ASK FATHER: Do I fulfill Mass obligation if I take screaming child out for a long time?

From a reader…

Father, my youngest son, who is less than a year old, is frequently unruly at Mass and throws very loud and lengthy tantrums, often over small things. I (or my wife) sometimes have to stay outside for very long periods of time until he calms down. Nevertheless, we continue to pray silently as best as we can and offer our prayers and trials in union with the Mass. My question is: is there a certain point where being outside too long, or being away from the church, causes us to fail to fulfill our Sunday obligation?

I always tread carefully when any question comes up about noisy kids at Mass.  It is like the proverbial “third rail”.

That said, speaking for myself, thank you from the bottom of my beady-black heart for taking Junior out.   I believe that many people are honest when they say that they don’t mind some crying infants or fussing kids or even melt-down tantrums.  I believe also that many people do mind these thing when they are extended no matter what they say.

So… you take Junior out.  Good move.

In my opinion you are still morally present in the rites on the other side of the door.  You are in heart and mind certainly still united with the action inside. You are most likely trying to guess at which point it is in the Mass.  You desire to be within but for the sake of charity and practicality, you had to go out.

There are various reasons why someone might suddenly have to leave a Mass.  You can, I am sure, think of a few.

Also, yes, our obligation to participate at Mass is a serious obligation.  However, God does not require the impossible from us and neither does Holy Church.

If you are impeded in some way, for a good reason, from participating on a day of obligation, you are, so to speak, “dispensed” from the obligation.   If there is a blizzard and it is too dangerous to go, you don’t have to fulfill the obligation.  If you are sick… if there is a forest fire to fight… if you have no idea where to go to Mass when you are traveling… your obligation is relaxed.  We are reasonable.  If you are taking care of your child who is melting down, you are doing what you need to do.

I also remind everyone here that going to Communion at any Mass is not obligatory, even if you are in the state of grace.  You are not forced to go.  You are not obliged to go.  If you aren’t sure about going because you only managed to be in the church for 5 minutes of the 45 minute Mass while Junior was out of control, you don’t have to go.  It seems to me that if you are checking in with what is going on in church and you are doing your best to participate, you can probably go to Communion.  But you don’t have to.

Also, if your child is having these melt-downs only in church, you might speak to the parish priest.  Use some sacramentals judiciously.

Good luck with that child.  And to all who have young children… I admire you.   Parents of small children often have to deal with things that would make most priests curl up in a ball in the dark and bar the door.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. APX says:

    I also thank the reader for taking out their loud child. I am very sensitive to…everything going in around me. Screaming and crying babies and children take me over the edge and cause much stress to my parasympathetic nervous system.

  2. nemo says:

    As far as I understand, in the old days before VII and cry rooms, a mother of young children was dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass. It is the same idea as if you have to care for a dependent person (sick or elderly).

  3. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    After six years in a big-box retail store (That’s Obamanomics for yah…) I can now tell the differences between the different types of crying from babies… “A need a nap!” is different from “I thought I was going home with that toy!!”

    A tiny baby could be crying into my ear at full volume and I wouldn’t mind one bit because I’ve had it several times a day for weeks on end.

  4. Imrahil says:

    The actual problem is not when someone takes his child out and has no opportunity to hear another Mass. That’s a pity that he misses the parts, but as for his obligation, God does not ask the impossible. Quite clear.

    The actual problem arises when someone takes his child out in the Mass at 9:30 (and has, say, tickets for a ball-game in the late afternoon), but there would, theoretically, be an evening Mass at 18:00 in a parish 20 miles away. [No, that is not an actual problem. The person fulfill his or her obligation as far as possible. There isn’t any obligation to find another Mass.]

  5. Jason the Gray says:

    I’m appreciative of parishes that have PA speakers in the foyer spaces for those of us who have to do the Heisman-trophy-pose evac drill with a screaming infant, so we can still hear the mass. The trick, I found, was not letting toddler-age kids run around have too much ‘fun’ out in the hallways or patio areas because then it positively reinforces hollering to get out of mass.

