St. Joseph’s Church in Amarillo, Texas (Photo by Bill McCullough)

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.

[Since 1970, Catholic marriages and baptisms have been in decline. See the data here.]

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.

Five minutes is long enough to articulate an insight, connect it to the scriptures, and leave us with a challenge.

We could debate the purpose of the homily and its prominence in the context of the Sunday liturgy. But my motives are practical: it is, obviously, very difficult for kids to sit still and be quiet, and the homily is when things really start to fall apart. I can channel my children’s restlessness into changing postures, following responses, and observing whatever happens on the altar. A well-timed hymn can really help. But when we settle in for a long stretch of simply listening, their limited reserves of self-control burn up fast. After five minutes of even the best preaching, my children are squirming like a sack of cats and I am silently begging Father to wrap it up.

Five minutes is long enough to articulate an insight, connect it to the scriptures, and leave us with a challenge. And if I didn’t have to struggle to keep my kids still for five to ten minutes more, they might have something left in the tank for the second half of the Mass. In a parish with a no-more-than-six-minutes preaching policy, I would have been able to stay in the pews and pray the Liturgy of the Eucharist more often during the past eight years, instead of dragging a disruptive toddler out the door. I’d have received Communion more often, which isn’t a small thing, now that I’m thinking about it. And my kids’ experience of the consecration might feature less of their father and me hissing in their ears, “Be still RIGHT NOW OR ELSE.”

Why do I keep on bringing my kids to Mass, even when it is so often so unpleasant? I want them to see what the Catholic faith looks like lived out in a community. I want them to know that Christ is present in the assembly—something worth mentioning in a homily, Father, while I’m making suggestions—and that we become the presence of Christ when we enter into this prayer together. All of us, fidgety kids included, are part of that body, making Christ present in this place. It’s a mystery they have trouble understanding, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be part of it.

My hunch is that a consistent practice of short Sunday homilies would make families like mine feel less discouraged about making another trip to “poopy church.” And if the homily comes to seem a little less dominant in the overall scheme of things, what might grow to take its place? It could be a deeper awareness of the holiness of the assembly and how much we need each other.

For now, I am relying on a distant memory of what it was like to pray without a toddler climbing me like a tree, and doggedly returning to Mass each week in the hopes of finding that experience waiting for all of us on the other side of the preschool years. On Friday I will drape my sons in old pillowcases and scarves and send them off to school pretending to be saints. My Peter will be clutching a set of oversized keys that we spent way too long making. And then, on Sunday, I will wrestle them into their church clothes and gather them into a pew, hoping that, if we just keep showing up together, we will find the keys to unlock this mystery.


Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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