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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Real Presence, again - kids, church deportment, and all that non-PC stuff

I was recently playing a service in our chapel at St. Anne's. This beautiful room is where the church tabernacle is, high ceiling, stone walls, iron grating and gates, stained glass. It pretty much invites awe, calls one to a hushed spirit, to the kind of quiet that can be the meeting-place with the divine—at least, a certain aspect of it. On this day, and it has happened before, of course, but I happened to know this family and was mildly surprised, the grandchildren were running around unchecked, parents talking in the aisles, little ones grabbing and knocking into whatever wasn't nailed down. It was as though no one had ever explained to them what a chapel is, or the difference between a place like this and a gathering area. There were only twenty-five or thirty people there, so sight lines or contact weren't the issue. The kids were acting like kids, but in a way (which I perceived to be) inappropriate to their surroundings, and the parents either didn't notice or didn't care. No instructions to the contrary were given. And this is in a family in its third generation of graduates from a well-known Catholic University in the midwest.

When we Catholics started to understand the value of hospitality and became more aware, through the grace of scripture and the Eucharist, of the presence of Christ in our assembly and in the presence of the other, things changed in our churches. We saw the value of some pre-Mass welcomes, conversations, connecting, right in our Church buildings. Those of us old enough to remember the Previous Dispensation in the Church, what you might call the "Happy Days" era in the ecclesial nostalgia, can remember a time when any breach of a strict silence in the Church might bring anything upon one from the stern, disciplinary eye of a parent which promised a later retaliation to a more immediate whap! from one of God's winged messengers, like Sister Pius Jambe du Trebuchet, who only looked too small to reach forward three pews to deliver a right hook to the occipital lobe. 

Happily things are different now. But I can't help but feel we could use a little nudge back in the other direction, a mild corrective that would help us be aware both of the immanent presence of Christ in the neighbor but of the transcendent presence that suffuses creation and is intentionally and communally  present, present-on-behalf-of-all, in the church building. What this means, to me, is that we need to make clear that God's presence is communicated to us in varied ways, yes, in our welcome, in our gathering, in our ministers, in our liturgy, but also in the shared silence and intentional awareness within the house of the Church. 

A solemnity and respect for a place's shared meaning points toward a sense that there is more to a thing that the sum of us, its parts. In other words, it's wonderful that we are a Church, but we didn't make ourselves a church. It was God who "called us out of darkness into marvelous light," Christ who loved us when we were still sinners. There is a "head" to the mystical body, and a Holy Spirit which is its life. These realizations and realities are not immediate; we have to have time to let them sink in, to be reminded of them by shared silence and colored light, music, movement, and prayer. We have to have a place and time in which to connect with the person of Jesus Christ. This is not something we can conjure by incantations and our own volition. We can only wait, prepare an open heart. One of the ways we can do this is to have a consecrated place and time, a spot "where heaven meets earth," where we gather, wait, sing, listen, shout, give thanks, break bread, eat, drink, and are sent and have space to appreciate in some small way what is happening to us.

Militating against all this is the kind of permissiveness that feels that "letting kids be kids" means letting them do what they want wherever and whenever they want to do it. There's also a sense of entitlement, that my envelope or my pledge buys me a seat in this house, and I can do whatever the hell I want in here. Probably there's some vestigial fear and loathing of the Happy Days church, the repressed Mass of our younger days, and the throbbing ears, butts, and mild concussions of humanly mediated divine retribution. 

And, in a great example of what Fr. Richard Fragomeni calls "anti-ritual ritual," we have the scriptural stories in which Jesus lets the presumably noisy and irksome children to "come to me, and do not hinder them." I don't hear that as saying that their parents should let them disrupt temple services, but some do. And they might be right, what do I know?

Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky. It doesn't seem too much to ask that people use common courtesy and restrain their children from horseplay in church, and for reasons that are both the same and different that they restrain them in courtrooms, theaters, restaurants, and other public forums. It's good for the children, too, in the long run, to understand that they are part of something larger than themselves, that the world may be their playground but it doesn't belong to each of them but to all of them together, and that that requires some ground rules. It's a good discipline to know that there are places where we are asked to surrender some of our personal freedom for the good of all, rather than claiming it and demanding it all the time. 

Ultimately, it's about reclaiming community, a sense of a corporate identity that precedes and transcends my personal identity, a community that is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and whose head is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. That kind of awareness requires, sometimes, that we slow down and shut up, whether we're kids or adults. The Church building, in the five minutes or so before a service starts and until it's over, seems like a good place to start.

Writing this made me think of this old Peter, Paul, and Mary song that makes me cry, ma. It's called "Hymn." Here's an iTunes link.

Hymn - Peter, Paul & Mary


  1. Unfortunately, there is probably no subtle way to get this across to the parents. The liturgy staff has done an excellent job over the years by example and catechesis of maintaining the sacredness of the Altar, Ambo and the rest of the worship space. But obviously this isn't enough. Maybe and effort needs to be made through the school and REP to talk about sacred space and the appropriate decorum within. (This may already may happen, I'm not familiar enough with the programs to know.) Getting the parents on board is a different issue, but the issue should probably be addressed in a direct manner, but framed in a discussion about sacred space and what we are about as community. Something to talk about at the next worship committee meeting.

  2. I really wish that we were "in real life" friends, not online "friends of friends". This is would a fantastic conversation to have over a cup of tea, as you have touched on two of my soap boxes: bringing children to church and teaching children to behave properly.

    I have a two year old who is no where near perfect in Mass. Most of the time I get sympathic looks and warm smiles, but there have certainly been stern looks of judgement too, I am sure. However, slowly and surely, my son is understanding that church is a special place, and nothing melts my heart like seeing his attempts at the sign of the cross, or kneeling when I kneel or singing "alleluia" in his crib at night. How can he learn to know and love God if he isn't welcome in God's house, wiggles and all? Or how do I teach him about his baptism as initiation into the life of Christ if he isn't welcome in the community that he was initiated into?

    On the other hand, I absolutely agree with you about children being allowed to run wild and the parents not doing everything possible to control it. Yes, kids run and climb and all of that. But it is the job of the parent to say "there are times for running and jumping, and times for being still and quiet." Generally, I feel like I am the lone wolf in saying that I expect my 2 year old to at least attempt to be quiet and still when the situation warrants it.

    Thanks for the chance to flesh out these thoughts on your blog. In real life, I have no doubt that this would instead be a lively and impassioned conversation. :)


  3. I remember being somewhat squiggly during the Mass when I was young. Our church had burned down. The pastor continued Mass in the basement of the school. We didn't have a children's area at that time.

    When my children were growing up, my wife and I took our two kids to the children's room. It was perpendicular to the altar. There were slats in the windows to cut out any distraction from our room and vise versa. My spouse and I used that room until the kids were old enough to sit still in church.

    Today, hardly any parent will use the children's room at our church.