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?



  • maureen

    I don’t usually comment on blogs but I take exception to the claim that in the old days when people had manners, parents didn’t take the babies and toddlers to church. Of course they did. I was there. I remember. It was fine. It still is.

    • Dale

      Maureen, I was not there, so I do know I know. However, I do wonder if part of the complaints about babies crying during Mass is due to the fact that there are less babies crying at Mass.

      Back before, say, 1960, Catholics had a reputation for having large families. But since that time, we’ve adopted the contraceptive ways of the mainstream culture, and the number of children in a Catholic family is the same as in the general population.

      I am thinking, and may be wrong, that back when babies were common at Mass we accepted them as a natural part of life. But when babies became more rare, they became seen as a disruption. Is there any truth to that view?

      • calahalexander

        I think this is crucial, Dale. Since babies are now seen as a “choice”, many people would “choose” to not be bothered by them. Pretending that that cultural mentality hasn’t crept into the Catholic culture is pretty ignorant.

  • Karen

    Usually never comment, but I wanted to point out the last statement the lady made in the update of the original post:
    “I guess, after sacrificing for so many years, I feel like I’ve paid my dues & am entitled to be at Mass without being forced to leave or not come because of the crying & screaming.”
    How is it that you have been catholic and attending mass for so many years and you believe that you are entitled to one iota of anything?? Christ gives himself to us as a completely undeserved gift. Lady, you have completely missed the point.

    • Debbie

      “How is it that you have been catholic and attending mass for so many years and you believe that you are entitled to one iota of anything?? Christ gives himself to us as a completely undeserved gift. Lady, you have completely missed the point.”
      BAM. Precisely.

  • Renee

    I am so grateful that I have only encountered supportive and encouraging parishioners at mass. With two boys (2 and 4), I do work to maintain a level of respect for those around us and the appropriate volume during mass, and we have even found that sitting closer to the altar helps the boys to have a more focused experience at mass. Very recently my 4-year-old started doing the gestures of the consecration (spontaneously and independently) and saying beautiful things during mass. I wouldn’t dream of leaving him home!! Let us be sowers of love in our parishes – in the hearts of all those around us!

  • Michele

    OH MY GOODNESS…thank you for writing this! It’s sooo right! I especially like how you challenge even we parents to genuinely love those giving a hard time. I’m seriously going to share this with all my close Catholic mom friends!!

  • Helen

    The lady who sits behind me every Sunday has a habit of filing her nails during the sermon. The noise is very minimal but it drives me crazy in a way that screaming babies does not. She is in her seventies and should know better. Babies scream. I deal with both by telling myself that if this is the worst thing that happens all day, I’ve had another great one.

  • Elizabeth

    One thing we must keep in mind is that by their baptism, those infants and children are too our brothers and sisters in Christ. And what Christ had to say about how we treat our brothers and sisters pertains to them also. By their baptism they have the same right to be at Mass as anyone else. We would serve God better praying for them and ourselves than condemning their parents.

    I admit there are times I am annoyed or distracted in Mass by the behavior of some children. I also can get annoyed or distracted by the behavior of some adults. And it is in those times that God gives me the opportunity to remember what is truly important and to practice what He has taught us.

  • Kate

    See, Calah, it’s kind of awkward when you call people who think differently from you “nasty”, and then call for “compassion.”

    • calahalexander

      Kate, in this case sentence structure is pretty important. I specifically called “this kind of attitude” nasty, not the person who has it. And yes, I do think an attitude that says parents who bring children to Mass are selfish is a nasty attitude, particularly given the overt anti-child bias of the world around us, the very bias that Catholicism is trying to combat with its stance on life. People have called me out for having a nasty attitude before (and on this blog…I can point you to the right place if you doubt me) and they were right. Far from feeling injured by their lack of compassion, I was grateful that they loved me enough to point it out. That being said, if Preshen were standing beside me and my unruly brood in Mass and he was clearly upset by their fidgeting, I would smile at him and take them out. That’s what I meant when I called for compassion.

  • Preshen

    Calah: Let’s look at a different perspective. This blog is obviously for young Mom’s. That’s fine. They need support for sure. There are also many different approaches to parenting. Who am I to say what is best for your child? The reactions here to your blog are mostly in agreement with you; that young children belong at Mass. I don’t mean to boggle your mind but what if, as an older fellow parishioner, I told you that I was leaving the Catholic Church, to go to a non-denominational mega Church, where the children have their own service, because I couldn’t handle the noisy toddlers? Would you encourage me to remain Catholic? Would you tell me that I am most welcome at the Catholic Church and should stay? Or would you say “Great, we don’t want your type here anyway”.

    • mouse

      Well, Preshen, you have a point. In all honesty, you’d be much happier at a church that allows for contraception and encourages smaller family size. Why would you insiSt in attending church at one of the few places on the planet that encourages babies when you dislike encountering babies so much?

    • calahalexander

      Actually, my blog is not intended only for young moms, although that is the majority of my readership. I have quite a few male readers as well as college students.

      In that situation I would absolutely never say “we don’t want your type here!” Catholicism means universal. It’s for all of us. We are all wanted here, and we should want everyone here. But I suppose I would ask why you are Catholic in the first place? Isn’t the point of it the Eucharist? If silence is the most important thing for you in the Mass, so much so that you would be willing to leave the Eucharist for a church that doesn’t have the Eucharist, I would try and remind you gently that Mass is for Christ, not for silence. That’s really hard to do over the internet, especially to someone I don’t know. I would prefer to have a conversation like that in person, where I wouldn’t run the risk of coming across as holier-than-thou, and where genuine compassion is much easier to show.

  • Tiffany

    I didn’t read your original commentary, but are you actually suggesting that parents miss Mass? Do you realize that the Catholic Church requires weekly attendance, and that (unless it is impossible to get there) it is a sin to miss Mass? I certainly hope that you aren’t encouraging people to sin because it is more pleasant for you if they aren’t there. Have you actually thought about what you are saying?

  • Preshen

    Tiffany: I never said parents should miss Mass. I would ask you to read all of my comments before chastising me.