturgy playing in a tiny box.

      There is always a tension between the needs of everyone in the church. The man with dementia with an unfiltered comment about the homily is perhaps more of a distraction than the little one scooped up midscream and taken into the vestibule. But I think distraction-proofing the liturgy is another question.

  4. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar

    If I may make a suggestion: if parents bring toys for their children, bring quiet toys, like plush stuffed animals, rather than noisy tools, like Matchbox cars.

  5. Scott Pluff Avatar
    Scott Pluff

    What you do think of churches that offer differentiated worship experiences for children, i.e. a nursery for babies/toddlers and a children’s liturgy of the word for younger students?

    If these are done well, including elements of worship beyond “babysitting,” it can be an effective way to encourage families with young children to attend Mass.

    There are a few model families who sit up front and gradually introduce junior to the wonders of the liturgy. They are still welcome to do that. But in a typical suburban parish, the large majority of parents with young children just quit going to Mass for a few years, and may or may not return.

    If differentiating the experience for different age groups helps people to return to church, I’m for it.

  6. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

    The pastor of my worship parish has been known to say to the parents of crying children who are fleeing the sanctuary, “Wait, come back! That is how we sound to God!” Yes, sometimes the kids have to go if the crying or behavior is too intense, but in general. Having the families – not just the children – engaged is the big thing. See what is going on, hear, sing.

    That is why the aforementioned priest continually says, in regard to community life, “Jesus blessed the children and taught the adults, and we’ve been doing it backward ever since!” A bit of hyperbole, but truth in it, because if the parents are not engaged with mass, neither will kids.

    Making them feel welcome is the biggest first step and this card is great. The parish where I work is about to do these cards.

    Often people say to me, “when I was a kid, I sat still at mass.” I myself recall sitting stock still, but wanting to fuss with my little chapel veil, or turn the pages of my little white missalette,and longing for the next utterance of “et cum spirit tu tuo,” which sounded like a fun phone number to me. I was shocked to learn that churches had bathrooms, because who got up and left during mass?!

    But that was then and this is now. I don’t expect the same behavior, and as communities, we should simply welcome all – stinky, dirty, hungry, naked, and noisy. If we are pro-life and profamily, what would be the challenge of children? There should be no such thing!

  7. Scott Pluff Avatar
    Scott Pluff

    What’s to be gained from wrestling with an unruly toddler throughout the Mass? It’s a stressful experience for everyone involved including the child himself. But if that toddler can attend an age-appropriate worship service in an adjoining room, something at his level of understanding and participation, might that be better for everyone involved?

    1. Ellen Garmann Avatar
      Ellen Garmann

      @Scott Pluff – comment #10:

      To respond, respectfully, to your question: What’s to be gained from wrestling with an unruly toddler throughout the Mass?

      For the child: absorption of the words and actions of liturgy–because even if you think they aren’t paying attention, they are; showing the child that this particular activity is important to our family and we will do it together even if you protest; and that the child is important to the community now, not just when they can “contribute” or “participate meaningfully.”

      For the parent: patience; participation in the paschal mystery through self sacrifice and suffering; and joy in knowing you are doing your very best to raise your child in the catholic faith–which is the promise you made for them at baptism.

      For the community: the opportunity to see Christ in the struggling parent or toddler; practice praying through distraction; and a chance to live as part of a community that helps take care of others and offer help when needed.

      I believe that children at mass are all a matter of perspective–we all have the opportunity to choose our reaction to their presence. I don’t think that we have the luxury as a church to say that all are welcome as long as they don’t distract us, misbehave, make too much noise, smell funny, or dress inappropriately.

  8. Ginny Kubitz Moyer Avatar

    Our parish put together a Children’s Missal for use during Mass. It has the text of the Mass, as well as photos from Masses at our parish. It’s great for older kids who can read, and the fact that the photos show our altar, our priests, our community makes it all the more personal for the kids.

    1. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

      @Ginny Kubitz Moyer – comment #11:
      That sounds like a wonderful resource!

    2. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

      @Ginny Kubitz Moyer – comment #11:
      I should have read this before I mentioned the Loyola Press app- a similar idea!

    3. Tiffany Murphy Avatar
      Tiffany Murphy

      @Ginny Kubitz Moyer – comment #11:
      Is there any way I could get a copy in snail mail or electronically so I could work on something similar for my church?

  9. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

    During a catechetical conference in the spring, a sales rep from Loyola Press showed me an app that they created for autistic children. I keep thinking it could also be good for little kids, to help them learn the mass.