    I’ve also considered stepping outside with an epic-meltdown screaming daughter on a plane flight, but that is more challenging from both physical and theological viewpoints.

  6. jhayes says:

    Years ago, I often attended Mass at a Franciscan shrine which had many priests. It seemed to be the custom there that if a parent tried to carry out a screaming child during the homily, the priest would stop the homily and insist that the baby be brought back. [Silly. And, frankly, none of their business!]

  7. JimRB says:

    As a father of 4 (5th coming any day – pray for us!), two of whom are still under 3 – I can commiserate with the questioner.

    I also ponder the moral liceity of leaving the young ones at home with the wife who attends a later mass – etc. I love the idea that children should be at mass and present in the mysteries, but the reality is that they are frequently a major distraction to prayer and reverence (both for myself and for others). The Lord called for the children not to be kept from him, but neither did He insist they be present regardless of behavior at even the most solemn functions. [I see no problem at all with going to Mass in shifts. Parents did that all the time, especially in neighborhoods where the church was close. There may be a few years when this is sometimes a good solution.]

    That being said – I know many parents disagree with me and want to be in Mass – and I do my best to pray for them and be patient as they struggle through the tantrums. One thing that DOES help is when the “cry room” (if your parish has one) is left for crying children. There is nothing more frustrating than going to a soundproof wailing room and having disinterested parishioners chatting in there and shooting you dirty looks because your two year old is re-enacting Lord of the Flies.

  8. acricketchirps says:

    Though others’ screaming children at Mass sound like music to me — indeed often better than what’s coming out of the loft — my own screaming children sound like demons. Thanks for an excellent answer.

  9. FrGriffin says:

    As a priest at the altar, I try to remember that Calvary was not exactly peaceful.

    [Well said. Although, as the moment approached, it was quiet enough for people to hear the Lord say, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” Moreover, as the strange darkness deepened, I suspect people became more reserved. Just a guess.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  10. Nathan says:

    To the father of the young son in question:

    Father Z more than adequately answered your query about Sunday obligation. May I be allowed to offer my fraternal encouragement for you? With my children mostly being adolescents or adults, I was an active member of the “Vestibule Brigade” for a number of years.

    Two observations:

    –The little ones do (in my experience, just when you reach the absolute end of your rope) learn to behave eventually at Holy Mass, especially if they have older siblings to model.

    –I think God has special plans for the ones who scream at Holy Mass more than others. My middle son would open up to the heavens every time we darkened the door of a church. Fifteen years later, he keeps me straight on morality and doctrine and is starting to discern whether or not he has a priestly vocation. It could be, perhaps, at least partially, that we kept reminding him how much he owes God for the loud screaming he did at Holy Mass for what seemed like centuries as an infant…..

    In Christ,

  11. sahn105 says:

    Abp. Fulton Sheen would usually begin his shows with some fun. He related a story where a lady took a crying baby out of Mass and said, “Madame, you needn’t take the baby out. He isn’t bothering me.”
    “No,” the lady replied, “but you’re bothering the baby!”

  12. O. Possum says:

    Another reason for the Extraordinary form. When my wife has to take our ‘Littlest RadTrad’ to the church basement for 45 minutes during a solemn mass, she only misses 50% of it.

  13. Papabile says:

    My understanding of the physical attendance required for Mass is that one must be able to see the back of a person who can actually see the altar, and then it passes down the chain.

    That is how some attended Mass in Ireland dating back to the days when it was illegal to offer Mass. We have a family journal dating from, we believe, about 1726 that describes how the recusants would do this and attend Mass from up to 4 furlongs, which seems to be about 8/10ths of a mile.

    [Wellll…. an interesting solution in a bad situation. To my mind, under normal circumstances, this is tenuous. However, it does underscore my point about being morally present, if not physically present (as in separated by a door).]

