I’m a newly converted Catholic. Raised in evangelical churches my whole life, I’m used to Sunday school and massive well-funded kids programs that have entire wings of a church building dedicated to keeping children happy and away from you while you spend time in worship. Let’s be honest. For a lot of us with kids, it’s free babysitting while we sit with our latte in relative silence for an hour a week. At least that’s how it felt to me. Church became a social activity. A place to go and see friends, get some quiet time away from the kids, have a latte at the coffee bar, and hear the praise band that sounded like a rock concert.
I’m not really sure when Jesus left the building, but it happened and I missed Him. After a long researching period that lasted over a year, I found myself in the last place I ever expected to be: the Catholic church down the street. Growing up I had been to Catholic mass and found it so foreign and boring that it was a shocking revelation when the knowledge I had gleaned from all the books and history turned into awe at the beauty that was right in front of me. The ancient rituals took on a whole new deep meaning to me that I had never known before but felt connected to, like a genetic memory. It felt like home.
But what the heck would I do with my kids? They had grown up in kiddie wonderland in every church we had attended. They got to basically party every Sunday and now I was requiring them to sit (and stand, and kneel, and stand, and sit) on a hard bench every week. It’s not an easy transition to make. Catholic churches don’t have Sunday school. They believe that the entire body of Christ should worship together from newborn to senior citizen. We are all in this together. One reason I believe many cradle Catholics turn away from the church as adults is because no one explained to them when they were children what this mystery of the liturgy and the miracle of the Eucharist really is, and why it’s worth sitting through. And I don’t have the answer on how to do that for children. It’s something I will be trying diligently to do and I believe it will take work and creativity.
To make matters more difficult I have a three-year-old son. Getting through an hour-long mass is like signing up for an anxiety attack, or it was until last week. After coming home dejected many weeks in a row because I had failed to get him to behave — we spent more time in the hallway than in the mass — I felt defeated. I considered leaving them at home with their father so I could just go to mass! After all, I hadn’t heard the homily, I had no idea what was said, or what passages were read. I was busy handing out crayons, shushing and trying to distract and cajole while keeping him from banging the kneeler on the floor. Even worse was the time he yelled, “I’m done! I wanna go home now,” during a particularly quiet moment which had several pews of people chuckling for a good minute or so. I felt cheated. I didn’t get anything out of it and I probably ruined it for everyone around us.
And then it hit me.
This is not about me. It’s the very thing I left, that constant need to be filled, to “get something” out of it, to meet my needs — it was all so disappointing. The reason I left the evangelical church for the Catholic church at its core was that I wanted to be with Jesus. I wanted to be in His presence. It isn’t about some guy on a stage and what he’s going to say to me this week. That’s not the food I want or need. Just being in our cathedral I have felt closer to Him than anywhere else in the world. And so I went again, with my children in tow, armed with a few tips from something I read. “Sit in the front!” it said, which seems counterintuitive if you have to leave with a screaming kid, but strangely it worked because instead of staring at the back of someone’s head, the children can see the action up close, make eye contact with their priest, whom they love and know. But I was calmer after acknowledging that this is not about me. I just wanted to be in the same room with our Lord. I missed the homily again because the little one needed the bathroom, but I felt peaceful about it because we were there to be with Jesus, to sit in His presence for an hour with no phones or TVs or distractions. We were there to eat at the table with our neighbors and friends. To wish each other the peace of Christ and to pray together for one another and with one another.
And when I let that anxiety go, amazing things happened. My son began to participate for the first time. He even knelt to pray with us once and asked Father for some of the host in his little voice, “Soon, little one,” came the amused reply. It was a precious Sunday, and I still was shushing and handing out crayons and cajoling and correcting. That didn’t change. But nevertheless, Jesus was there.