A survival guide to Mass with kids: Post-pandemic edition

There’s nothing quite as joyful as the sound of a crying baby to break the sacred silence of the Mass.

You might think this is written this in jest, but there is profound truth in these words. As one saying goes, “If you don’t hear crying, the Church is dying.” Or, as Pope Francis once put it in a much more poignant way, “God’s voice is in a child’s tears.” If this is the case, then God’s voice has likely been present in a big way at parishes since the return to Mass at Pentecost.

Historically, the Catholic Church has led the pack, so to speak, when it comes to kids being in “big church” and welcoming children into worship within the larger community of the parish. Rarely do Catholic parishes have dedicated children’s programs to leave the kids at while the parents are in Mass, and frankly, they don’t need them: children belong at the Mass with the rest of the parish community (see Matthew 19:14). That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for children’s programs; of course there is! They should supplement the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass but never be a substitute for it.

Interestingly enough, non-Catholic churches are starting to follow suit. While many non-denominational and evangelical churches are known for robust children’s programs, the COVID pandemic of the past year introduced children to “big church” in a way they’d never been before through livestreamed services. A recent article from Christianity Today points out that “kids began asking about baptism and the Lord’s Supper at unprecedented rates,” and it is indeed an unexpected but welcome grace of the pandemic that children become more aware of the richness of their Christian faith by worshipping alongside their parents.

Of course, as Catholic parents well know, bringing kids to “big church” is not always a breeze, especially when they’re between the ages of one and five. Compound that with an extended absence from Mass due to the pandemic, and it’s entirely understandable that both parents and kids are out of practice when it comes to just getting through Mass without a meltdown of some kind.

You’re not alone, and as tempting as it might be to skip Mass, the Lord desires your presence! There is nowhere more important for you to be on Sunday (or Saturday evening, if that’s your jam). To help fend off any discouragement, here are a few tips and refreshers to help keep you and your child in a place of peace and worship during Mass.

1. Distractions are OK, but try not to use them.

When your child just won’t sit still in Mass, the natural inclination is to use something to distract them. Sometimes, there’s just no other option, and that’s OK. As long as it’s not disruptive, I’m not above giving my older kids a book and my one-year-old a (clean) snack to get her to sit still during Mass. There are a lot of great Catholic children’s books, including books that walk kids through the Mass, and both are great options to give your kids to help them become more engaged at Mass. Of course, the downside to distractions is that your kids can come to expect them, which defeats the purpose of coming to a point of obedience during Mass. If you can avoid them, it’s best to do so, but give yourself grace if you need to use them –– God is delighted that you made it to Mass either way.

2. It’s OK to walk around or stand in the back!

My youngest daughter was born a week before the pandemic hit, and she had been to Mass a grand total of one time before the dispensation was granted. We didn’t go to Mass for much of 2020 because she was so young, so needless to say, Mass is very much a new experience for her. Now, at the ripe age of one, sitting idle is not an option for her, so my wife and I take shifts walking around with her at the back of the parish. Even though it’s hard to be fully attentive to the readings and the homily when you’re not sitting in the pew, having that one-on-one time with your child during Mass is a grace in and of itself. If you need to bring your child in the back, don’t feel embarrassed or afraid to do so. Sometimes the very act of getting up is enough to stave off the antsiness.

3. If you can, sit up front.

This seems counterintuitive, but think of the sanctuary and how the Mass progresses; colorful windows, a shiny tabernacle, smoke from the incense and even a bell! It’s true that children are easily distracted, but the Mass is a true sensory delight, especially for them. Sitting front and center ensures your kids won’t miss any of the action, and it could encourage them to engage with the Mass in a deeper way. As one dad put it, “There will be nothing between your child and our Lord. Let him who conquered the world conquer your child.”

4. Talk about Mass outside of Mass.

Mass doesn’t have to be – nor should it be – confined to one day per week. Talk to your kids about it through the week, asking them what their favorite part is and if they remember anything from the previous weekend. For something a little more interactive, pretend Mass kits can be found online and will help your children bring the Mass to life in your home. As mentioned earlier, there are also children’s books about the Mass that my kids love to read. The more you can make the Mass a regular part of your children’s lives and help them to understand what it’s all about, the more they will learn to love it.

5. Pay no heed to angry glares or rude comments.

It’s so easy as a parent to feel self-conscious when your child is acting up during Mass. Hopefully this won’t happen, but if you’re on the receiving end of a glare or rude comment, let it roll with a smile. If you have to say something, I’ve found the best approach is to ask the person to pray for you. No matter how stressful it can be, children are a gift in all circumstances, and a parish full of the cries of children is a vibrant parish, indeed.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”