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Sherry AntonettiApril 20, 2023
Teen girl sits alone in a church looking through a stained glass windowiStock

Every year, someone writes about squirmy toddlers and babies at Mass, begging the congregation to understand that the parents are doing everything they can; they simply want to be present at the Mass. I know that struggle, I’ve lived it. I’ve felt the stares and the silent rebukes. But now I have teens.

These days, I’m an older mother with several children who struggle with the faith I hoped they’d embrace as their own from the get-go. Still, they come to Mass. Yes, one has hair over his eyes and ripped jeans and sits the whole time. Yes, another is wearing shorts and a hoodie and it’s winter. Yes, that one took out her phone, though I made her put it back. And each in turn made a trip to the bathroom at some point during the homily.

I would love for them to be fully present. It would be nice if we could persuade them to dress more formally. However, these days I just rejoice that they came. I take comfort in the parable of the two sons, one who says “yes” but does not do it and the other who says “no” but obeys in the end. Who did the Father’s will? The one who did what was asked. I asked them to come and they came. And, yes, that counts.

My hope is that, over time, by attending Mass they will find something there that speaks to them. That their lives may bring them to a point where they hope for more and discover it is here and will be here and has been all along. It would be a great joy to me personally, but it’s not about my joy. I just want them to know that God is, God loves them, and God hears all their hearts’ cries. I want them to know that this place, this church, this Mass, each Mass, is an invitation to them personally. I want them to know they belong, however they show up.

They might ask, “Well, if God hears your heart’s cry for us to return, why haven’t we? We know you have faith.” There is that gift of free will, I might say, the generous forbearance of a loving God. He won’t insist on his will over ours at any moment in our lifetime. My children are always free to choose our faith. Believe me, I’d love to insist and sometimes wish God would.

However, I trust and know that God wants them to rest in his heart of their own free will even more than I do. And I know God is not above courting their souls all of their lifetimes, with every gift at his disposal. So I wait in joyful hope, for the coming of that day of both Easter and Christmas in their faith lives, when all the joy God has offered pours into their hearts at their consent. It is my hope, my prayer, my heart’s cry. And I know God hears it.

As a parent of older children who are resistant to the Catholic faith, I have to hope that one day the reverence and deepening of their faith will come. And I hope that my fellow Catholics in the pews will help to demonstrate that the wider church wants them there too. It is a harder road if the vibe they get from others at Mass is an irritated glance that translates to: “You don’t belong here.”

If perfect faith were the admission price for Mass, none of us could enter.

If perfect faith were the admission price for Mass, none of us could enter. None of us are mature in the faith at 15 or 21 or even sometimes at our current adult ages. We are—all of us—at some point grasping and wandering. All of us are at times wondering if all we have learned is a part of us or apart from us, something we just grew up thinking.

When you see a parent with older kids at Mass and something about how those teens are sitting or how they are dressed starts to draw your scorn, maybe instead of judging them, say a prayer to St. Monica for the family. In the meantime, smile each time you see a teen or college student in the pews, no matter how they look. Do not become the rationale they use to stop coming.

We all want to live in a way that witnesses to why, despite all its challenges, we stay in the church. We want to be the witnesses that show by our love—for Christ, for our children, for all in the pews and all who are missing—we are Christians. In a world where one can be anything for any reason, we need to show the teens and young adults of the world, and indeed the whole world, why we follow Christ when there are a million easier options. We need to live in the pews as though nothing is more important than being before the Eucharist, and in a way that reveals to the world that heaven, all of joy, all of peace, all of hope, can be found here.

How do we do that in a jaded and distracted world? In a world that seems too often to believe that all answers for the having can be found on a small screen, and that the best we can hope for is to be amused? By radiating something alive in our words, our deeds, our actions and, most essentially, our presence. By being people who are on fire for Christ, and deeply in love with those whom he loves. It will require our constant assent. Light attracts. Joy invites. Love reveals. We must bring all three gifts to the altar. Christ will do the multiplying and we will have a church brimming with squirmy teens and toddlers, and we will rejoice that we are overflowing with people.

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