Everyday Grace: On Crying Babies at Mass and Pope Francis

By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Spring 2014

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Seventh in a series of reflections by Lawrence S. Cunningham

At the Kentucky Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, the monks celebrate Mass at mid-morning on Sunday, and many of the local residents as well as visitors attend. A few years ago, I attended when there was a young couple with an infant whose loud cries echoed throughout the abbatial church. The mom finally took the child outside, much to the relief of the congregation.

After the service, as the monks mingled with the congregation, I ran into an old hermit monk who came in from his cabin in the woods for Sunday Mass and to pick up his mail and whatever supplies he needed. “Did you hear that baby bawling?” the old monk asked me. “How could I not,” I answered. “Well,” the old hermit said, “it will be a sad day in the church when we don’t hear babies crying at Mass.”

That brief instruction in wisdom is something I have often recalled when babies and young children begin misbehaving at Mass. It also makes me think of those long-ago years when we tried to corral our young children (with bribes of Cheerios or the distraction of toys) while at church. Of course, there is a deeper truth that I learned from the monk that has to do with one of the oldest practices of monasticism: hospitality. The Rule of Benedict puts it beautifully: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ…” (RB: 53). All guests should include infants and youngsters.

The encounter with that old hermit monk has always stuck with me and, on more than one occasion, I have told the story to my students. It recently came to mind as I reflected on the informal gestures of our new pope, Francis. While Francis seems to have charmed the world with the simplicity of his personal life, the human touch of his homilies (in Sardinia, he finished his sermon by hoping that everyone would have a good Sunday dinner) and his spontaneous outreach to people, it would be a mistake to think that all this is the result of a pope who is some kind of naïf. In fact, Pope Francis wants the Catholic Church to be what it has always been called to be: a hospitable community.

Jesus preached an inclusive hospitality. He ate with tax collectors and Pharisees. He welcomed the halt and the blind. He touched the body of a penitent leper. His appeal to sinners was constant. He did all of those things that strict laws of ritual purity said that he should not do. Francis wants to recover that hospitable openness to be normative for the church of today. In his now famous interview given to a Jesuit colleague, Francis quoted Pope John XXIII: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”

The openness Pope Francis espouses is not some kind of spiritual anarchy. He, more than most, understands that within the Church there is law. What he does insist, however, is that law must be seen in the context of the larger law of love, mercy and forgiveness. “The proclamation of the saving love of God,” he said in that same interview, “comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

Thus, he argued, if that balance between law and love is not achieved, “the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

If the preaching of the Church consists of nothing but condemnations and those linked to moral issues, it is easy to 
forget, as Pope Francis has pointed out, that such condemnations (as legitimate as they may be) are not the fundamentals of Christian preaching. They tend to blur rather than illustrate the gospel. A famous dictum, attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo, says to love God and do what you will. That shorthand phrase means that if someone truly loves God, ethical and moral behavior should follow. The truly hospitable Church is one that is open enough to allow the message of love and forgiveness to be heard by everybody; and from that hearing, moral choices originate more compellingly.

One huge pastoral problem facing the Church (especially in 
the West) concerns divorce and remarriage. Catholicism teaches that a sacramental marriage freely entered into endures until death. Today, Catholics in the U.S. divorce at close to the national average—nearly 50 percent. If a Catholic remarries “outside the Church,” he or she is not able to receive Holy Communion. Everyone knows of such cases. Two competing realities are at work here: the correct insistence on the permanent bond of marriage and the desire of remarried people (often innocent people) to participate fully in the life of the Church. Solving this problem is not easy, but the hospitable thing to do is to think in a hospitably pastoral fashion in order to resolve painful human problems that cannot simply be written off.

Pope Francis is aware of this issue and has recently announced the calling of a synod in Rome to treat it. How the matter is to be resolved is way beyond my competence to answer, but it is clear that one simply cannot invoke law as an answer. The same thing can be aside of other vexatious issues (e.g. contraception) that face the Church. It’s evident that Francis wants to be open, loving and generous to those who think that the Church has abandoned them. In other words, what he is saying is this: Come home and let’s talk in love about that which keeps you away.

At least, I think that is what he is trying to say, as I recall a bawling baby, the old hermit monk and the words of wisdom he passed on to me one Sunday morning a decade or so ago.