But some episodes are not so cute. There was the time when one of our newborns managed to spit up into the pew in front of us during the Gospel. The occupants, standing and attentive, hadn’t noticed. We frantically searched our pockets for Kleenex and bent over to clean up the pew before they sat down again, but we weren’t fast enough. As the Gospel ended we had to physically restrain them from landing in the mess, trying to explain with whispers and gestures what had happened. We succeeded in so startling them that they bolted for the far end of the pew and cast furtive glances at us throughout the remainder of Mass.
Then there was the time my husband approached the altar for communion, holding a two-and-a-half-year-old, and felt a sudden rush of warmth. Within milliseconds he knew that this was not due to a spiritual experience, but a lapse in potty-training skills. Now clutching her closer to hide a soaked shirt-front, he headed out for the restroom.
Yuck! How humiliating! Why does God let these things happen in church? Probably because it’s so humiliating. It’s good for us. Maybe God allows such incidents to illustrate the mystery of what we humans are: body as well as soul, both of which participate in the sacramental life. Or maybe these events serve as graphic reminders that the parental vocation calls us to both exalted tasks and lowly ones, all which we should be ready to perform, even when it means interrupting our devotions.
It gets more interesting when babies become toddlers. More discouraging, too, because now one might reasonably expect the first blossom of obedience, but at the same time the effects of original sin are springing up like weeds. I thought our almost three-year-old would enjoy pageantry of a First Communion and May Crowning. But when she realized that she was not in the limelight, vanity made an appearance. “I wanna white dress!” she yelled. "I wanna put a crown on Mary. Gimme the crown for Mary!"
Even more memorable was a Good Friday service when my four-year-old son was increasingly ill-behaved. Finally it was time for that long walk up the aisle and out the door for a richly deserved thump on the bottom. William knew his last hope was to work the audience in the pews. “Don't spank me, Mommy! Please don’t spank me!” he wailed piteously. Naturally I was stifled from action knowing that everyone was listening for the smack, and no doubt preparing to report me to social services.
As each new baby hit this stage we endured it: the crying rooms, the strolls in back during the sermon, the color books and toys lugged along to placate them. We lived through untold head-bumpings on pews and mad dashes to the bathroom. Miraculously it all gets better between four and five years of age. I’d like to say it’s because of our diligent efforts at child-training, or because they are beginning to acquire piety. But in reality it’s because by this they have come to grasp the implications of that first principle of the spiritual life: “If you’re not good, you won’t get a donut after Mass.”
A helpful mantra for parents during this time of their lives is, “This, too, shall pass.” New parents should take courage from our experience. The boy of the infamous "Don't spank me” episode is today an altar boy who tells us he is thinking about the priesthood. The girl who screamed for a white dress and a crown not only behaves decorously every Sunday, she volunteers to attend weekday Mass with me now and then.
But why bother even bringing small children to Mass (if one has a choice)? Wouldn’t it simply be better to wait until they reach a tractable age and then start taking them?
It probably would be easier on parents in the short run, but if life were all about ease, we wouldn’t be parents in the first place. Our Lord didn’t say, "Let the children age five and up come to me." He wants them all. Tiny children, all of their non-conforming behavior, are still clothed in their baptismal innocence, and as such belong in God’s house. When the sacrifice of Calvary is being re-presented, I'm sure some of the grace pouring forth from the altar overshadows my little monster, and does him good in a way I'll only understand fully in the next life.
Besides, keeping little ones away from Church not only saves you from horror stories, but it deprives you of the lovely ones: a toddler’s attempts at genuflecting, or the off-key pre-schooler joining in on the hymns while proudly holding the hymnal upside-down; the sweet enthusiasm for the Sign of Peace, or waving "Bye-bye Jesus" when it’s time to go.
There’s one more meditation we can make on pre-schoolers' church manners. Little ones demonstrate their short attention spans with their wiggly, noisy bodies. But do our adult attention spans fare much better, even though our physical restraint has improved? Sometimes an antsy toddler is the perfect image of my distracted mind at Mass. Yet do I doubt for a minute that God wants me there despite my restless spirit? No, I’m sure He’s glad to see me there. And I’m sure He delights in all of His children, with all their antics and messes.