By Bob Sullivan
In my last column, I wrote about loud and unruly kids who can be distractions during Mass. I suggested that they are only distractions if we allow them to be distractions, and that this is more likely if we do not mentally and spiritually prepare ourselves before we walk into the church.
But loud and unruly kids are not the only ones who distract us at Mass. Sometimes it is the cute little newborn in the pew right in front of us which is even more distracting.
Carmen and I are the parents of five daughters. I can attest to the fact that one cooing little baby garners way more attention than 10 little tykes who have just smacked their head on the corner of the pew, like I mentioned last week. One baby with a pink bow in her wisp of hair can make most young girls completely forget that they are in a church, much less, at Mass.
I imagine little boys are similarly distracted (though I’m certainly not an authority on raising boys) when an infant in front of them has an interesting-looking toy or starts making faces at them during Mass.
And most parents are more than happy to hand their baby back to a family with five young girls who are ogling and cooing over the youngster. When this happens, it is basically “game over” for the Sullivan family. I just try to make the best of it during Mass and chalk it up to a corporal work of mercy for the young parents who probably haven’t heard a word of the Mass for several weeks. I have to admit that this is actually a pretty cool demonstration of community and charity, which is a good thing. As long as our girls are not gathering up other people’s babies at every Mass, an occasional experience like this isn’t too hard to bear.
Even I can be drawn into the “funny face” battle with the toddler in the pew in front of me. I have a pretty funny-looking face to begin with, and I can make the most stoic infant chuckle when I twist my face into something the child has never seen before.
While this is not terribly disruptive, it is contrary to the full engagement with the Mass. It can also be a bit of a distraction to others. Is the toddler going to be offended if I don’t make a funny face at him during Mass?
As I said, most kids think I’m making a funny face even when I’m not trying. So I am not really helping things by actually trying to entertain little kids. Even so, I have done this too many times over the years. I must stop.
We can sometimes be overly pious or distant to others, but if there is a time to demonstrate piety, it is during Holy Mass. A smile is one thing, but goofing around is something totally different.
Just as we should spiritually and mentally prepare ourselves for Mass in order to overcome the distraction of unruly children, we are wise to prepare in the same way to avoid the distraction of cuteness, too. If we have done our preparation, we won’t be as easily distracted by the cute and we might be by the noisy.
As I mentioned in my last column, one of the best ways to prepare for Mass is to read through the readings a few days before Mass. If you don’t already subscribe to something like Magnificat or The Word Among Us, you can easily find the readings online. You could also listen to Sister Ann Shields on Spirit Catholic Radio each Friday at 6:30 a.m. or the Spirit Mornings Show that follows her. Both cover the Sunday readings each Friday morning. All of these sources give you excellent reflections on the readings, in addition to the readings themselves.
It is also extremely important to be aware of what is going on during the Mass. If you know why the priest is doing what he’s doing and if you know what is actually happening during the different parts of the Mass, you will naturally be more engaged and less susceptible to distraction. If you do not know what is happening at some point in the Mass, ask your pastor or another priest, who will be more than happy to explain it to you.
For the most part, our distractions are not the actions of others, but our own failure to adequately prepare ourselves for the miracle of Holy Mass.
There are situations when the opposite is true, however. For instance, examples that come to mind include when someone has dressed very inappropriately for Mass, when someone is talking loudly, using their cellphone, or when they are behaving in a blatantly disrespectful way during Mass.
When such a person is old enough to know better, this can be very distracting to even the most prepared. What should you do in a situation like this? I suggest that you discretely move to another part of the church and pray for them from there. You never know, the person may be dressed in a certain way due to poverty or other viable reasons. The person may be behaving strangely due to an illness or simply a lack of catechesis. If you can discretely position yourself so you are no longer distracted, the Holy Spirit can still bring both of you to Christ.
But when it comes to the children around us, the children who are tomorrow’s faithful, religious, and priests, we don’t need to move to another place in the church, we simply need to have our hearts in the right place before we get to the church.