    Another thing, this gets away from the specific topic, but just a thought about helping kids to understand the liturgy… When my stepdaughter was 10 she announced that she wanted to be Catholic. With her mother’s blessing so to speak, I became her catechist in a special arrangement with the parish. Mass was intriguing but confusing to her, so I started to DVR the weekly diocesan broadcast of mass and would use that to help her learn. I could pause and explain the parts of the mass.This helped a great deal. Just another way to encourage parents to help their older kids grow in knowledge and faith.

    1. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

      @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #13:

      That’s another good resource to point parents to as well, Fran!

  10. Paul Fell Avatar
    Paul Fell

    To a large degree, I think the bad situations that always get discussed have more to do with the parents than the kids.

    Like many, our choir area is reinforced with hanging microphones to supplement those on the stands. When the full choir is present, the hanging mics are situated directly over the group. However, when we have a small group or maybe a single cantor, we encounter problems. Since the choir area is one place that usually has extra seating, Mass times with 20% (or greater) “chronic lateness” can fill all the way to the front of the section, thereby placing “future choir members” right under the mics. In and of itself, this doesn’t constitute an issue. However, it seems that many parents either don’t realize or choose to ignore how loud their kids really are, even when the child is screaming into a live microphone in the middle of the consecration.


    Please understand, I have no problem with kids attending Mass in the pews with their families. At the same time, I think parents need to be a little more aware of when the situation is rapidly deteriorating and take appropriate action for the good of the entire community. Yes, we should be hospitable, but hospitality should apply to everyone, not just those families with future contributors.

    Sorry if I’m grinding my axe a little to finely here.

    1. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

      @Paul Fell – comment #16:

      Hopefully a way could be found to turn off the unneeded mics? And yes, I bet beleaguered parents have no idea that their children are being amplified like this. They are looking down, at little ones, not up.

      I think we are not in the least hospitable, actually. We send message after message that you shouldn’t bring children, that if they come, this is not an activity in which they should take part: take them out, take them to the cry room, only take them to a children’s Mass, distract them with (quiet) toys, don’t bother to provide them with beautiful and worthy prayer books to help them engage with the liturgy.

      And as to why bother wrestling with a squirmy toddler. For the moment a 4 year old child leans over to whisper wonderingly in your ear at the start of the second reading (Rome? I’ve been to Rome…) and you realize that he is listening carefully. Or for the moment that a 3 year old stands up and sings Allelluia at the end of the Gospel (and keeps on singing it as her father carries her out, a process that takes roughly as long as silencing a cell phone buried in a purse).

      I wish that we could learn to be tender with each other, to encourage each other in our faith, the old and the young, alike. What would that look like in practice in a parish?

      1. Scott Pluff Avatar
        Scott Pluff

        @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #18:
        Each child is unique and has different capacities for participating in the Mass. My daughter who just turned 4 can attend to parts of the liturgy, especially the music and processions. She has a good attention span and can maintain some decorum for an hour, it’s been months since we’ve had to take her out. But her same-aged cousin, a boy, is far more rambunctious and is likely to be climbing the walls after 3 minutes. Different children, different personalities.

        I worry for those parents who have rambunctious children. For them, is attending Mass marked as a stressful experience? Is the child really learning to participate in the Mass, or to sit still and be silent under the threat of punishment when they get home? If the child is not ready, able or interested in the liturgy, is there nothing we can offer them?

      2. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

        @Scott Pluff – comment #19:
        I have children, I come from a large family, and I grasp that children differ in their ability to attend to things. I think I am resisting the binary option – all in or all out, particularly the notion that a child must do it as an adult does, or not at all. I agree with you, we aren’t offering them much of anything!

        No age appropriate missals out? When a new church is built, do we make sure that there is a space where children and parents can go where they can see and be seen (just not heard)? What about providing standing room inside the church? I spent about a year standing about 1/2 way up on the side of our church with a child too itchy to sit in a pew, but fine to stand where he could see. I would have appreciated a misericord!

        My children are now in college, so I’m long past the days of riding herd on my own little ones, but I still think we could do a better job in helping parents with a wider range of kids.

      3. Paul Fell Avatar
        Paul Fell

        @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #18:

        Well, assuming that the mic controls were accessible to everyone or that a sound technician could set up in a non-distracting location to handle this, then yes, turning them on/off on demand would be a solution.

        As for beleaguered parents, there are plenty of people who fall into this category who are not parents. What about the elderly folks who are dying of cancer and would like to spend time worshipping at Mass before they die? Shouldn’t they have an expectation of hospitality and a conducive prayer environment? What about single people who are struggling to hear God in an overbearing world with too many noisy distractions already? For that matter, what about kids who ARE trying to pay attention but are constantly distracted by the out-of-control kids directly in front of them? I hardly think parents have a corner on the market in regards to being beleaguered, even at Mass.