  14. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Do I fulfill Mass obligation if I take screaming child out for a long time?” Yes.


  15. Catholic_Convert2 says:

    “If you’re not crying, you’re dying.”

    I think people just need to check themselves and make sure they’re being reasonable and balanced. What I see often is:

    1) Elderly and/or Childless and/or people with 1 or 2 children forgetting that what it was like to have young children, or never knowing. These people don’t usually realize that a kid crying doesn’t mean “the show’s over”, but that with 15-45 seconds of work, the child can usually be consoled. Or, that conditioning a child that “crying = you get to leave” is a dead end road.

    2) [usually caused by the above] Young parents being over sensitive and preemptively taking their kids out, or taking them out at the first peep.

    I am 3 children into what I pray will be a very large family, and we have had to take our oldest out twice, and our second (currently 20 months) out once. We have a supportive parish, and kids who haven’t been conditioned to “go play in the foyer”.

    My first few months as a father were very stressful, because I don’t like to make scenes. However, now I’m far more balanced and reasonable about it.

  16. Catholic_Convert2 says:

    I should also add: for older kids, I believe attention-span is a critical element of a successful mass. Not having a TV etc at home, and growing a family with a “pack mentality” helps a lot I think.

  17. iamlucky13 says:

    I was third out of nine children. My hearing is conditioned by the large family experience. I often don’t notice screaming children until they’re pointed out to me.

    However, I know I’m the exception, not the rule, so I will definitely take my child outside if I’m concerned about him becoming a distraction to others.

    Also, I know some priests occasionally catch flak for suggesting parents consider going to Mass separately so a child who is not yet obliged to go to Mass can stay home and not be a distraction for the parent, even if they’re not for the rest of the congregation. A year ago, I thought the idea was preposterous. However, the first time, we had a reason to go separately after becoming parents, it became immediately clear to me there is quite a bit of value to the suggestion. It was far easier to concentrate on the Mass, and I got significantly more out of it than I did even when caring for my generally easy-going infant during Mass.

    That said, I’m hesitant to approach anybody I don’t already know well to suggest this. Too many people take such comments as insults to their parenting ability or interpret it as somehow meaning the Church believes God only tolerates children, not loves them, and act on their emotional response to such interpretations, not intellectually. I’d rather put up with a noisy kid at Church than be the reason even an unreasonably sensitive person becomes an apostate.

  18. Of course the grace of the vocation of parenthood covers for the time away from Mass. Like staying home with a sick child and missing Mass. Parental duties cover it. Duties do not block the graces.

    I don’t remember being taken out of Mass as a child. I knew better than to give my parents a reason for that!! None of us dared. In those early years, I don’t remember ever, a child misbehaving at Mass. Ever. Not that I knew of the other kids – I knew better than to even squirm around in the pew to look.

    and thank you, thank you for taking that crazed child out! Now I can breathe and find my place in the Missal. lol.

  19. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Well, I do remember being taken out to the vestibule, and it was never regarded by us kids as a win. It was dark and quiet, and you couldn’t see or hear what was going on, unlike being inside church; and all the adults standing in the vestibule and the sides of church were like a forest of legs, and you seriously wondered if you’d ever be allowed to sit down again.

    (This was back in the Seventies, when Father Jansen’s no-nonsense Masses were always crowded.)

  20. aliceinstpaul says:

    The idea is one parent attends mass while the other stays home with the children? Hm. So my children wouldn’t learn that the church is God’s home and hr comes to us there? How do they learn about the sacraments or the mass if they aren’t there listening and praying? How do they recognize the glory and Grace?

    Children need to see the baptisms, the ordinations, the scrutinies, and of course, the liturgy and especially the consecration.[At what age?] This is our faith, this is the faith of the Church. They need to see their parents making the sacrifices to attend, see them in prayer, see them penitent, see them kneel. Even very small children can have God’s grace touch them when they witness us practice our faith.

