By Mary DeTurris Poust
A couple of weeks ago, I experienced something at Mass that I'd never seen or heard before in my almost half-century of life as a Catholic. My family was sitting up in the second or third row, our usual spot in our very large suburban parish. Starting at the Eucharistic prayer and lasting through the Sign of Peace, a baby somewhere toward the back half of the church was screaming. I'm not talking fussing and cooing or even an occasional bout of serious crying. I'm talking full-out, top-of-his-lungs, screaming bloody murder. I'm not sure how the priest was even able to concentrate on the words he was saying. Well, actually, he obviously wasn't able to concentrate, and that's where things get interesting.
About halfway through the Eucharistic prayer, the priest simply stopped and stared in the direction of the screaming for what felt like an hour but was probably about 15 seconds. It was pretty clear to those of us in the front that he was being pushed to his limit. This priest (who is not the pastor) is a peaceful, kind, loving, compassionate guy, a really good priest. Anyway, the parents of this baby did not take the hint, so the screaming continued right along with the rest of the Eucharistic prayer and into the Our Father. At that point the priest grimaced and stood by silently as the rest of us continued to pray.
I leaned over to my husband and said, "I think father is going to lose it." And that was just about when he did. As we approached the Sign of Peace, he stopped again and pleaded with them amid the screaming: "Will you please take the baby out of the church? Please?" Talk about an awkward moment. I couldn't see what was going on behind me but I felt myself holding my breath as I waited to see what happened next. I guess the family finally got the message and headed out to the Gathering Space, or, more likely, out of the church. Perhaps for good.
I heard reports that there were many phone calls and emails to the parish in the days to come, but I also heard the same comment repeated to me by several people regarding the offending parents: "At least they were there."
Well, okay, let's start with that. I remember those days of crying babies. I've been there three different times, armed with board books about the saints and the occasional bag of Cheerios. We've stood in the back with a fussy infant. We've listened to the homily over the sound system while chasing a rambunctious toddler around the Gathering Space. We've questioned whether there was a point to our attending at all when we seemed to hear so little of the Mass. But we always, always stepped outside when the fussing became a distraction to the people around us.
Why, then, in recent years, have we taken this "at least they were there" attitude for everything from screaming babies, to inappropriate dress, to kids playing video games in the pews, to people walking up to Communion chewing gum? Do we honestly think that by expecting the bare minimum from people in terms of respect for the Mass and for others we'll hold onto them for a little while longer? Is this the way to bring people to Jesus, by asking nothing of them, not even common courtesy?
Think about it: If you were in a nice restaurant with your family, enjoying an expensive dinner, chances are you'd be a bit miffed by a couple with a screaming baby at the next table. At least if they didn't get up and try to rectify the situation. Or, if you were at a movie theater catching the latest animated feature with your kids and the folks behind you let their toddler scream through the showing, you probably wouldn't think: Well, at least they were there. More likely, you'd wonder how anyone could be so self-absorbed that they would think it was acceptable to ruin an experience for everyone else simply because they didn't feel like inconveniencing themselves.
I'm not saying it was necessarily the right thing to do, to call people out from the altar and ask them leave, but excusing people for all their bad behaviors at church has gotten us nowhere. All that does is breed even more disrespect for the Mass, for the Eucharist, for the parish community. If anything goes, soon nobody goes -- because who wants to belong to something that doesn't stand for anything or that doesn't respect itself enough to demand things of its members. Sometimes things worth our time and effort come with rules and expectations. Mass should be one of them.