        Courtesy and manners are a lost art these days. When you attend a group function, such as a lecture or a concert, it is common courtesy and manners for someone who coughs repeatedly, receives a phone call, etc. to get up and leave the room so others can concentrate. Why is it suddenly verboten for parents to get up and leave the room briefly when their kids become loud and unruly? I’m not that old, and this was the expectation when I was little. Nobody thought twice about it and nobody was offended–being a parent just involved leaving the room with your child occasionally.

        Once again, my original example was not about a baby cooing periodically or a kid yelling because the kneeler was put down on her foot. I’m talking about parents who seem content to ignore a 10-minute meltdown or who are not phased when their 3 kids play “tag” up and down the aisles, all the time acting as though it’s someone else’s problem. This constitutes poor parental behavior. Ignoring this in the name of “hospitality” is an abdication of accountability.

      4. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

        @Paul Fell – comment #21:
        I can’t speak for Michelle Francl, but perhaps at least some of what you validly point out in your last paragraph might be ameliorated by both a particular form of welcome as seen in the pew cards, and by other things that have been mentioned. It is not the pew cards or missals oriented to children alone, it is the heart of what brings them.

      5. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

        @Paul Fell – comment #21:

        The comment about the mics was snarky and unnecessary and I apologize. Surely you would turn off unneeded mics if you could. Again, I apologize.

        I read this thread and I wept. Literally. Not figuratively. The question asked about how to engage children in the liturgy to which we welcome the baptized, not about how to deal with disruptive children, but that is where it almost instantly moved.

        I would type this in uppercase, but I am trying very hard not to shout: I am not defending parents who let their children run amok, I am not asking us to tolerate the screaming infant who drowns out the entire Eucharistic prayer, or for that matter the man with dementia who sits in the third pew and makes sharply critical comments about the homily in a voice that carries.

        I am asking (see comment #4) about what are our best practices for the kid in the pew, aged 4, aged 6, aged 10 who is not a monster, whose parents would like for them to grow in their love of the liturgy. The children to whom our well prepared liturgies reach in their hearts, and who are struggling to express it, and more deeply celebrate it.

        I think I have my answer. Not much.

        All we can see, all we can think about when it comes to children is that they are little monsters, explosions about to happen, with parents who are uncaring or blind to their darlings’ misbehavior. Or at best, we think them incapable of consciously participating. So if they can’t make it on the adult missalette we provide or the saccharine flimsy paperback children’s missals available, tough luck. You’ll grow up and then we can talk.

        I still have the beautiful, hard bound missal I was given at age 5 to help me follow the Mass (then in Latin). I would give the money to my parish to buy such a thing to put out, next to the hard bound hymnals we have for their parents, I would.

      6. Paul Fell Avatar
        Paul Fell

        @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #23:

        No offense taken. Actually, I assumed it was an innocent question, as that would be a logical thing to ask.

        Let me also apologize. My wife and I are the full-time caretakers of a family member who is dying of two cancers, so my patience has been in shorter supply than normal due to fatigue. I regret that my observations provoked sadness rather than discussion.

        Everyone has so far overlooked an obvious, albeit potentially difficult, solution to the problem. In the past, churches were filled with statues, artwork, murals, high-quality Stations, impressive architecture, and other aesthetic items that engaged the attention of kids who could not follow the liturgy in the same way as adults. I know that when I was little and restless, my Dad would take me to the back of the church and point out all the images on the stained-glass windows and artwork. He would engage my attention in looking at all the images that reinforced the Scriptures and symbols that we as adults too often take for granted. He actively encouraged my participation in more than just a written and verbal/musical way. This had the benefit of not only impressing the stories of Christ and the Saints on me, but helping me to appreciate the aesthetic value of the artwork and the sacredness and special nature of the space itself. This wasn’t just any ordinary building, it was a unique and valuable location where God was present in an different and substantial way.

        Many churches now seem to be devoid of any quality artwork, as it is seen as a luxury, superfluous, costly to maintain, and nonessential. We’ve absorbed Iconclasm from the Protestants and it’s hurting us in ways we can hardly recognize. I would submit that returning quality artwork to our churches could help to engage our young ones and give them a sense of the sacred long before they can even articulate what that means, let alone making the space more conducive for prayer by all ages.

      7. Todd Avatar

        @Paul Fell – comment #25:
        I would hesitate to blame Protestants for the lack of art. It’s a broad American failing, and I’m not sure most Catholic churches ever had real art to begin with. And today, it might even be worse, especially in dioceses where the bishop insists that schools be built first to generate the numbers to justify new parishes. I know of one parish in suburban Chicago that went $6 million in debt to build a school, and couldn’t shovel themselves out of that hole. Two decades after founding they were still in the gym on Sundays, still dropping a significant chunk of the weekend take on loan interest they had no realistic hope of paying off.

