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?



  • Becky

    I thought the original writer’s update was telling when she said she “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.” You’re never entitled to the right to be free of minor irritations from other people in public places — not in this lifetime, and certainly not in church. Her attitude is very sad and selfish.

  • Elizabeth W

    Yesterday I got “kicked out” of Mass (sort of) at a local church when my kids were ALREADY in the vestibule. (It’s not fully enclosed so some sound comes back up through the organ loft.) My two boys were doing OK until another mother came back to the vestibule with her two kids of about the same age as mine. The two toddlers freaked out and started running around together. The two little walkers started squealing with delight at each other. And the other mother and I, of course, went into full intervention mode trying to get the kids to be quiet and stop running. (Like most mothers do, contrary to the “it’s all about me”-parenting narrative that people seem to start telling themselves the moment they hear a noise from a child.) We were having a small measure of success with that when about 10 minutes later one of the ushers (I think) opened the door and let us have it–”You have to get them to be quiet, everybody is turning their heads around, this is not good, etc.” I said, “Are you suggesting that we leave?” and he said “You have to do SOMETHING.” The Sanctus was just beginning so I made the snap decision to grab our stuff and flounce out (we had to go back through the nave to get out–a very awkward layout). I was pretty mad, though not mortified like I probably would have been not too long ago. I know my kids belong at Mass. My husband is a church singer about an hour away (that’s our real parish but it’s rarely practical for me to go with the kids) and leaves the house early on Sunday mornings. When my 3.5-year-old hears where Daddy’s going, he asks me, “So where are we going to Mass, Mama?” THAT’s why I’m at Mass with my little monsters, because they ASKED me to come and there is no way I am not going to encourage that. My heart quails at the thought of the hostile culture that those babies are going to grow up in, and I am going to do my utmost so that they always feel that pull to attend Mass on Sunday and always feel at home in church. Sure, I could go attend a vigil Mass by myself (and I can’t tell you how much I long to go to Mass by myself!) but I feel like THAT would be the selfish thing.

    I completely agree that this is a manifestation of the contraceptive culture. I almost feel like, these days, the parents of young children have a duty to bring their little kids to Mass for the benefit of the congregation–these are the sounds of the culture of life, people! I am a convert from Episcopalianism and I was very confused to find that Catholic churches almost never have nurseries. It’s actually a wonderful thing. I would be very curious to hear more about the alleged good old days when children were neither seen nor heard at Mass–sounds bogus to me.

    (Sorry this is SO LONG–this post was just very timely for me!)

    • Bridget

      If you have the time and the phone # of the rectory, I would give the Pastor of that parish a call and inquire about the policy regarding children in Mass. That usher sounds out of line to me and the Pastor may be unaware that parents of young children are being treated in this horrible manner. It’s been my experience that the poor attitude comes from parishioners; I’ve NEVER had anything other than encouragement from priests regarding my young toddlers. If a parent is doing everything in their power to deal with a rowdy child, people need to just deal with it and if it’s that big of a problem in a parish, the priest needs to address it.

      As far as getting through this, I will remind you that this phase is temporary if you keep up with it– toddlers definitely need repitition and won’t learn how to worship Our Lord unless we take them week in and week out. Is there another adult you could ask to attend Mass with you until you are past this phase? An aunt, uncle, grandparent, or teenager? Or could your husband take a temporary leave of absence from the singing to attend Mass with you as a family? Just don’t give up; you will see the fruit of your labor at some point! God Bless.

      • Elizabeth W

        Bridget, thank you for your encouragement and God bless you! I am definitely going to contact the pastor. I’m actually glad that I’m reading this post and all these comments right now because it’s nudging me towards a different angle, less of “this person should be reprimanded” and more “what can I do to help you promote a more family-friendly atmosphere?” Thinking of offering to donate a child’s table for the vestibule or something.

  • Kassie

    Let the little children come to me, and do not forsake them. For such is the kingdom of Heaven.

    I vaguely remember reading that somewhere…

    Oh yeah. In the Bible. At my old Charismatic church. Where there was no nursery, no children’s church, and children were welcome and expected to sit through 2 hour services with their parents and worship as a family. As my dad said, “I can’t teach your children how to worship. YOU teach your children how to worship. And they can’t really learn that in a room in the fellowship hall, can they?”

    I’ve seen just about everything from kids in mass. From a little boy who just discovered that touching his penis felt good (“PRAYING HANDS, [Jack]! Praying hands!”) to a kid trying to sneak away with Jesus. Once I was at a very rural parish and a parent was allowing her child of about 18 months to wander all over the sanctuary during Mass. I scooped him up the third time he toddled across my aisle, snuggled him a little over my shoulder, and he was asleep by the Consecration. You do what you have to do. Kids didn’t bother Jesus, and they shouldn’t bother us — even single, childless 23 year olds like myself.

  • Naomi Kietzke Young

    You know, I sometimes am afraid even to look at the parents of a fussy baby with sympathy, because I’m afraid they will take it wrong. But I really don’t mind. I think of the non-screaming baby noises as a kind of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) in praise of God. That face of dismay I make when the child IS screaming? It’s not me feeling sorry for myself because I’m distracted. I distract myself more than any baby EVER could with my wandering thoughts. It’s pain for the parents who are wanting to vanish, and take the baby with them.

