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?



  • Sophia

    Precisely why I do not attend church. The church is all for attendance, as long as it is not heard… or perhaps, even seen. Just blind obedience.

    How are you suppose to educate your children about your path, if you are not permitted to have them attend?

    No wonder the numbers are down in membership folks. You simply do not follow your doctrines. Jesus preached tolerance. Get some.

  • fats

    two ( or three) comments, for what it’s worth…
    when i was a young parent, i felt very self conscious of our kids being undisciplined in Mass ( 3 boys) and as a result didnt take them as often as I should have. That set us back years as far as teaching them about God and about being Catholic. ( of course it also meant that I didnt have to go, so it was win, win, as far as i was concerned, so my wife kept the Faith alone). Later on, when i got my head out of …., i realized the damage done by not exposing them earlier, and nowadays, when i hear babies crying, and ” screaming” , and generally ” offending my geezer sensibilities” i try to think back to the early Church and the people worshipping in small homes, and catacombs, and visualize the women standing hearing the Good News holding their babies and with small chjildren tugging at their dresses, and remember that He never said, “suffer the little ones to go to the crying room”. For every well behaved teen in Mass, was a baby that wasnt so quiet beforehand. Thank God for em all..

    • momof2boyz1

      Yes!! My second son was impossible at church as a small child. We are Episcopalian- we finally had him baptized at age 5, which is, I know, much later than is traditional. Fast forward… he is 15, and insists on attending church every week. He is an acolyte, an usher, and is active in the youth group. Today’s fussy toddler is tomorrow’s youth leader!!!!

      • Karen

        It’s true, you never know what seeds you’re planting. We have always tried to take our children to Mass, and when they reach the stage where they want to crawl or run around and make noise, we go through a stage of splitting up–one of us takes the older kids, the other stays home with the baby and goes to a different Mass. Eventually we start taking the littlest and begin teaching him how to behave. Our second, now 8, was squirmy and LOUD during the toddler years, and I remember my husband having to be extremely firm with him. Now that same child just received his First Communion and for the past year has been talking about altar serving and eventually becoming a priest! I really never saw that one coming.

  • fats

    oh yeah, about those cell phones…..

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  • Jane

    I just read a great blog post also chiming in on this topic. The point that struck me the most:
    “My children are baptized members of this community and are subject to the same privileges, rights and responsibilities as everyone else. ”
    So true. And call me crazy, but I’m certain they can connect with God in ways adults have forgotten. Sending them away would support the message that they are not spiritual and therefore cannot ‘connect’ with the Mass. So wrong. <- where I got the quote from.

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  • kharking

    I have been in church for upwards of 30 years now (most of which were pre-children) and cannot remember a single incident of a parent letting a child scream for more than a minute while they attempted to restore order–a momentary disruption at worst. If there was one, it clearly can’t have scarred me for life since I can’t remember it now anyway. Maybe there is a disconnect between some kind of hyperbolic language (screaming) that is being used here and talking or fussing that is louder than expected or desired in this setting? Otherwise it really just doesn’t make sense with any experience that I have ever encountered.
    I’m in a congregation right now where there are nearly forty children under four, roughly 20% of the people present. Sure, the additive noise can make it seem constant but I am well aware that it isn’t any one family causing disruption, just the inevitable results of the total numbers. We do have a cry room of sorts but it was mostly set up for the many mothers who didn’t feel comfortable nursing in the pew and woe betide the poor father who tries to open the door! It can be nice to have the narthex or another room with sound available for those who want the opportunity for a little more space while the children are learning–but it is primarily for the benefit of the parent and child, on whom disruptions will always be harder than they will ever be for me.
    I love the opportunity for quiet contemplation as much as the next person. However, I don’t believe that I am owed that by anyone. On those days when the quiet is short-lived, I am thankful for the crumbs that I can get in the interstitial spaces or by virtue of simply being present.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    This past Sunday, I had a real world example. A young man, couldn’t have been more than two- very loudly finished of the Gloria for us- his wordless cry perfectly in key.

    I wish I had the time to thank the father for bringing him to Mass- the father who, I noticed, stood up after the Eucharist and paced in the back with the same young man.

    What a beautiful example of fatherhood!

  • April Watson

    I haven’t read the other 93 comments, so forgive me if I’m repeating anything, but I just wanted to point out that it would probably do the original letter-writer and his or her fellow commentors some good to actually *visit* a Jewish synagogue during a service. Children are more than welcome and far from invisible. In fact, a Jewish service is one of the noisiest, busiest and fullest of potential distraction of any that I’ve seen. No one seems to mind because worship is considered a family affair and leaving children at home would be harmful to everyone. A small point, but I wanted to add it to the discussion.

    • calahalexander

      Oh, April, thanks for this! I really wanted to find out what the dynamics were like at a modern synagogue, but I didn’t have time. This is a great comment. Thanks for letting us know. That makes me happy.

    • Calah Michelle Alexander

      Oh, April, thanks for this! I really wanted to find out what the
      dynamics were like at a modern synagogue, but I didn’t have time. This
      is a great comment. Thanks for letting us know. That makes me happy.

  • Jane Hartman

    I have to comment on this. Years ago, growing up in a Baptist church where sermons were 45 minutes to an hour long, one 3 year old was having a meltdown. It was a sunny May Sunday and mom took him outside for a brief time. When she brought him back in, still pouting and lower lip quivering he yelled “Mommy spanked me on the grass!” Needless to say, laughter did break out.

    • Calah Michelle Alexander

      I love it when stuff like that happens. Kids are so hilarious.