The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Please let me explain.
THE JUICE INCIDENT
My son’s iPod rings several times from his pocket. He pulls it out and taps the screen a few times, tugs at my arm again and whispers. “Mom! I need something to eat.” “Can you wait just a couple minutes and we’ll go to the back?” I ask, knowing immediately that the answer is no, that waiting would be reckless and dangerous. “My legs are wobbly,” he replies. I reach into my bag and pull out a juice box, insert the straw, and hand it to him. He slurps it down in 9 seconds flat. “Do you still want to go to Communion?” He nods. As he hands the empty box to me, I usher both him and my toddler out of the pew and into the Communion line, putting my hand on his shoulder to steady him. We receive Communion, head back to the pew, and I kneel as he sits. His knees are still wobbly.
As we pray, my mind wanders as I wonder how much of a distraction the juice box scenario has been for the people around us. I’m sure they have noticed; it’s impossible not to. Are they giving us the benefit of the doubt and assuming we have a good reason for the commotion? Or are they bristling at the obvious lack of respect for the Eucharist? Breaking the fast while he is practically ON THE WAY up to Communion, not kneeling, the ringing and frequent checking of the iPod – what is wrong with this kid? What is wrong with these parents?
But this kid – he has been living with Type 1 diabetes for three years. His blood sugar rises and falls rapidly. He had a low blood sugar before Communion, something that was completely unpreventable. The sugar in the juice box wasn’t a treat – for him, it was medicine. Dropping blood sugar results in weakness, dizziness, & confusion, and can rapidly turn into a seizure or a diabetic coma. The only way to treat it is immediately, with fast-acting sugar; juice is the ideal treatment. And the beeping iPod? It receives blood sugar information directly from a sensor he wears on his arm so we can see his sugars in real time. It alerts when his number becomes dangerously low. He keeps checking it in hopes that the arrow pointed downward will turn upward, a sign that his sugars are rising to a healthy number again. If not, he’ll need to treat a second time.
And his parents? Acutely aware of how often their son’s needs put them in the line of judgment from strangers. Trying their best to be discreet. Not wanting to draw attention while still caring for the urgent needs of their child.
WE ARE NOT ALONE
A discussion among friends revealed that, although the circumstances are different, many parents have their own church struggles. They are doing something that is perceived as distracting. They are judged, either silently or often, out loud, by other churchgoers. The following examples are not simply hypothetical “let me see what kind of excuses I can come up with for people” arguments. These are real people who have shared their stories with me, who have found themselves in situations that may look disrespectful from the outside, but who have a perfectly acceptable reason for their behavior.
What you see: A teenager who chews gum during Mass and spits it out right before going up to Communion. (note: the general consensus among canon lawyers is that gum itself does not break the fast, but it is quite disrespectful to chew in church without a valid reason.)
What you don’t see: He has Tourettes, and chewing gum is the only way to help silence his vocal tics so that he can be present at Mass without being an audible distraction to the people around him.
What you see: A woman who, from all appearances, looks perfectly healthy, sneaking a cracker from her purse after the homily.
What you don’t see: Her hourly vomiting because she is 9 weeks pregnant and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum. She has already been admitted to the hospital for IV fluids once and is trying to do whatever she can to avoid being sick before Mass is over. She has not received the Eucharist for 4 weeks due to extreme nausea.
What you see: A man who gets up three times during Mass to “go to the bathroom” (check his phone?)
What you don’t see: He has been in bed for 4 days waiting to pass a kidney stone, and decided this morning that he was going to Mass with his family, even if it requires an extra pain pill.
What you see: A girl who, week after week, goes up to receive Communion before the rest of the church.
What you don’t see: She has Celiac disease, requiring her to take a Host made of special, extremely-low gluten flour, and/or to receive the Precious Blood from her own chalice before it has been cross-contaminated.
What you see: A boy who wears headphones during Mass.
What you don’t see: He has a sensory processing disorder, and the music, the microphone, the rustling of papers is all too much for him. He can only concentrate on Mass if he’s able to block out all the distracting sounds.
What you see: A child who quietly wanders the church during Mass, touching the statues and staring up at the Stations.
What you don’t see: She has autism. Allowing her to quietly and respectfully walk around is the only way her mother can be present for Mass. Forcing her to sit in the pew resulted in meltdowns worthy of leaving the church, week after week, and the mother has finally given in to her non-disruptive desire to walk around.
What you see: A woman who leaves Mass early every single week.
What you don’t see: She cares for her ill, homebound mother and gets one hour a week of respite while her next door neighbor sits with her. Her neighbor, also Catholic, goes to the Mass immediately following this one, and she needs to leave 5 minutes early so that he can make it to Mass without being late.
What you see: A man who looks at his iPad during the entirety of Mass. (Sure, it looks like he is probably following along with the Mass on his screen, but why can’t he just use a book like everyone else?)
What you don’t see: He is visually impaired, and the ability to enlarge the words on the screen is the only way he can read along. The font in the pew missal is simply too small.
What you see: A teenager who never genuflects or kneels.
What you don’t see: He has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and has already had one knee surgery. He lives with chronic pain.
What you see: A family who comes to Mass weekly, but the mother comes very infrequently. She doesn’t appear ill.
What you don’t see: The mother has chronic anemia, or Crohn’s, or rheumatoid arthritis, or fibromyalgia, or a slipped disk in her back, or any number of hidden conditions that frequently render her incapacitated and unable to even get out of bed.
What you see: A fussy baby, a whiny or hyper toddler.
What you don’t see: The child development books that remind you this is perfectly normal behavior.
I could go on. and on. and on.
