Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.
Every year on Ash Wednesday we hear a summons from Joel: “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast.” A few years ago, surrounded by my own babies, I was struck by the inclusion of nursing infants (and, presumably, their mothers). Now, with four boys under the age of nine, I am challenged by the call to “gather the children.” There are so many weeks when it seems easier not to.
For my kids, going to Mass every Sunday is a fact of life. I know that is far from the norm for Catholic families today; even in their Catholic elementary school we may be in the minority. I don’t have any great ideas for changing that. A welcoming environment helps, of course—parents shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for bringing their children to church. But my own experience has been very positive. In my parish, indulgent smiles far outnumber scowls. People are plainly happy just to see us there, chaos and all.
Still, my children are less than enthusiastic about going to Mass. My four year old still thinks he can opt out if he just tries hard enough: “I don’t want to go to poopy church,” he seethes, using the strongest language he can muster to express his displeasure. I don’t know how to change that either, and honestly, I’m not sure it’s important to try. Church is not meant to be entertainment for kids. It’s meant to do something for adults—but what? I have almost forgotten. Just getting through an hour with four wriggly kids can be an all-consuming task. When I stop to reflect on why we do it, I can almost see my hopes for them, my prayer that they will learn to embrace their roles in the Body of Christ. But one of them has a birthday next week; another is in that stage of pre–potty training where he isn’t ready to perform, but he is experimentally taking off his own diaper when I leave him alone for too long; and the older three need help assembling costumes for the school “parade of saints” on Friday. I don’t have a lot of time for reflecting.
All the struggle leads me to one concrete suggestion for pastors who want to be hospitable to families with young children. It won’t cost anything, I don’t think anyone will complain, and you can implement it immediately. Here is my idea: shorter homilies, every Sunday. I’m talking five minutes. Six, if you must.