Skip to Content
Search Icon

How Parents Participate at Mass

On a full, conscious, active, and fruitful celebration.

On All Saints Day last year, I dragged my two-year-old son out of Mass during the Gloria. This is no figure of speech. I had already stepped to the back of the nave with my fussy one-year-old girl. I was holding her in my left arm when my wife brought the toddler to me. He had been misbehaving in the pew. After my wife returned to where our seven-year-old and four-year-old boys sat, the toddler laid down on the tiled floor and refused to move. He weighs about forty pounds and knows how to go as limp as a noodle if he does not want to move. I tried to get him to stand; he sank down. I implored him quietly (but firmly) to stand; he ignored me. I made two more futile attempts to get him up; each was met with a moan and more fuss. In despair—and in full view of those at the back of the nave—I took his arm in my right hand and pulled him across the floor in search of a cry room or nursery. But there was no cry room, and the nursery was closed. And so, as either my wife or I have done for just about every Sunday for the last several years, I sat outside the nave unable to hear the muffled words of the Mass. While watching two children, I gave what attention I could to the parts I could make out.

I relate this story because I have a question: Did I participate in Mass? Maybe, though only in the most general sense of the word. But did I fully, consciously, actively, and fruitfully celebrate the Mass? If my experience described above qualifies, I am not sure what does not—so long as a person is in the building where Mass is said.

In any case, “full, conscious, active, and fruitful celebration” of the Mass by the laity is what Pope Francis recently called a fundamental purpose of the Second Vatican Council in his liturgical reflections in Desiderio desideravi. Indeed, Sacrosanctum concilium declared such active participation “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” Building on this, Desiderio desideravi declares that it is not the mere rote action of the priest alone through which the graces of Mass flow, but rather, the full participation therein by all. Francis adds that the laity should experience “astonishment at the paschal mystery” as an “essential part of the liturgical act.” He asks the laity to “grow in our capacity to live in full the liturgical action.” This requires from the faithful both “formation for the Liturgy and formation by the Liturgy.” It is “decisive” that the lay faithful must grow in capacity to understand each of the liturgical acts and prayers and understand their divine and anthropological significance. Such growth and formation depends on the pedagogical value of the liturgy, such that it is “a pastoral action of the first importance when [pastors] take the baptized faithful by the hand to lead them into the repeated experience of the Paschal Mystery.” And the reflections in Desiderio desideravi are nothing new. In fact, they are the consistent sentiment of the liturgical reform movement from the mid-twentieth century onward.

Now, I am no liturgical hardliner. I attend Mass at my local Cathedral parish, where the Mass is said in English with the occasional use of Latin for the Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus Dei. But if I accept the words of Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the rest of the reform movement at face value, then I have to legitimately ask whether I have participated in Mass sufficiently to receive its graces in the last eight years. I cannot remember the last time I have sat and heard an entire Sunday Mass with my family without being interrupted by my children. Since the birth of our first child (who is now eight), we have had a grand total of three months without at least one in diapers. Our Sundays at Mass are spent corralling children in the pew, shushing them when they get too loud, picking them up from laying on the ground under the pew, blocking them from getting their heads stuck, taking them to the bathroom for a diaper change or pee break, and, inevitably, taking one or more to the narthex or hall when they get fussy.

And, while I am thankful that most people are gracious when I have loud children, the modern expectation that young children attend Mass to learn the rites and be ready for Communion by second grade merely adds to the problem. For much of history, Mass was an adult ritual for adult prayer, and young children were not typically brought to Mass. Nursing mothers and others who care for young children were typically excused from attending Mass. But between the need to prepare children to receive Communion and the concern that failure to expose children to Mass from a young age might affect their later religious commitments in a secularizing world, parents are now admonished to bring their young children to Mass. So, I have to attend Mass; I have to give it my full, conscious and active participation; and I have to bring my children with me. This is an impossible dilemma. My wife and I have probably fully, actively, and consciously participated in an entire Sunday Mass no more than ten times in the last eight years.

This has practical and theological implications for the meaning of “full, active, and conscious participation” for parents, which are worth exploring beyond the usual well-meaning responses to those of us just trying to get through another Sunday morning without a toddler melting down. The consistent teaching of the liturgical movement and the official teaching of the Church since Sacrosanctum concilium has been that the laity should be actively and consciously involved in the actions of the liturgy. But when I and many other parents spend most of a Mass paying attention to our children or taking them out to the narthex, such that we cannot recall the readings and do not hear the homily or Eucharistic Prayer, have we participated sufficiently to receive the graces of the Mass? Have we even met our Sunday obligation?

The only way I can square this circle is to conclude, like Saint Peter babbling inadequately after Christ’s transfiguration, that, “’Tis good, Lord, for us to be here.” Such is my prayer when I am soothing a fussy baby or taking someone to the bathroom. I am bodily in the Church where Mass is being said, and I try to pay attention as I can. That is all I can do and bring most Sundays. I say my own prayers, recite the Creed when I hear the congregation reciting it, and make a quick genuflection when the consecration bell is rung. I console myself with the thought that it is the priest’s words and actions that transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood, and that Christ comes down to me in the Eucharist regardless of my present inability to pay much attention at Mass.

But what does that sound like? Is it similar to the way many people attended Mass before Vatican II? Because the entire purpose of the liturgical reform was to overcome such allegedly minimal awareness of the liturgical actions and such reliance on the priest’s actions alone to effect the Mass. I can only say that if my surrender to such minimal participation is a problem, it is not my problem. Rather, the theology of the liturgical movement must address the actual circumstances of Catholic parents and families. Furthermore, the parents who refrain from artificial contraception as required by Humanae vitae are on the whole more likely to have several small children over a five- to fifteen-year period. Such families are a sizable portion of the laity who actually attend weekly Mass and are often called “the future of the Church.” These are adults in their prime who are going about serious lives of faith and doing exactly what the Church asks of them in their marriages, not people who cannot fully participate because of some physical or mental impairment. Such parents typically would actively participate at Mass—but their very vocation in life prevents them from doing so.

And yet if the necessary “full, active, and conscious” participation for receiving the graces of Mass means listening to the expanded lectionary and a pedagogical homily, paying rapt attention to the consecration, and singing the hymns and other sacred music, then these adult Catholics who are rearing the “future of the Church” are routinely being denied such graces for several years. That just cannot be the case. To suggest that such parents—who spend every Sunday morning getting their kids up and out the door to Mass and who tend to those children during Mass—are doing so without God’s grace in the Eucharist is nonsensical. And the experience of millions, even billions of people and innumerable saints participating in and being formed by liturgies across several dozen rites in various dead or highly exalted languages over two thousand years belies it.

I suspect these words about “full, active, and conscious” participation are more like a pious idealism, and pronouncements calling such participation “indispensable” or “essential” elements of the liturgy are meant to encourage the faithful in their devotion to the liturgy itself rather than be taken literally. The Mass still essentially occurs through the actions of the priest. Nothing in Vatican II changes this fact. And I really do receive the graces of the sacraments while tending to children, with however much or little attention I can give to any one Mass or liturgical action in it at the time. The truth is I am not all that indispensable or essential—and that is a rather comforting thought. I can come to Mass as I am and pay attention to the liturgy as I am able, while the actions of the priest at the altar bring about the Paschal Sacrifice despite my limitations. ’Tis good, Lord, just to be here.