Let me begin by saying that we very much like our new parish. We will only be in San Antonio a few months but we felt it was important to find one church and quickly re-establish our Sunday morning/going to Mass routine. After being on the road for 2 months visiting family yes we of course went to Mass every Sunday. However, often it was a different church and time from one week to the next. We wanted to regain the stability of routine for our kids after so much transition in as many ways as possible. Going to Mass at the same time and place is one of those critical weekly routines.
That being said, I witnessed something interesting at our new parish this past week. This is a large parish. Large in both the physical space and number of people. You can easily fit 300 or so people in the pews, maybe 350 or even 400 if everyone actually moved all the way to the middle (#Catholicproblems haha). There is also standing room in the gathering space and along the walls. They actually keep folding chairs permanently set up along the walls knowing people will need them. There is also a Blessed Sacrament Chapel that is in the back and can be used for overflow seating.
This Sunday we arrived approximately 10 minutes early. Typically early enough to find a pew for 5 at most churches. At this parish, however, we were cutting it close (again, if people would only move to the middle….). Ben went to park the car and I walked in with the kids. As we walked in I noticed a large group of families with small children hovering in the back by the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (doors closed). There were still plenty of seats available if you smiled nice and negotiated space. As I walked by with my 3 little ducklings (or elephant sea lions depending on the day) an usher stopped me. She asked me if I wanted to wait with the others, they would be opening the doors (to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel/overflow seating) in just a minute. She questioned whether I would be able to find a seat. I looked around, assured her we would be fine, and moved on. We did find a seat. Front and center (and in the middle no less).
During Mass I sneaked a peek at the back and saw that all those families were in the overflow seating instead of being with the larger community.
Now I know you can argue that they were still sitting with the community, they are just an aisle away. And I do agree, they were still worshipping with all of us. My big issue, especially in light of the Gospel reading, is how they got there.
For as welcoming as this parish is, somewhere there is an undercurrent that pulls families with small children to the back. No matter how or when it happened, there is now a culture that exists which tells families that their place is in the back, away from the larger community (even if it is just separated by an aisle).
Now think about the Gospel. Zacchaeus is a tax collector who happens to be short. Due to his stature, Zacchaeus can’t see Jesus and the crowd isn’t making it any easier for him. So, he climbs a tree to see Jesus better. There are many theological and scriptural lessons that can be pulled from this passage. I would like to think about the most basic point, the height difference. Zacchaeus was short and the tall people wouldn’t let him through to the front. He took matters into his own hands and climbed a tree.
Let’s apply this to our children. They are short. When you stick them in the back, they can’t see. All they experience is a disembodied voice, some music and they get to go for a walk close to the end. Since there aren’t any trees around, they take matters into their own hands in any number of ways.
I’m not saying that children are angels in the front row and demons in the back row (mine proved this very well in our front row experience for All Saints’ Day). However, I do notice an overall improvement in behavior and most importantly, interest, when we sit up front. John asks me more questions and participates in the songs he knows much more when we sit up front compared to when we are in the back. Clare, only 2 years old remember, is much more likely to go into the aisle and try to run away when we sit in the back than when we sit in the front. Again, it’s not perfect and we have had some very hard Masses in the front row. But they are fewer and farther between than when we sit in the back.
Jesus told his disciples “let the children come to me, do not prevent them” (Matthew 19:14). This means, to me at least, let the children come all the way to me, not just to the cry room or the designated overflow seating that is in the back and out of the way. Tall people, stand aside! Let the children come all the way up!
So what to do about this? I have a proposition that I would love to have opinions on.
Many churches reserve one of the front rows for a handicap row. This way, persons in wheelchairs and their families will have a place to sit where they can see and feel comfortable. Why don’t we take the first 3 rows of one section of the church to reserve for families with small children? What if we went even farther and created a new ministry for high schoolers and adults with older children or grown children? These individuals could sit in the middle (yes, the middle!) of the pew to be helpers for these families.
Well, what do you think? Let’s make a new culture. If we insist on designating a space for families, let’s at least offer them what should be the prime place where their children can see and engage in the drama of the liturgy. And, let’s offer them the help that they need so that when their youngest unloads in their diaper or someone needs some extra space to calm down on the day that their spouse had to work, is sick or is deployed, they have an extra set of hands who is willing and wanting to be of service.
It’s not rocket science folks. After all, how many times have you taken a group photo and heard the photographer call out “Short people in the front. Tall people in the back!”
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