Screaming Babies in Mass, and on the Internet

Deacon Greg opened up a can of worms the other day when he posted a letter from a reader asking why parents with screaming children don’t remove their kids from Mass.

The letter-writer has Meniere’s disease, and loud, high-pitched noises are physically detrimental to her. I read her letter with true sympathy, read the comment section with sympathy for most commenters, and then sat down to write this because there were a few comments that literally left me astounded.

In regard to the general debate, I think there’s a conflation of terms that is causing confusion. Most of the commenters tried to address this, and I’ll do my best here as well. “Screaming” is not the same thing as fussing, but there is a tendency for adults who are not parents, or even who are not parents of the child in question, to feel the noise/agitation more intensely, just as there is a tendency for parents who have a screamer (*ahem Lincoln*) to become desensitized to the volume. That being said, for me and my friends, both here in Ave Maria and in Dallas, the norm is to tolerate a baby who starts fussing a bit for a bit. Sometimes they’ll go to sleep, and the distraction of getting out of a pew and getting to the back of the Church only to arrive there with a dead-asleep baby and have to repeat the performance all over again can be worse than a few minutes of fussing. But parents have a radar. When it becomes clear that my kid is not going to settle down, we go to the back of the Church. (Not just the back, but the narthex. In my opinion, changing geographical locations when a baby is being disruptive doesn’t help a whole lot, but a solid set of doors does.)

That actually seems to be the norm at most of the parishes I’ve visited. Usually I don’t encounter a baby who is allowed to actually scream all the way through Mass. Baby noises and mild fussing are in a different category, and I believe they should be tolerated just as we would tolerate an adult with a cough or a habit of sighing or murmuring. However, I have been at the rare Mass where that does happen, or where a toddler is allowed to talk at full volume, run through the pews, throw things, etc. I understand those things do happen, and I don’t think there’s really a defense for allowing a child to run wild in Mass. But the vast majority of the parents I see are trying to teach their children how to behave, and some kids are more difficult than others.

Here are the things about this debate that get me, though. First, this comment at Deacon Greg’s blog:

“When I read these posts from parents of young children who say they need God’s grace and that is why they bring their young children to Mass, I consider that to be selfish. We ALL need to look out for one another. It is NOT “all about me” as so many in this generation believe. I come from a different time, as I said in my previous posts, when folks were much more respectful and wouldn’t think of keeping, or even bringing a young child to Mass. “

This kind of attitude makes me livid. Telling parents that they should stay at home on Sundays until their children are old enough to behave, or that they should “tag-team” Mass so that their children never get to go to Mass with both parents and all their siblings and Sunday becomes a stressful, all-day affair instead of a time for God and then a time for family, is unloving. It’s uncharitable. It’s against Church teaching. And it’s just nasty.

I understand that truly screaming children can be frustrating and even cause pain in others, but I’ve been to enough Masses in enough different parishes in enough different states to know that such a thing is only the norm at certain types of Masses. It’s a simple thing to avoid those. Most parents, however, will not let a child scream all the way through Mass without removing him or her. But this person is saying that bringing a child to Mass is selfish, because children bother other people. Apparently parents of young children who would like God’s grace are being selfish, since their children’s presence spoils the reception of God’s grace for other people.

We should all look out for one another, and that includes parents of young children, people who are sensitive to loud noises, and cranky people who apparently hate children. I think the best way to look out for the latter is to keep bringing the kids to Mass. As long as the Church continues to exist, she will be full of babies, children, elderly, teenagers, cranks, and sinners. Trying to remove the children until some undefined age when they will no longer be bothersome is absolutely against Church teaching, and against the words of Christ himself.

Which brings me to the next jaw-on-the-floor moment. This is an update from the original letter-writer:

“People like to say that because the Church encourages couples to have children that we are obligated to have babies & young children at Mass.  It seems to be that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” He wasn’t teaching in the synagogue!”


But seriously, what?