  21. NancyP says:

    Thank you, Father Z., for clarifying things. My parents went to Mass separately or hired babysitters when my brother and I were young children, and I followed their example when I could. However, as a deployed Navy spouse, there was a long period of time during which I had to take my children with me to Mass (Dad was haze gray and underway), which normally meant we were in the sanctuary for a while and the gathering space (with bad speakers, too much running room and friendly parents of toddlers) for the rest of Mass. I figured that I was doing my very best, but it’s nice to read your kind and compassionate words. Thank you. I shed a lot of tears during the workup period and deployment…mostly at Mass, the one place I felt judged for not doing things right.

    I so wish that the critics of parents with young children would hold their fire and stop making unhelpful comments, especially during toddler meltdown moments. They drive young families away from the Church. (Doubly so if a priest is the critic, sadly.) If more priests offered practical, compassionate advice (during the homily, if possible, so the critics could perhaps hear it, too, and keep their unhelpful comments to themselves), perhaps everyone could relax and pray for one another, which would be wonderful.

  22. Gail F says:

    How disruptive a crying child is at Mass depends on lots of things — including the size and architecture of the church, and the size and volume of the crying child! My current parish church was built in the 1800s and has huge vaulted ceilings. A number of families with very young children come to the Mass I attend. Most of these children are not loud when they cry (due to the ceiling height) and most of those who cry tend to fuss rather than cry or scream. Some of the parents stay in the back pews when their infants cry, some stand in the large back are and bounce the children up and down, and some go to the small vestibule. But I have been in modern churches with acoustics such that a crying child is a major disruption. And anyone with a child who regularly cries for long periods of time, or screams when he or she cries, or both, knows very well that a few minutes of soothing the child will NOT put an end to it. Every child is different. If you have an easily soothed child or your child doesn’t cry for very long, don’t assume it’s because of your wonderful parenting skills! You may simply never have met a child who is easily irritated and not easily soothed. They DO exist. Be glad you do not have one.

  23. Matt Robare says:

    Reminds me of an episode of the British panel show QI, where comedians discuss interesting facts. Host Stephen Fry said that six-year olds cry up to twelve times a day and the panelists were incredulous. “Where is this lacrymose six-year old?” said Phil Jupitus. “What has Uncle Stephen been doing to him?” “I don’t understand it,” he said sheepishly. “I try to teach them Latin . . .”

  24. bookworm says:

    It may help also to keep in mind the following points:

    — There is NO one-size-fits-all solution to the “crying kids at Mass” dilemma. Children are not strictly obligated to attend Mass until they reach the age of reason so parents are entirely free to decide whether or not they want to bring young children. I know there are some who adamantly insist that if you don’t bring children from birth they will “never learn” how to behave in church, but my brother and I didn’t start going until we were 4 or 5 years old, and we behaved just fine in church.

    — A decision to either bring the kids or leave them home is not irrevocable and can be changed as circumstances warrant. If your kid is going through a particualry bad stretch of the terrible twos and you just need a break for a week (or two), you can try attending Mass in shifts for that week, or however long you think is necessary, then resume going all together at a later time.

    — Kids who are not quite ready to sit through a full Sunday Mass can “practice” by attending a weekday Mass (which is usually less crowded and less distracting) or going for a church or adoration chapel visit for short periods.

    — Finally, if the kids making noise at Mass are not yours, and you can’t say anything nice about them, don’t say anything at all! Scolding parents or giving them dirty looks will do far more harm than good; at best it will make conscientious parents who are trying their best feel miserable, at worst it could be the last straw that drives them to leave your parish, or even leave the Church altogether. So DON’T DO IT!

  25. Praynfast says:

    There is a new saying, it goes like this: “You can fall off the ship on the Kasper-Jesuit side, or you can fall off the ship on the Lefebvre-SSPX side. Either way, you are in the water with the sharks.”

