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?



  • Catie

    Beautifully said. I love what our parish priest says at so many masses, “I’d rather hear the sounds of children squaking than the sounds of arteries hardening!” He is always thanking people for bringing children to Mass. At one particular Mass, my husband and I ashamedly left early with our 3 little monsters (well, that Sunday let me tell you they were atrocious and we just did not have it in us to stay!). The other priest was saying Mass that day, so as we scurried out of the church in shame, there was Fr. Greg (our pastor) thanking us for bringing the kids even though we were escaping early haha It filled us with the courage to keep going back and keep trying even though it is so hard to take little ones. I have been to other churches that don’t feel as welcoming and it does make a big imapct on the parent if you don’t feel like your kid can make any noise at all. It made us dread masses and totally stress each time!

  • Anne

    I love hearing babies scream at mass. I was a single mom when my children were young and I didn’t bring them to mass and it is a regret I will live with for a very long time. I praise the Lord for every crying baby, every fidgety child and for the sacrifice it takes to get them there each week. We can’t really say we are pro-family and not welcome them with open arms.

  • Paul

    I don’t remember who it was I was listening to on Relevant Radio, as there are a lot of wise religious commentators on the network, but I won’t forget the advice. It went something like this. “Imagine yourself at the foot of the cross. Now close your mind’s eye and listen for the sound of it all. Do you imagine there is a good deal of wailing and jeering? Enough to inspire our Lord to recite the 22nd psalm? Well the next time you are presented with these distractions at the mass, let them help transport you to the passion. ” So what I won’t forget is to take this little hardship, this distraction, and allow it to become another addition to the mass. It is such a small indignity when placed in the proper context. Agreed?

    • Charlie Mercer

      Paul, that is an excellent comment and meditation. I’d imagine the Pharisees were a good deal annoyed with the noises coming from those who loved Jesus the most.

      As a father of five young children, I am always sensitive to their noises, movements, and distractions in order to help them develop virtue at Mass as well as honor the time of those around us. The BEST way I found to do this is to bring them to daily Mass, as often as possible.

      I think we have all been to a Mass where the parents seem to disregard their children’s screams and disrespect. From what I have found in speaking with these folks, however, is that they rarely come, and it is a great opportunity for love and invitation, not judgement and unwelcoming. At least they are there, thanks be to God!

  • SLG

    I am surprised this is even something being discussed… Catholic Churches should be a place bursting with life and appreciation for it. If the amount of babies/toddlers bother you, go to a different mass or a different parish. I have never seen a parent being disrespectful. I see them doing the best that they can and the rest of us (childless 20 somethings) deal with it/focus more on what is being said/sung/happening.

    • Theodore Seeber

      What bothers me in this whole conversation is that the anti-children people seem to have forgotten Matthew Chapter 19. Go and read it before you respond to me please.

  • Colette

    I am astounded and ashamed. Our Catholic faith needs the young. No one has even mentioned vocations. We expose our children to the love of Christ. This in turn may lead to a future vocation. How do e increase our priests and religious if they have never gone to church, or have limited experience? Really…we NEED these young people in the Church!!! Please let us encourage the families. I am a single mom who raised a daughter alone. She is now 20 and an active member in the Church. I took the time to teach her. at Mass, about what was happening. We sat at the top balcony or in the very front. Sharing Mass together, imagine that!!!

  • Kari

    I LOVE this!!! I found your article from Cam over at A Woman’s Place and I had to come read it. All I can say is Right on!!! We have to wonder if attitudes like this aren’t one of the reasons that our Catholic families with young children are choosing to attend Protestant and/or Non-Denominational churches instead of ours. They don’t usually have a problem with children at their services. :-(

    • Kay Napier

      Being raised in a Protestant faith, I think it isn’t an issue for them, because they usually have children’s services or Sunday school to attend, while the parents/adults are in their “services.” I can see both sides, as a mom of 7. I usually spent most of Mass in the back of church with the fussy babies/noisy toddlers. I now have a child who is also sensitive to loud noises, so we make sure that he gets to the earliest Mass, where there are fewer families and quieter music. Even though I am still, relatively, young, ;o), I have difficulty hearing when there are competing noises. I do feel bad when I am unable to hear the Homily or other various portions of the Mass, and I would guess that is what elderly people, who are also hard-of-hearing, experience. Maybe that is why they ask about parents removing noisy children.

  • Maggie

    You are SO RIGHT. People are so silly–no one has a “right” to perfect peace and tranquility, even at Mass.

  • Christy Crouse

    I am a Muslim and I agree fully with this blog My thought is : If you do not make the Church a place of respite for the young then how can you expect it to be a place they go to when they are older? The youth need to feel comfortable in the Church and that comfort comes from bringing them up in the Church/Mosque/Synagogue etc. I am not exactly sure how Mass is but when we pray in the mosque and the leader of the prayer hears a child fussing, he will hasten the prayer with the recitation of a short chapter) because compassion and mercy is above all the practice of all faithful people :-)

  • MarylandBill

    Fortunately I think the attitude that kids don’t belong in Mass to be a minority opinion. But it is remarkable how acceptance of young kids at mass (and all that that entails) can vary not just from parish to parish, but from mass to mass. At our parish, the 9:00 and 11:00 AM masses are filled with kids and the worst thing you get from others is a knowing smile when the kids get a little out of line. At the 5:00 PM Saturday mass, (which we attend rarely) young children are much rarer and we have occasionally received disapproving looks from other parishioners.

    • priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)

      it might be a good idea to find the most accepting Mass for those parents with older, special needs children- many people will smile at a baby or toddler fussing, but they will be less compassionate of an older autistic child

      • Hafsa

        Priests wife I’m not sure what you meant by this comment. Do you yourself have a special needs child and have first hand experience with negative parishioners? Why should a parent search for a certain kind of parish that’s special needs friendly? As a mother with a low functioning autistic daughter your comment confused me. We attend Catholic mass every Sunday with our daughter who makes noise off and on. Tough. We’re not going to stop attending our parish because of a few ignorant parishioners who have no empathy for a special needs child.

        • aimer

          The difference is, a baby/toddler will outgrow the screaming (hopefully). So there is no reason to bring them to mass, they’re infants and are not “absorbing” knowledge at 10 months old. However, a special needs child is getting A LOT out of the experience and people should show compassion for them because they DO deserve and need to be there so they can learn how to get along in the real world.

  • Epicus Montaigne

    This post sums up perfectly everything I felt unsettled by when reading the letter from Deacon Greg’s reader. As the oldest of 6 children, and a new father of a baby boy, I’m very aware of the noises children make. I’m also very aware that no parent *wants* to sit through Mass with a screaming baby next to them.
    To get upset at a parent with a screaming baby is like getting upset with the older gentleman who forgot to eat breakfast and fainted during Mass.
    Be happy that people at your parish are having babies! At my first parish, children at any Mass was a rare sight, and that was a sad parish.

    • JC

      I totally agree more that “children at any Mass was a rare sight, and that was a sad parish.”
      My parish recently went through a very “dry” spell without any children because our priest at the time made it very clear that he didn’t like children being at Mass. So, more and more families went to other parishes where they felt more welcome. The result was a very quiet, stale parish that was sad indeed.
      Now, we have a priest who is very fond of children and the families are starting to come back. I think I speak for most of my parish when I say that it is delightful to hear the small noises and chatter of young children. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone, especially after we saw what it was like with no children. They are the signs of life and continuity within our parish community and I feel very blessed to share Mass with them.