I am so confused by this argument,  which was latched onto and repeated several times in the comment section. Our faith, people, is not about a place, like the synagogue. It’s about a person. Christ. That’s who we go to see on Sundays. Christ literally said, “Let the little children come to me.” He didn’t say, “unless I’m in the synagogue, or in Mass; then, keep them home so they don’t disturb the people who are really trying to focus on Me.” Actually, can you imagine Christ saying that? Saying, “hey, those kids get in the way of other people praying, so keep them home” or “it’s selfish of you to want My graces for yourself when the presence of your children bothers some of your fellow parishioners. Wait till the kids are older until you come see Me again.” If you can, you know a different Christ than the one I know. I think we should take him at his word and let them come to him, in the same place he comes to us: in the Mass.

Mass is about Christ, after all, not about us. It’s not about what we “get out of it.” There are graces, sure, but the goal shouldn’t be to swing by Mass like you’d swing by Trader Joe’s for your weekly load of graces. The point is Christ. To worship Christ. To be with Christ. Even if it’s painful (which it often is). Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it’s a weekly beating to take 4 kids 7 and under to Mass. The point is Christ, not us.

I can’t help but think that this discussion wouldn’t even come up if we weren’t all extraordinarily selfish, attending Mass for what we “get” out of it, instead of what we give. We’re all behaving like those screaming babies, wanting everything around us to change so that we are happy and comfortable. But as Christian adults, we have no justification for that. We’re asked to lay down our lives for each other, as Christ did. We should give our time, our comfort, our love, ourselves, for the sake of Christ, just as he gave himself. The Mass is completely centered around that sacrifice. How much cognitive dissonance is there in insisting that other people accommodate you so that you can pay closer attention to this reminder that Christ died for us and told us to do the same for each other?

By all means, love your fellow parishioners enough to take the screaming baby out; love your baby enough to address the fact that he or she is truly agitated. But don’t stay home for five years or turn Sundays into a whirlwind of tag-teaming chaos. Let’s all just do what Christ says we should, and love one another as ourselves. For the people who would like babies to be removed so they are not disturbed, remove yourself instead. For the people who would like everyone else to embrace the vitality of life that babies and children bring, don’t return the next scowl with a scowl of your own; take the baby to narthex and pray (without irony or bitterness) that God would bless the scowler with a peaceful Mass. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if we all actually loved each other, instead of trying to prove each other wrong all the time?



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  • Cam

    Oh Calah, I know I’ve probably said this lots of times, but this is my favorite post you’ve written! Like you I can’t even begin to understand the thinking that says that Jesus didn’t mean Mass when he said, “Let the little children come to me!”

    Lately I’ve been working really, really, really hard to respond with a smile when one of my children makes a small sound and head whip around to stare. I have been pleasantly surprised by how many people do smile back! Bu wow, the comments from people who don’t believe children belong in Mass…. it’s just so incredibly wrong.

    Hopefully your post will make at least one grouchy person think for five minutes…

  • Christian

    We raised 5 kids and never allowed them to disrupt Mass for more than say 5 seconds, at which point we took them out. I know other parents of large broods who do the same. It was never an issue: we took the kids out.

  • jen

    I have a kid who opens and closes the sanctuary doors and who has figured out how to open just about every door in the church. I do my best on Sundays but it’s hard.

    • jen

      Having said that, I don’t let Daniel disrupt worship and I take him out when he’s melting down.

  • Jane

    Wow, when I read the RSS feed for hte story, I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not that parents are under fire for worshiping with children! It certainly makes me feel thankful for the community I’m in – just a couple weeks ago my 3 year old was having a tantrum and I was holding our 5 month old (my husband was a communion minister), there was a father in the pew behind me who looked at me and said, ‘Would you like me to hold your daughter for you?’ !! Thankfully she’s fine with others, so yes, sir, I’ll accept your help in raising my family at church. If only more people could experience that!

  • Rachel

    I agree 100% with what Kara said on Facebook:

    “I think what we’re seeing is a sad side effect of an entire generation being taught that babies “aren’t really people.”

