I apologize for the radio silence over past few months. Shame has forced me into hiding, and I am only now mustering the courage to seek help.
But first, a story I’ve told friends and family dozens of times. I’d like to dust it off in this space because of its relevancy.
When he was 3, my middle son, Jacob, was pleasant as can be. (Note the past tense. He’s older now — 7 — and his stubbornness also has matured.) To those who weren’t his brother or his sister, he was cute and sweet and friendly. Certainly, he had his moments, and it seemed they all came when we were at Mass.
One Sunday morning, we were visiting a nearby parish, and Jacob was in a particularly foul mood. He also was particularly thirsty, and he vehemently disagreed with Mass Rule No. 1: one trip to the restroom and drinking fountain per child. On this, we did not (and do not) negotiate. He protested — loudly and unrelentingly, and it escalated to a full-on fit.
At that point in our lives, while younger, my wife and I were no parenting rookies. We had our disaster plan all laid out: We sat in the last few rows; we occupied the end — not the middle — of our pew. We had a clear exit path.
It did not matter. Some disasters, you cannot plan for.
I calmly and gently hoisted him and his kicking little legs over my shoulder to step outside and lovingly (yet firmly) remind him that this wasn’t appropriate behavior. As we headed out the door, I assume Jacob noticed (and was disappointed by the fact) that only our half of the church was focused on his outburst. He remedied that very quickly and very loudly as he screamed the words I’ll never forget.
“I. Hate. Church.”
Now, most won’t bat an eye at a child screaming in church. It likely happens at every Mass in every church in every diocese. A child screaming “I hate church” at the top of his little lungs, however, in my best guess, is rare.
As I made our getaway, I was focused on containment, but I felt the stares drilling into my back. I pictured mothers covering their children’s ears and fathers scowling, old ladies clutching their pearls and old men clutching their chests. I was never more certain of God’s presence than I was at that moment, only because I was sure he was going to strike down my child and me right then and there.
You’d be stunned how many times a kicking 3-year-old could fire off those words in the 20 feet between pew and the sweet relief of the outdoors.
“I hate Church! I hate Church!”
We laugh about it now. Jacob still tries his best to find workarounds to the bathroom/drinking fountain rule, but he has become quite the prayerful child who no longer hates church.
His little brother, on the other hand …
Dominic is now 18 months old, and he’s as cute as he is rotten. And like his brother before him, it seems that he, too, holds a strong disdain for Mass. Well, not all of it. He doesn’t entirely mind the introductory rites, and he tolerates the Liturgy of the Word. But he’s downright loathes Father’s homilies. (Sorry, Father Bill. I love your words of wisdom. But Dominic is clearly no fan.)
And so he carries on an unfortunate tradition. He starts by squirming, and when that doesn’t work, he screams. Either Erin, my beautiful, devout wife, or I haul him to the narthex, where he’s fine, for a bit, as long as we’re allowing him to repeatedly dunk his chubby little hand in the holy water font. He takes his drenched paw and touches his hair and says “ah-men” and then smiles at us for approval. (It’s the best.) But, cute as it is, after about the fourth time, it gets old, and at some point it makes one wonder if wasting holy water is a sin. And so we stop, and he resumes screaming. Rinse and repeat with the flicking of the light switch in the cry room, trying to steal Jesus’ shepherd’s hook from the statue in the back, grabbing all of the bulletins off of the table, etc.
Months after he was born, I wrote about how his cuteness was a distraction to both my family and those sitting around us. His cuteness is no longer a problem. Now, what we have, sadly, is this: the bad kid at Mass. And everyone knows it.
A few weeks ago, as we settled into our pew to celebrate the glorious feast of Pentecost, and as I lamented the fact that I again forgot to wear red, I looked around and noticed that the church was packed — except for pews directly in front of us and behind us. The seats next to us were also without souls. Coincidence? Maybe, but I have my doubts.
I assure you, we do not take this fit-throwing lightly — just the opposite. We have sought both human and online advice and have tried the following corrective measures: holding him the entire Mass and not letting his feet touch the floor; never holding him; giving him (and also not giving him) books, snacks, our cellphones, all the quiet toys in our possession, missalettes, dirty looks, love and understanding. None has worked. Confession: It has gotten bad enough that a few times over the past few months, our family has come up with excuses to split up and attend Mass at different times just so we don’t have to go 12 rounds with Dominic.
And so after months away, I come to you, friends, with hat in hand, looking for a fix, before it’s I who is kicking and screaming on the way out of church.
Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.