    I think a lot of this “take-your-child-out” or “don’t-receive-the-Eucharist-if-you-were-caring-for-your-screaming-child-in-the-back-of-Church” talk stems from scrupulosity. Indeed, the Church is reasonable – and “reasonable” can take multiple shapes. Those inside the Church could reasonably be expected to understand that children will cry, scream, talk, drop books, etc., and thus the older fogies should be reasonably expected to deal with it and be a little more understanding. Or, a parent could be reasonably expected to take Chuckie out of Mass for a little bit if he likes playing with the statue in the back of Church.

    But the Church holds the Eucharist to be the source, center, and summit of Grace for a soul that is in the state of grace. Thus, a parent who is living heroic virtue – either by trying to calm the child inside the Church while old fogies rudely stare, or by spending 45 minutes in the back of Church with said screaming child – should be encouraged to receive the Eucharist.

    Be very careful when you suggest that a person in the state of grace not receive the Eucharist. I know people who were led very far away from the Church by a scrupulous priest who suggested not receiving the Eucharist. The priest’s SSPX-like scrupulosity led this person into the water with the sharks.

  26. KAS says:

    So many thoughts. First, I have been told that St. Terese the Little Flower did not begin attending Mass until she was 7 yrs old. While I do not advocate this, it goes to show that parents have a lot of leeway in how they choose to manage their children and Mass.

    Other people’s crying babies sound rather soft and mild sounding compared to my own. They rarely bother me unless they hit full blown meltdown. I see removing them to calm them is as much for their benefit as anyone else’s.

    I note that regular blessing with Holy Water has a positive influence on my children. It also creates teaching moments where we can discuss blessings and God’s grace. Not that the littlest asks, but the older children do, and the toddler is listening and learning.

    Cry rooms would be wonderful if they were reserved for those infants and small children who need them. OH, and if the cry room is outside glass walls with a view to the Mass–TRAIN YOUR USHERS TO KEEP ANYONE FROM STANDING IN FRONT OF THE WINDOWS. sigh. Things like having your view blocked by college guys in cut off shorts whose rears are at eye level leave parents feeling like second class citizens. And I stopped attending Mass at that parish after the fifth bad experience.

    So, know there are a lot of us who have struggled with crying babies and toddlers who easily over-load. Our sympathy is with you and our admiration for your having brought your child to Mass even though you knew it would be a struggle. As one who has left children at home and told them that attending is a privilege only accorded to those children who stay put in the pew, my hat is off to you!

  27. Mr. Graves says:

    Thanks, Father, for this post. Crying children in Mass and whether NFP can licitly be used are the two Internet subjects that produce the most heat and least light among faithful Catholics. On one site, an older woman who said she’d always taken her noisy children out of Mass was actually *shamed* for her decision by other commenters. It was unbelievable.

    At our usual TLM, the kids from large families are rarely disruptive, and when they are the parents remove them almost immediately. Ironically, at the NO we sometimes attend out of town, the smaller child-to-parent ratio somehow results in Masses so distracting we can’t always concentrate. It’s ironic but true.

  28. yatzer says:

    As a mother of children long grown up, when I hear little ones crying at Mass, my first reaction is a cheerful thought that I don’t have to deal with that myself. The next is a sort of fast prayer for the parents who do. That may or may not be the best reaction, but there it is.

  29. Michael_Thoma says:

    We try to attend our Syriac Parish as much as possible with our two little ones. When this is not possible, we try to go to the local Ukrainian Church, when this can’t happen, then the local Latin parish. I sense the kids are less noisy and distracted at our Parish or the Ukrainian due to all the visual and audio – icons, bells, smells… the same as at a more Traditional Latin community.. the bare white undecorated warehouse or circular look at each other design does nothing for them or me. We prefer the parishes where our kids can receive the Most Holy Mysteries as full members. Sometimes this can be a spectacle at a non Eastern parish, or even disallowed as unheard, even though our 2 and 1 yr olds are baptized, chrismated and have received their 1st Eucharist.

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