So you’re about to watch a livestream Mass with a toddler

Kevin and Tiffany Dickinson of Fayetteville, Ark., watch a livestream Mass with their children celebrated by Father John Connell from St. Raphael Church in nearby Springdale March 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Travis McAfee, Arkansas Catholic) 

From a distance, our silver minivan in the shade-covered spot on the far side of the parish parking lot could have been any other vehicle at Mass. But inside, my 4½-year-old and 2½-year-old marched in circles past my husband in the back, spilling cheerios and pretending to be at camp. In the front seat, I attempted to breastfeed our fussy 4-month-old and catch a word or two of the homily being broadcast over the car radio, while thinking that maybe our pandemic-era catechesis was not working out as I’d hoped.

As the weather in Massachusetts, where we’ve recently moved, has grown colder we have abandoned our attempts at the car Masses and returned to the livestreamed services, tuning in most often to our old parish in New Jersey, which we miss dearly. And nearly every week, I think back to that March morning that was our family’s very first virtual worship experience. The kids sat peacefully coloring or paging through books, as the words of the Mass washed over them. My husband and I, saved from chasing toddlers through the pews or wrestling them into our laps, actually got to hear the readings. I distinctly remember thinking: I could get used to this.

As it turns out, I could not. For reasons of health and safety—ours and others’—it has now been 10 months since I have set foot inside a church for Mass, well beyond my longest previous stretch of maybe two weeks, and that only rarely. To be away from Mass this long feels so foreign as to be nearly surreal. It is breaking my heart. I miss the Eucharist. I miss the people. I miss the literal bringing of my body to a place, even as I sometimes felt apathetic about doing so.

When it is safe to do so, we will be back at Mass, but in the meantime, I worry that my children won’t remember what we are returning to.

When it is safe to do so, we will be back, but in the meantime, I worry that my children won’t remember what we are returning to. I worry that my children will drift from the faith community before they even have a chance to experience it. And I worry that the kids will notice my worry and wonder why.

In the old days, as I sometimes think of 2019, my kids were occasionally squirmy at Mass, yet wherever they turned there was something that piqued their interest and reminded us of why we had made the effort to come. There were stained-glass windows that told stories and showed Joseph the carpenter holding tools and Mary riding a donkey and a huge image of Christ the King that at one point prompted comparisons to King Friday XIII. There was holy water to run their hands through and Communion lines to march in and our friendly pastor and deacon who knew us and waved to us. There was a kid driving matchbox cars up and down the pew in front of us, stacks of childrens’ books in the back of the church and a huge, partial-immersion baptismal font just begging for kids to run laps around it.

And so even in the chaos of trying to keep my children contained in the pew, I consoled myself with the thought that all of this was somehow seeping into their consciousness. All of this was part of that slow work of God. I hoped that someday, when my children grew into adults and they had questions or doubts, there would be something about the sacred space of a church that would bring them some familiar comfort and feel like home.

Our current worship space—our actual home—somehow feels less-than-comforting these days. We sometimes stream the Mass in the midst of piles of laundry in our living room, while the kids play with Legos and ignore our pleas to Just Be Quiet For A Few More Minutes. One recent Sunday, they began to yell about something, and my husband began to speak over them in an attempt to calm them, and then I screamed over everyone, “I CAN’T HEAR THE READINGS.” Which is both self-defeating and proof of how much I need to hear their lessons.

It often feels like my husband and I are the only parents who have not yet figured out how to make pandemic-era worship work for our family, so I sought answers from an unscientific but sympathetic group of friends and colleagues (and Twitter users). Thankfully, they offered some comfort (I’m not alone) and tips (Don’t scream at kids during Mass) that might be helpful for other families trying to find a way forward in faith at a time when it can feel like the world is stuck in one place.

It often feels like my husband and I are the only parents who have not yet figured out how to make pandemic-era worship work for our family.

