This happened today at the 11:30 Mass.
Our celebrant, the vocations director for my diocese, had preached a homily about vocations—how we are all called to something—and was about to launch into the Eucharistic Prayer when, lo and behold, he got some company: a child who felt called to the sanctuary and all that neat stuff up there.
A little girl, maybe all of three-years-old, started toddling up the center aisle. It’s a big, long aisle in a massive church. She got as far as the altar rail, gazed up at the altar, and evidently thought: “Cool!” The priest paused. ”Ladies and gentlemen, we have a future nun!,” he said. Laughter. ”But where are your parents?” Nervous laughter. No one came forward. The kid started to climb up the stairs into the sanctuary. I thought: should I try to scoop her up and take her into the sacristy? Will she freak out? Will it make an awkward situation worse? The priest, not quite sure what to do, just soldiered on. He launched into the Eucharistic Prayer. The little girl wandered around. She was looking at the candles, the windows, the altar servers. One of the female servers coaxed her over to one side and tried to hold onto her for a minute, to take her into the sacristy, but she squirmed away. (In the picture above, you can see the little girl and the server by the Easter Candle, to the right of the pulpit).
Eventually, she made her way back to the stairs and started the return trip toward her pew. I was worried she would slip and fall on the marble. But no: she made it safely to the aisle and found her way back to her parents’ pew.
Parents, please: hold onto your kids. Don’t be afraid to chase after them. Trust me: the sanctuary—with lots of sharp edges, burning candles and sometimes slippery footing—is no place for unattended toddlers. This was an accident waiting to happen. Thank God, it didn’t.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
If “Let the children come to me,” justifies keeping screaming babies in church during Mass, it much more strongly justifies allowing children to wander into the sanctuary during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. If anything disproves the applicability of that saying to the screaming babies, this does. It would be a service for you to make the implicit point of your post explicit.
I should have been more clear. The big issue here is safety. A three-year-old roaming unattended around burning candles, smoking incense and lit torches (held by kneeling children) on a stone floor with slippery marble steps, inches from a towering and precariously positioned Easter Candle…it’s a recipe for disaster. Someone in the congregation wrote to me last night and said, simply, “I had an anxiety attack the whole time she was up there…” Me, too.