        Paul is right that more attention to art is desperately needed. But we need to diagnose the problem accurately. And we need to realize that children are just as engaged by people as they are by things.

        The one-stop shopping mentality also afflicts Catholicism. Why do we presume that good Catholic kids can drop in for Mass for sixty-plus minutes before we’ve ever tried bringing them on a weekday for ten or fifteen?

      8. Michelle Francl-Donnay Avatar

        @Paul Fell – comment #25:

        I am so sorry you are coping with illness and caretaking. I will pray, and I do not mean that glibly.

        I think in the abstract, less stripped spaces and spaces designed as someone above suggested, to better accomodate families, are the ideal. But the financial reality is that the ideal is out of reach for most communities.

        I over fifty and grew up in a small rural church that had a crucifix, and two statues. No stained glass. No art. No money for any of that, then, or now. I suspect that is why I keep harping on materials, rather than the structures. There were sacred materials of all sorts easily available that reflected the richness and beauty of the faith. Rosaries. Prayer books. I stay have many of these things from that time.

        I think I’m starting to understand why Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to design not only the house, but the furnishing and dishes! What goes into our built sacred spaces?

      9. Paul Broderick Avatar
        Paul Broderick

        @Paul Fell – comment #25:

        I went to Westminster Cathedral when the Relics of St Anthony visited the UK.

        After mass, one of the people I came with was going to the toilet – and there was a huge queue for the ladies. So, whilst waiting (the toilets are accessed from near the confessionals) I spoke to a young boy (under 10) about what the different symbols (chi-rho etc) in the immediate area meant – and what we knew about Jesus, what he wants for us, the importance of symbols and beauty, etc. Luckily I also had a copy of this book ( ) in my pocket to give to him.

        It’s a pity that we are sometimes a little afraid to engage with children – a mixture of a professionalisation* and fear of perceptions (as we know from our safeguarding courses – it is entirely possible to groom a child in plain sight).

        * Even in the most clerical times parents taught their children to pray, the family is the first school! No, however, increasingly people feel that it can be (should be?) left to the schools and catechists – sometimes creating a disconnect where the religion doesn’t seem an authentic part of who we are, but we don’t refuse to speak English to our children in case they learn our mistakes!

      10. Maureen O'Brien Avatar
        Maureen O’Brien

        @Paul Fell – comment #21:
        Good for you! Courtesy is for everyone. Too many “young moms” believe the universe revolves around them and THEIR kids. Time to realize they are part of a community — and that I’d they with to reap the benefits of a community, they owe that community respect and consideration.

  11. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

    Michelle’s wisdom from earlier in this thread… “I wish that we could learn to be tender with each other, to encourage each other in our faith, the old and the young, alike. What would that look like in practice in a parish?”

    Tender with each other – God help us please.

  12. Paul Fell Avatar
    Paul Fell

    @Todd – #26:

    “I would hesitate to blame Protestants for the lack of art. It’s a broad American failing, and I’m not sure most Catholic churches ever had real art to begin with.”

    I agree totally with your assessment here, and I don’t mean to pick on Protestants to the exclusion of Catholics. It’s become an issue across nearly all US denominations, not to mention our culture in general, as you said.

    @Michelle – comment #27:

    “I [am] over fifty and grew up in a small rural church that had a crucifix, and two statues. No stained glass. No art. No money for any of that, then, or now.”

    This sounds very much like the parish in which I was raised. Our first Mass location was a log cabin. The very first Catholic church in our county was burned by the Klan, so building elaborate churches was not always safe or welcome.

    To get us back on topic here, I do think that well-made, age-appropriate missals are a neat idea and could do some good. The next question is how to keep them from being constantly destroyed / absconded with, thereby requiring repeated replacement. The normal corollary to “high quality” is “expensive to maintain” and keeping up with destroyed / missing hymnals is bad enough. As Todd and Michelle said, this could be a tough gig for parishes with limited resources or large debts to shoulder.

    This is why I said the “artwork solution” would be difficult. Funding is always limited and parish support is usually non-existent. Taking on Rome was difficult for St. Paul, but that didn’t stop him, I suppose.

  13. Melanie Bettinelli Avatar

    Our former parish ordered Magnifikids, a weekly missalette for kids published by Magnificat. It has the order of Mass and the day’s readings and some ideas for prayer outside of Mass as well as activities and often a saint biography or something about the Mass or Church teaching or the Bible. In fact they were so popular many adults without kids took them because they were easier to follow than the missalettes.

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