1) Don’t force it. Live-streamed Masses, even when done well, often fail to capture the full attention of young children. But a desire to engage them need not result in a shouting match. When children are young, “it’s more important that your kids see you enjoying Mass than it is that they sit through it,” my friend Rebecca Peters, a Montessori teacher, said. Her daughters, who are 9 and 11, watch live-streamed Masses with her and sometimes come and go throughout. But she isn’t eager to turn the experience into a punishing one and is loath to make it seem like a chore. “I am just happy to see that they can see that I can enjoy it,” she said.

2) Incorporate your favorite small parts of the Mass into other parts of your life. Light candles at dinner. Process around the house. Read Scripture together. Share a sign of peace. “[My daughters and I] love to sing,” Rebecca said. “And sometimes we just sing church songs when it’s not church time.” Children may be drawn back into the Mass when they recognize in it these small elements practiced at other times.

3) Embrace the global church. Livestream Masses can be an opportunity for children to experience the worship style and perspective of churches from around the world. Rebecca and her daughters, who live in Georgia, have had the chance to watch her father, who is a deacon in Massachusetts, preach via livestream. She also has had the chance to show her daughters a livestream Mass at the church she worshiped in while a Jesuit volunteer in Belize.

Light candles at dinner. Process around the house. Read Scripture together. Share a sign of peace.

4) Engaging with the faith is not confined to the Mass. Dinner table conversations can be a natural place to discuss faith. And the liturgical calendar often offers themes around which to engage children. My colleague Heather Trotta, a member of America’s advancement team, whose children are 6 and 8, said that her family has enjoyed using Advent conversation cards to prompt discussion of Scripture, and they’ve made a habit of reading a nightly Advent story. She says even in Ordinary Time simple traditions, like taking turns saying grace and describing the best part of one’s day, can be ways “for all of us to identify the many graces we have each day.”

5) Find meaning in the madness. Sometimes the best way into conversations about faith with older children and young adults is by taking a seemingly more indirect route and engaging them in “conversations about their questions and what is meaningful to them and what they’re hoping for,” said my friend Catherine Kirwan-Avila, A.C.J., who works in campus ministry at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. “One of the most important factors in young people’s lives is a sense of belonging; and belonging means feeling noticed, named and known. In terms of a sense of belonging to a religious community, caring relationships with adults, where young people know they are seen and heard, are really important,” she added, citing the work of the Springtide Research Institute on the state of religion and young people. The goal, Sr. Catherine says, is “not to provide quick or pre-formulated answers but to really listen. The conversation goes best when it starts with what they’re thinking about.”

It is good for children to see that their parents have hope. It is good for us parents to remember the source of it.

6) Zoom out. The pandemic will not last forever, though at times it feels otherwise, Sister Catherine reminded me, adding that while the muscle memory of communal worship is important, it’s a muscle that can be strengthened again a few months down the road. She reminded me to ask: “How can we cultivate the relationship with God and the practice of simple shared prayer at home (even if it’s impossible to get your kids to sit through online Mass)? Can we communicate to them how much we’re looking forward to when we can celebrate the Eucharist in community again?” It is good for children to see that their parents have hope. It is good for us parents to remember the source of it.

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7) Continue to seek out connection. Many parishes continue to offer ways to connect outside of Mass, whether one attends in person or online. The pastor of our New Jersey parish offers live-streamed solo concerts with seasonal hymns as well as live faith sharing on Facebook. Julie, the director of religious education at her parish, tweeted to me that, in addition to moving religious education online and providing families with catechetical resources, she is “constantly checking in with families” because “keeping connected is the most important piece.”

My local parking-lot-Mass parish recently offered a corned beef and cabbage dinner, available for curbside pickup only, as a church fundraiser on a snowy Saturday. My brother-in-law kindly retrieved and delivered ours. As our family tucked into the meal, I felt gratitude for the people who had delivered and prepared the food and solidarity with other families sharing in the same meal from their respective homes. Perhaps this would be a good talking point with the kids, I thought. Even corned beef is an opportunity for catechesis if you squint hard enough. I felt real appreciation for all the men and women still working tirelessly to keep so many parishes going in tough times. And I looked forward to the day when we could all crowd around the same table once more.

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