When Jesus reprimanded the apostles for wanting to keep children away from Him (see Mt 19:14), He did not give an age or behavior requirement.
At the baptism of a child, parents and sponsors promise to teach their children the Catholic faith and “to bring them up according to the law of Christ and His Church.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life” (No. 2177). This importance is shown in attendance at Mass and rest from labor, the first of the precepts of the Church.
The obligation to attend Mass is captured in canon law, which states, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass” (Canon 1247). The same canon goes on to note the duty to abstain from work on the Lord’s day. As a law of the Church, the Sunday Mass obligation binds Catholics who are at least 7 years old and have the use of reason. However, since first reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist are at or about age 7 in the United States, it seems that children should be well accustomed to attending and participating in the Mass prior to that age.
In truth, children can at times be loud and disruptive during Mass, and not everyone is accepting of the fact that children will be children. It can be exasperating to those around them when parents do not attempt to quiet their children who are overly loud or rambunctious during Mass, preventing others from participating in Mass.
However, children need to be taught correct behaviors, and they should learn to feel welcome in the pews at Mass. By keeping your children away from Mass unless they behave perfectly, you might be sending a subtle message that Mass and Church are only for the perfect and not for sinners. That’s a lesson that might keep them away from Mass in the future, too.
Some churches have a children’s room, or “cry room.” Signs in the children’s room of one church state clearly that it is a place to help parents teach their children to participate in the Mass. In other churches, there are a few pews or seats in the narthex, where parents can take a crying or overactive child for a time, while still able to see and participate in the Mass.
For parents with children, the rush to prepare for Mass and to leave the house on time can set up a state of panic that lasts through the Mass. It is easily written and not always easily accomplished, but finding more time on a Sunday morning in order to make the preparations for Mass more calm and relaxed — even praying at home or in the car as a family in preparation for attending Mass together — can establish a more serene atmosphere even before arriving at the church, along with establishing a clear expectation for children that they should focus on prayer and the Mass as much as their age allows them to.
Children under the age of 7 are not obligated to attend Mass, but if they can there are benefits for them and for the community. There are certainly times when it is best to remove unruly children from Mass temporarily, if only to be charitable to those in surrounding seats, but it seems better to teach children to be comfortable in the house of God surrounded by their fellow Catholics. It takes plenty of patience and lots of attention from parents, but that is a better practice than keeping them away from the Lord.
Rev. Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg.