Mass Manners: Simple Do’s and Don’ts for Modern Families
When my children were little our family was blessed with a great parish priest who met after Mass on Friday mornings with anyone who wanted to hear him talk on various religious topics. We’d sit on folding chairs in the carpeted parish library, juggling our babies on our knees, and feeding toddlers bits of apples or tiny crackers to keep them still. Father would stand at the front of the room. Sometimes he would elaborate on a teaching from the Catechism, other times about the life of a particular saint or the meaning of a specific feast day, but often he brought up the topic of proper behavior for Mass.
The other young mothers and I would also frequently talk about this topic amongst ourselves, because so often at any daily Mass we strived to attend (sans husbands for most of us; it was a work day), we struggled with squirmy toddlers, fussy babies, and burgeoning grade-schoolers who were prone to goofing around and other inattention challenges. Together we put our heads together and talked about ways to help our children find success (mostly) when we ventured out for Sunday or weekday liturgy.
From this treasure trove of mothers’ minds, as well as Father’s good advice, come the following suggestions, some do’s and don’ts regarding manners for Mass with children. Some of these suggestions are appropriate for the youngest of our children; others for the older ones, and still others are applicable to both groups. Use your own judgment for your individual family, but certainly these can at least be a good starting point for teaching your children the right behavior and attitude for Catholic worship. Adjust to find what works for YOU!
AS YOU APPROACH
As you approach church while driving or walking, gather your thoughts and think about where you are going. Put yourself in the proper disposition to worship God and meet Him at Mass. You can help your young children do this by reminding them what you will be doing and what kind of behavior is expected of them:
“We are going to see Jesus. The lector and priest will read some readings from the Bible. You can sit on my lap and we’ll listen together. We will sing songs. We will kneel and fold our hands. You can look at the Bible books we brought. We will sit still. We will be quiet. Ok?”
If something like the above is said softly, gently and enthusiastically to your children, they can look forward to the Mass. Telling your children what you expect of them kindly will set the stage for success. Bring religious board books or a laminated collection of holy cards for the little ones. As Mass begins and proceeds, explain to them in a whisper what is going on. (“This is consecration. Hear the bells? Let us bow our heads. Jesus is coming down from heaven.” ) As your children get older, be sure to provide them with age appropriate prayer books. Teach them the Acts of Faith, Hope and Love. These are little prayers that will start them out right and serve them well for the rest of their lives.
DON’T EXPECT PERFECTION
Children are, well, children. Some of their abilities are not the same as adults’. Wiggling around is normal at certain ages (toddlers, etc.) Ordinary infant sounds are to be expected. A bit of noisiness comes simply from being a child. That being said, it is common courtesy to remove an excessively noisy child who is clearly disrupting the prayer of other churchgoers. You’ll know the tipping point when it’s time to go. It’s hard to qualify but easy to identify. When in doubt, duck out.
Calm down a fussy, little one in the back; get him a drink; remind him gently of the expectations, or let him walk around to burn off that two- year old energy, then return when things seem right. Hug, soothe, rock, explain. Don’t worry about what other people think. Chances are others have been where you are. Even if they haven’t, this is normal. Relax.
Personally, I’m in the no-Cheerios-or-other-snacks-at-church camp. I did not bring toys to occupy my children in church, preferring to help them integrate to the Mass itself. However, if your style of parenting is different, go for it. Just keep things discreet and limit small take-alongs to one or two items that don’t make noise. Honestly, there’s some room for personal preference here.
SHOW BASIC COURTESY
When you enter a church, men and boys take off your hats.
Everyone speak in hushed voices. There are people praying and Jesus is present. Children will follow the lead of their parents. The best way to teach your children is to set a good example.
This probably goes without saying, but when you are entering the church, make sure your child (teen) isn’t chewing gum, and that everyone will have fasted a full hour (had nothing to eat or drink but water) by the time Communion takes place. Medicine, of course, doesn’t break the fast.
There are many opinions as to what is the best attire, but keep in mind that when you meet someone important you want to look your best for the occasion. Why would you dress casually to meet the Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is present at Holy Mass?
Modest length dresses and skirts or non-form-fitting dressy pants or capris and blouse or sweaters are good choices for women. Shoulders should always be covered and clothes should not be cut out in any way. During the summer, it doesn’t hurt for women and girls to keep neutral colored sweaters with them to slip into as they enter church, and out as you walk outside into perhaps warmer air.
Dress pants and a button-down or other collared shirt, are optimal clothing for men. Some men like to wear sport coats and ties or sweaters. Athletic wear is made for sports and is best suited for such. My personal opinion is that shorts are for little boys; pants are for grown up men, although given particular places and situations, an exception could be acceptable. Blue jeans are work pants, and very casual. If you decide to wear them, make sure they are neat and clean and not frayed.
Remember that something that is appropriate just outside the church may not be inside. The Vatican guidelines for dress are good to follow and always in style, even if your particular parish seems casual about dress.
I’ve seen lists for proper Mass attire and folks on both sides of the formal/informal fence offended by them. Use your common sense and good judgment. Yes, it means more that you are at Mass than what you are wearing to Mass. Yes, God sees your soul and that counts more than what you wear. Yes, there are instances where you are coming or going to a place for which you must wear something that you normally wouldn’t but in a particular case it makes sense. (If you’re leaving right away to take a kid to a soccer game or if you have a uniform for work and are going there right after Mass, for example) Generally speaking, it is better to err on the side of formality. It sets a good tone and isn’t going to hurt anyone.
A good rule of thumb is to dress so as to not draw attention to yourself. It is charitable not to be a distraction to others.
Try to arrive on time.
I know, it’s hard with little ones and with a big family, but try. It’s just polite.
Turn off your phone. Better yet, leave the phone in the car.
Yes, of course the exception is if you are doing spiritual reading on the device before Mass. But come on, how often is that really the case?
Once in church, find your pew and don’t forget to genuflect facing the tabernacle
(tricky in those side tabernacle churches). Teach your children to do this. This offers the proper reverence and respect due to Jesus who is truly present in the tabernacle. Also, gentlemen, be chivalrous. It shows the highest degree of politeness when boys and men step back and let the ladies enter the pew first.
During Mass, participate.
Sing the songs; follow the readings. Focus. Pray. And help your children do this. If you want to understand Mass better, read up beforehand about the meaning of each part. Dr. Edward Sri’s book “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass” is a great resource for the entire family. Remember, kids follow what their parents do.
As you know, there is a good deal of standing, sitting and kneeling at Mass. This constant shifting is actually a good thing from a young child’s perspective. Help your little one up or down, and to find a comfortable position. Don’t allow banging on the pews or siblings, but don’t be so rigid your face scrunches up and you’re glaring at your kids for most of the liturgy. Try to catch your children participating and behaving well and praise them for this. Look down the pew and smile or wink at them. Positive reinforcement works so much better than nagging. Remember you want your children to love the Church, to enjoy coming to prayer in God’s house!
Prepare yourself for Holy Communion.
Gather your thoughts and focus on the sacrifice of the Mass, really think about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. Learn some prayers for before and after Communion. More
The New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism states, “to receive Holy Communion worthily it is necessary to be free from mortal sin, to have a right intention, and to obey the Church’s lass on fasting before Holy Communion.” You may want to buy this little book to read with your child, for a better understanding of the Mass and the Catholic faith in general. It’s a gem.
When you present yourself for communion do so reverently. Show your child how to fold his hands and bow his head with respect. If he is too young to receive, show him how to cross his arms for a blessing. Once again, the children follow your lead.
After Mass, teach respect by keeping a low voice while in the church then warmly and heartily greeting family and friends in the back. Demonstrate to your children that your Catholic community is a treasured part of your life.
These simple suggestions will help you have a great experience with your child at Mass. Tweak them. Add to them. Make them yours. What a joy to introduce your children to the Faith!
Theresa Thomas is a stay-at-home mother of nine and the wife of David. She writes for Integrated Catholic Life , is a columnist at Today's Catholic News, and her second book Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families is available from Scepter Publishers. You can write to Theresa at TheresaThomasEverydayCatholic@gmail.com