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  • Preshen

    Mouse: because I am a Catholic and I am going to stay that way until i die.
    Calah: Precisely, the point is the Eucharist. That is why I stay. However, I don’t think it is too much to ask to have SOME quiet time. As a side note, yesterday at Mass, I arrived about 20 minutes early as I usually do because I like to prepare myself to receive our Lord through prayer. An elderly lady seated in the back talked the entire time, loudly. Is it that much to ask for a little bit of quiet time before our Lord?

    To the original writer with Meniere’s Disease, I want to apologize for all the negativity against you. You have done well as a servant of God in your parish, I am sure. You are absolutely right in what you say. I have had some of the same experiences. Young parents don’t understand that we have already been through raising our children and maybe, just maybe, we might have some wisdom to impart to them, if they would be open to listening. It is sad that you have come under attack over your needs and opinions.
    Young Parents: no one is against you. Everyone is trying to help you become even better parents and you are picking out certain phrases from those you don’t agree with and concentrating on those. Maybe when you are a little older, you might look back on this and say, Yeah, those folks had some good points. May God Bless you as you try your hardest to raise your children in a world that is full of hatred, and where our society and culture tell us it is OK to be respectful because one has a “right” to it. Television, movies, and the internet certainly do not help the situation by providing vulgarity, insensitivity, and hostility toward all forms of religion. The liberal news outlets share what they want to share, not always the total picture. Keep the faith in these difficult times.

    • mouse

      Okay, but from an outsiders perspective, I don’t get it. You need peace and quiet and kid-free time. Fine. But why stick around one of the only groups of people in the world who won’t let you have kid free time because they’ve got kids and want to bring them to church. I just mean, the Catholic church is one of the few institutions that encourages people to have babies as part of their religion. And it might be a modern thing, but if a military wife has a deployed husband or a single mom doesn’t have a support network, they’re gonna bring those kids to church. So, since a Catholic church is one of the few remaining places that you’re pretty much guanteed to find kids for one reason or another, and you can’t worship unless you’re in a kid-free space, why pick a catholic church when you can’t be with god in the only way you can be with god?

  • Lauren H

    See, I have known children to actually bring adults back to Mass. This happened to my parents–she was a fallen-away Catholic and he was a fallen-away Lutheran. They had been married in a Catholic church, and took very seriously the priest when he told them that meant they had to raise their kids Catholic. It took until I was two years old and my brother was a baby, but Mom said the reason why they started going to Mass was, “you were old enough to tell the difference between a family that went to Church on Sunday or not.” I worked for a number of years as a DRE, and I met other couples who had a similar experience of being away from the Church for a number of years but then coming back so that they could give the Church to their kids. I cannot imagine if one of those families, experimenting with coming back to Church after years away, were told on one of their first return visits to Mass that they should stay home.

  • Rhonda Ortiz

    Just for a different perspective or consideration: We attended a Ukrainian Catholic Church for a while, and the little ones of course came, because they all received Holy Communion. Consequently, there was much more cultural tolerance for the noises. Parents still took their kids to the vestibule if they were being noisy, but no one would dream of asking anyone to leave them at home. (And, besides, there was only one Liturgy on Sundays.)

    • Rhonda Ortiz

      Two more thoughts:
      1) Culture seems to be a factor here. Not everyone has the Irish/Anglo/Dutch Catholic/whatever preference for absolute silence.

      2) The Holy Mass is the Church’s *public* prayer – which means that it is not necessarily set up for people’s private devotional time.

    • Rhonda Ortiz

      Two more thoughts:
      1) Culture really does seem to be a factor here. Not everyone has the Irish/Anglo/Dutch Catholic/whatever preference for absolute silence.

      2) The Holy Mass is the Church’s *public* prayer – which means that it is not necessarily set up for people’s private devotional time.

  • Mary

    Wow, I can’t even believe some of these attitudes. It makes me so sad. I’m finding it highly amusing when people without young children talk about needing time for quiet. Perhaps I am assuming too much but my guess is they have plenty of opportunities for quiet throughout every day and night as well as time to come to the church outside of Mass for silent prayer and adoration.
    I guess we’ve been so blessed that people are always thanking us for bringing our children and love having them there! I’ve had the opposite experience…I am keenly aware and paranoid about any and all noises and movements from my children and invariably whenever I think they’ve been horrible at Mass, we get some lovely older parishioner approaching us after telling us how wonderfully behaved they’ve been!

  • hada

    I think something worth mentioning is the contraceptive culture w/in our church-anyone that recommends that parents of young children stay at home during the toddler years is naturally assuming that their toddler years are limited a brief time span, which indicates they assume we all have 2 children. For parents of many, this advice would entail, quite literally, raising children outside the church. For example. I have been in a continuous state of baby/toddlerhood for 10 years(5 kids). My oldest is 9 years old. If I had to stay home with my babies and toddlers, that would be, so far, 9 years that my son did not have the benefit of mass, our Sunday Obligation no less. No, I do not have anyone else to take him. So is that what we are really advocating? I surely hope not.