    We are CATHOLICS. We need to be different from our secular culture in that regard. Please God, can we all try to be a little more welcoming, understanding, and less judgmental about these tiny, little blessings who can sometimes make too much noise? As a mama to two boys under five, the original letter has disheartened me enormously.

  • Margaret Rose Realy

    Well done Calah. Being a single woman (near 60) I’ve never had children. I’m rarely bothered by little ones fussing, and as you’ve said, most parents have that special radar to know when to get up and out. Unfortunately, at one of the churches I regularly attend there are one or two parents who seem to be clueless…even to the priest’s glances. I smiled to myself at your words about the individual who is bothered to get up themselves…which I have…for I too am sensitive to loud noises… and gone and sat in the empty cry room (Ha!). I love the sounds of life at Mass, from the elderly whispering too loud to the little ones playing with their siblings. All is good of God’s chosen ones…whatever the age.

    • calahalexander

      You are so great, Margaret. And honestly, I understand and have seen those types of parents. It bothers me too. But I think that if I’m so bothered by it that it is “ruining” Mass for me, then the problem is probably with me. Life is messy and people rarely act the way I think they should. I think your solution is probably the only really loving thing to do…adjust myself and pray for them. Thanks for your comment!

  • priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)

    Babies are NOT the ‘future’ of the Church- They are the PRESENT of Church NOW (as are teens, middles, old people, etc as well…)

  • Preshen

    Calah: If you are going to use part of my comment to make a point in your post, then give the whole story. Yes you gave an excerpt of what I said accurately. But it is not all I said. You are twisting things around to make your point just like the media does. It is easy to choose a particular passage to make your point. It is much harder to be fair. I also said “It is a daily job, hour by hour, to set a good example, talk about Jesus and what is right and wrong. Pray together, eat together, turn off the computer, TV, and games. Do things as a family and teach the kids lessons as you go. Don’t allow sports and other activities to take you away from Sunday Mass. I do not attribute my children’s faith to my making them go to Mass at a young age”. I stand by that statement, the one you quoted, and everything else I posted. Your blog obviously caters mostly to young Mom’s. That is fine, and I’m sure you will receive plenty of support for what you said, just as I could if I wrote a blog about the opposite view. When you are older, perhaps you will understand better, and comments like mine won’t make you “livid”. God Bless you.

    • calahalexander

      Preshen, my intent wasn’t to twist your words. And I’m not sure how I’ve done that, given that you said you still stand by what I posted. If you mean that I should have included the part you just posted, about raising children…well, in all honesty, I don’t see how that makes your original quote that I posted any better. Actually it is much easier for me to bear the “no children in Mass” attitude from those who have never had children, and thus do not understand the particular wonder of seeing their faces light up when they watch the Consecration or kneel before an altar, nor the particular crosses of being a parent to many young children. But from a fellow parent, I genuinely can’t understand how you would begrudge those of us still in the trenches the grace of Mass, just because you feel distracted or put off by the presence of our children. Calling us selfish for wanting to see Christ, for wanting to bring our children to Christ…it boggles my mind. I certainly hope I never understand so much better, when I am older, that I forget to love my fellow human beings…the adults and the children. I cannot imagine anything less loving than telling them they should not come seek Christ because their presence disturbs me.

      • Rachel

        Exactly this, Calah.

      • Molly

        Exactly, if Mass isn’t a central part of our children’s faith as early as possible than why be Catholic at all? The Mass and all that it contains is central to our faith and no one, whether they are a parent or a child, should be denied that.

  • Mary

    I think this blog post is exactly correct. We must have love for those around us who are there celebrating the Mass. We should all try to act as Jesus would and I doubt he would complain about a little one fussing. I have four kids who are still young – 7 to 12 – and it wasn’t always easy, but we always brought them to church as babies. There was more than once when we had to take out a disruptive toddler. In fact my husband would always tell them that people were there to hear what the priest was saying, not them. One day my oldest son responded, “Then I will just grow up and be a priest so I can talk in church and not get in trouble!” Perhaps with the love and prayers of the community my dear son may just do that.

    We are a people who claim to celebrate life. Let us live those words with an expressing of love toward each other.