Sometime ago, my father and I went to get some fast-food for lunch. While there, a mother and three daughters came in. My father became silent, and discreetly watched them order their carry-out and then leave.
“Do you know them?” I asked, when they’d left.
“No. Not really” he said, then proceeded to tell me this story. He’d started going to daily mass years before. Then, one day, that mother started coming to daily mass with her three very small children.
He said that at first it was distracting. There would be the typical noises that accompany children. Whispers, movement, sippy cups hitting wood, etc. But after awhile he and the other mass participants got used to it. She continued to bring her children to daily mass over the years as she was a homeschooler.
But, and this is the clincher, at one point he began to pray for them and their well-being. And he even began to look forward to their presence at mass, watching the children grow, and seeing the family about town.
Years ago, having 5 kids and being a Catholic, I typically went to daily mass. Usually I’d bring two or three or sometimes four small children with me. This particular church where I attended daily mass was fairly large but there was no cry room. I always took my place with my children in the very last row in the back. Most people didn’t seem to have a problem with me or my kids. But once in awhile, my being way in the way back wasn’t good enough for some persons. At the clunk of a sippy cup, the trip over a foot, the whisper of a question, some would turn and show their displeasure.
Yet as I looked toward the tabernacle, and imagined God looking out on all of us, I couldn’t help thinking that he’d want to see the little children just as much as the typically gray-haired older crowd.
In Matthew 19:13 it says, “Little children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray; but the disciples rebuked them.” Many of us have been witnesses to just this same behavior in church. If even the disciples made this mistake, then we shouldn’t be surprised when the rank and file make this mistake. In Matthew 19; 14, Jesus corrects the disciples and says, “Let the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for as such is the kingdom of heaven.”
When I’d get the looks, or glares, I would attend to my child, then try to focus on the mass. If it would continue, I would make eye contact and then smile and give an acknowledging wave. Usually this would result in their turning back around to face the front again. Then at the next peep out of my children they would again show their disapproval, this time more severely. I would then smile and wave again. Sometimes someone’s angry-severe-face would soften and they’d wave back with a smile. These persons would never turn around again. Whatever was bothering them before, didn’t seem to be an issue again. I guess it’s hard to stay mad when someone doesn’t return the anger? I did my best not to feed the fire.
But the classic moment took some time. An older gentleman and his wife would always sit in the middle of the church. One day it seemed to become his personal mission to quiet my children. Way up in the middle of that large church, at every bump, peep, clunk, or ‘ow,’ no matter how quietly it was done, he would do a complete turn around, fold his arms and give me a severe stare. I focused on tending to my child’s need. When I noticed he was still focused in on me, I smiled and waved in acknowledgement. He turned back around, until the next noise. And so went this session of my mass, at every peep, clunk, or whisper.
The next day, to my surprise, the same gentleman who usually sat in the middle of that great big church, came and sat in my aisle right next to us while his wife continued to sit way up in the middle of the church. I had 3 children with me. At the first whispered “Mommy, I’m hungry,” he turned from facing the front to face me, folded his arms, raised himself up, then looked at me then looked at the back door. The signal was clear, ’It’s time for you to leave!’
I blinked in surprise, then habit kicked in, and I smiled and waved, then not giving him another thought got back to focusing on Mass.
He must have been really mad, because he didn’t show up again to daily mass for nearly 6 months. I prayed for him. A lot!
When he started coming back, he never again turned around and never seemed to have a problem with my children again.
The best part of this story? A couple of weeks after his return, when there was a big standing-room-only Ash-Wednesday mass, I found my self unable to find a seat so I stood in the back. Lo and behold, there was the older gentleman with his two beautiful grandchildren. He looked like a very proud grandfather! I pretended not to notice the chaos as his grandchildren ran around uncontrollably in the crowd of standing participants. But I received a tap on my shoulder, and there was the same older gentleman with a very lovely proud smile on his face. “See those two kids over there? They’re my grandchildren!” I gushed at how gorgeous and adorable his grandchildren were! He was beaming!
And it made me wonder. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks. This man KNEW I didn’t have a problem with his grandchildren being in church, and maybe he thought that morning when he and his wife were in charge of watching the energetic grandchildren, ‘Hey, this wouldn’t stop Michele from going to mass, I won’t let it stop me either?” We were good friends from that day forward. I often asked about his grandchildren, and he often smiled and waved at me!
Some who read this will have their own story to tell about when they felt ‘unwelcome’ at a church. Some who’ve been treated poorly by others at a church will give up on that church altogether. But if you read the bible, you find that Christ himself was treated poorly by the very people he came to save. His very priests gossiped about him, set up conversations aimed at entrapping him, and in the end even worked to have Jesus put to death out of jealously for his popularity with the people. If he went through all that for love of us, can’t we put up with a rebuff, a slight, an unkind look or word for love of him? If God’s very own chosen people and priests did this to him, should we be surprised if we ourselves suffer from time to time little pinpricks in comparison? Are these pinpricks perhaps little sacrifices we can cherish to offer to God in thanksgiving for all he suffered for us?
When we’re treated poorly, treated without the love of Mother Teresa, treated without the holiness of Padre Pio, at times when we feel like an outsider in our own church, in our own communities, religious or secular, it is then that we begin to understand the heart and mind of Jesus. We can then pray, “So this is what it felt like for you? I’m so sorry, I never appreciated your pain before, how isolated, betrayed, and unloved you must have felt. I never understood how your human heart must’ve ached at the indifference and coldness of those you served, of those of your very own religion who rejected You too! Thank you God for helping me to better understand your love and how much you suffered for me.”
When we go to church and are not treated well, it is then that we grow and learn to go from “what will I get out of church?” to “How can I love God, and let myself be fed on the word of God, and offer him my hanging in there even when it takes all the strength I possess just to show up.” Then we know that we are going to church to Love not just to get . And best of all, this loving God will heal our hurt and broken hearts…
It says in Psalm 147:3, “ He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Let’s go as often as possible to this Divine Physician who awaits us with loving care! No longer should we let ourselves be distracted by the mistakes of his flock! Instead, let us turn our attentions once again to the Lord!
For those of you reading this who are guilty of not welcoming the children in church, I wish to remind you, as is stated in 1Corinthians 13:4 “Love is patient, love is kind” isn’t only for times you are out of church. It means always, church times included. Maybe you can even throw a prayer in the direction of the children!