Published July 5, 2007
The chapel was drenched in delicious silence. My husband and I had joined four of Mother Teresa’s nuns in their tiny chapel to pray the rosary and then sit quietly before the Blessed Sacrament.
On this particular day, a young mother had joined the group, along with her toddler. During the rosary, she managed to distract him from wreaking too much havoc, but the silence that followed was too much for the little guy.
It was a winter day and he was wearing heavy corduroy pants. During the half hour of silence, he wandered around the chapel, and the “swish, swish, swish” of his pants against his chubby legs filled the room.
Somehow, it struck me as funny, which meant that I spent the entire time trying to suppress huge giggles, which was agonizing.
Evidently the young mother was enduring her own agony of embarrassment because when prayer time was over, she apologized profusely to one of the nuns.
Instead of assuring the woman in polite, icy tones that the child’s behavior had been “just fine,” Sister gazed at the child with tenderness.
“Jesus loves the little children,” she said, and the worry lines on the young mother’s face relaxed.
For years after that incident, Sister’s words have come back to me in church. Whenever a baby’s shrieks wipe out the punch line of the sermon. Whenever an infant’s cooing disrupts the mellowed tones of the Our Father.
And whenever an altercation breaks out in the pews in a family that includes three or more children under the age of 5.
Some congregations want to sequester little children away from adults. They build what are called “cry rooms,” where families with babies must huddle, hearing the words of the Mass piped in through loudspeakers.
But I think it is better for children to be seen—and heard—in church.
A scene in the Gospels underscores what Sister said long ago in the tiny chapel. It’s the one where the children are clamoring to see Jesus.
His friends evidently were accustomed to protecting Him from the crush of the eager crowds, and although their comments are not recorded here, it’s easy to imagine what they are saying to the little ones.
“Stay back, now. Jesus is busy and doesn’t have time to talk to children.”
And then come Jesus’ words, recorded so that people of all times and places would hear them: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt 19:14-15)
Jesus didn’t seem to think he was too busy for children. And it is likely that whenever He spoke to people, there were children in the crowd.
Surely some of them were noisy when He delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Still, many of the beatitudes seem to describe children, who are, after all, poor in spirit, meek and often persecuted by others larger than they are.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting that a baby who is shrieking at a pitch shrill enough to break stained glass should be allowed to stay in church for the duration of her fit. It seems a matter of proper courtesy for the parent to step outside and let the baby calm down.
But it grieves me when parents of young children stay home from Mass out of fear of bothering other people.
Really, who belongs in church more than a little child? Yes, they have a way of letting out a series of “Ma Ma’s” and “Da Da’s” when you least expect it, but that is the nature of children.
We come to Mass to worship Christ and receive Him in the Eucharist. But He came into a world that was not perfect, and is far from perfect now. There was noise and dust and disruption in His day, just as there is now.
It is true what Sister said so long ago: Jesus loves the little children. Fortunately, He accepts them just as they are: sticky, imperfect and, at times, noisy.
And maybe to Him those Da Da’s and Ma Ma’s sound as beautiful as the perfectly formed words of the Our Father spoken by adults. Maybe to His ears the babies are, in their own ways, uttering their first prayers.
Lorraine V. Murray is the author of “Grace Notes. Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World.” Artwork featured in the print edition is by her husband, Jef. Readers may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.