My dear people of St. Mary’s:
When I was a newly ordained priest I served in the parish of St. John the Evangelist in Center Moriches. It was a wonderful parish with many families and a large number of young children. I was celebrating Mass one Saturday evening when the children were especially active and vocal, and I sensed some restless annoyance in the congregation. So, after Communion, I decided to say something. I told the people that I realized Mass had been a bit loud that evening, but that I was glad for it. I told them that the sound of children, especially young children, at Mass shows that the church is alive and well. I reminded them that we were all fussing babies in church at one time. And I also said that we must remember that from the moment a baby is baptized, that child has a right to be in church at Mass. Sunday Mass for even the littlest ones is a right, not a privilege. And even though sometimes it can be distracting or even a little annoying, it is important to remember that these young parents are doing something that so many others of their generation are not: they are coming to Sunday Mass as a family. I said it was important that we always make sure they feel welcome, for when the Apostles were turning the children away Our Lord Jesus Himself said: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.” [Mt 19:14]
When I finished my little speech, the people actually applauded. But there is a sad end to this story. About a week later I received an anonymous letter in the mail. There was no return address or any way for me to identify the sender. It was from a young mother who wrote that she had been at the Mass and, as her children fussed, she had been made to feel very unwelcome by the people around her. There were many annoyed looks, and one woman even said something unkind to her. This young mother wrote that she was so upset that she left church immediately after Communion, and declared that her family would not set foot in that Church or any Catholic Church ever again. There was no way for me to know who wrote it, and so I was unable to contact her. If only she had stayed another five minutes, and heard what I said, I believe everything would have been different. Over these last fifteen years I have often thought about her and her family and have prayed for them.
On Monday of this week I received an email from a young mother who described much the same thing happening to her here at St. Mary’s last Sunday. She wrote that, new to the area, her family has been going to different Catholic churches looking for a place to call home. She was, naturally, upset and hurt, though her e-mail was very thoughtfully written and polite. But thanks be to God, she signed it. On Tuesday I paid a visit to her at her home, with her beautiful children around her, to apologize to them in person. I told her the story of my experience in the parish years ago, and I thanked her for giving me the opportunity to do for her what I could not do for that other young mother. I was also able to assure her that we here at St. Mary’s are not the sort of parish to turn young families away or to be unwelcoming. When I first arrived here I noticed the small number of children present at Sunday Mass. I have noticed in the last two years the number of children has begun to increase ever so slightly. This is more than a good sign: this is a blessing from Almighty God Himself.
I told the young mother that she must find a parish where she feels welcome and at home, even if it is not St. Mary’s. I also encouraged her to bring all the children, no matter how small, to Mass every Sunday. I never want to hear anyone say: “I remember a time, when I was little, when I wasn’t allowed to go to Mass.” And we here at St. Mary’s must make certain that we are always ready to welcome all in the spirit of the Lord Jesus who told us: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives Him who sent me.” [Mt 10:40]