WHAT IS REQUIRED OF US?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says explicitly that “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass… unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.” (CCC 2180, 2181) Keeping holy the Lord’s Day is one of the Ten Commandments.
The Church also requires that we fast from food and drink for one hour before receiving Communion out of reverence, but makes exceptions for those with a medical need. “Those who are advanced in age or who suffer from any infirmity, as well as those who take care of them, can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have taken something during the previous hour.” (Canon 919) **
And that’s it! Attend and participate in Mass on Sundays; fast before Communion if you don’t have a medical reason not to. The Church makes these rules for OUR BENEFIT, to help us enter into the Sacred Mysteries in the fullest way possible, and out of reverence for the Sacrament. The Church is our loving Mother who wants us to grow closer to God, not some draconian dictator. These rules aren’t “gotchas” that are made by some aloof pope who wants to control people. They aren’t required of people who cannot do them for a serious reason. If you genuinely can’t do it, you’re dispensed.
Okay, but what about an issue that you KNOW just NEEDS to be addressed?
There are going to be people at Mass who eat, chew gum, make noise, and leave early, who don’t have any excuse at all. In fact, maybe even the majority of distracting people at Mass are NOT doing it for one of the above, valid reasons. They may not know any better, or they may be perfectly aware that they are being disrespectful and they just. don’t. care. Being quiet and respectful during Mass and staying for the duration are simply not their priorities. So can I please lean over and tell them to knock it off, or at least give them a dirty look?
Please, before you do, revisit the list above. Almost none of these conditions are outwardly obvious. Unless you are 100% certain that these people are being disrespectful, don’t say anything negative about or to them. Here are some other things you can do, on a scale from uninvolved to really involved.
- Ignore them. Completely.
- Smile if they look at you, but otherwise, ignore.
- Whisper a kind word to them. “Your family is lovely” is great.
- Ask them if they need any help. (!!!)
- Catch them after Mass and chat with them. Maybe they’ll reveal a detail that will satisfy your curious mind as to why their kid does ________. Make sure to tell them their family is lovely!
The parents of these kids with medical needs, the people who can’t make it through church without doing something distracting – they deal with enough junk on a day to day basis. They really do appreciate just being left alone, or given a smile or a wink, or a hug. They don’t want to constantly feel defensive. They’ve probably been asked 100 times why their kid does ______. Give them a day off from answering prying questions.
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. WHAT THEY ARE DOING IS A REALLY BIG DEAL. I NEED TO CORRECT THEM.
If it is a truly DIRE situation (they are mishandling the Eucharist, shouting blasphemy, having an inappropriate conversation, attending church dressed in an actual bikini, etc,) step in or say something. If it’s more of a “this makes me uncomfortable,” bring it up to the pastor. It is the priest’s job to correct parishioners who are a disturbance or are otherwise disrespectful in Church. It is really NOT our job as fellow parishioners. That doesn’t mean there is never a time where it is appropriate, just that in general, it’s not appropriate. There is a time and place for fraternal correction, but generally, it is not for minor issues, and it is very rarely sinful to NOT correct for it. This link explains it well and concisely.
BUT IT’S REALLY IRREVERENT!
A priest once said something that really stuck with me regarding irreverent people, irreverent music, etc, in church. The Mass is not about US and OUR preferences. It’s about the Sacrifice of Calvary. Put yourself at Calvary for a minute. What do you see? What do you hear? People mocking, jeering, gambling, doing all manner of completely inappropriate and profane things. The Mass celebrated at Calvary had THE MOST IRREVERENT PEOPLE in attendance. It was THE MOST IRREVERENT MASS in the history of the world. If Jesus can not only put up with but love infinitely and DIE FOR the people who stood there in front of Him mocking Him to His face, then WE can certainly put up with a few distractions during Mass, especially those distractions that are not intentionally disrespectful and hateful to Our Lord.
THANK YOU! I’M SO TIRED OF THESE JUDGMENTAL BUSYBODIES! IT MAKES ME JUST WANT TO LEAVE AND NOT COME BACK.
There is a lot of “Christians are judgmental!” attitude floating around in our world today, and I want to clarify that in our experience, for as many times as I’ve been “corrected” by another person, I’ve been complimented or encouraged ten times over. My intention is never to make it seem like the only attention we draw is negative attention. Many people are kind and gracious and complimentary. The average Christian sitting in the pew is too busy minding his own business to look down his nose at yours. I know some people have had much more terrible experiences than us, and for that, I am deeply sorry. The Church does not condone this, and we as part of the Communion of Saints should not accept this.
If you regularly sit by the same people each week, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to mention to them briefly about your struggle if you or your child feels comfortable doing so. No, you don’t owe them an explanation, but sometimes offering it anyway can break down the barrier we may subconsciously put up between ourselves and the people next to us. If you FEEL judged (often it’s simply our own perception, but sometimes we may legitimately get an eyeroll or a sigh), just a smile and short and sweet explanation can go a long way towards an increase in charity on BOTH sides. And pay attention to that “feeling judged” thing! I know I have been guilty of being annoyed that someone appears to be annoyed with my family. There was one Mass where I caught the eye of an elderly woman who appeared upset with my antsy toddler. I fretted about it the rest of the time, even getting a little irritated at HER, because she obviously just didn’t remember how normal 2-year-olds act. At the end of Mass she leaned over to me and said, “Your children are delightful!” and walked out. Oops. Rash judgment much?
And if someone is actually judging you for taking the best care of yourself or your child that you can? IGNORE THEM. They don’t see your minute-by-minute struggles – the needles, the therapies, the doctor appointments, the tantrums. They can grumble all they want. It’s between you and God, not you and them. Feel free to a) sweetly smile at them, b) bluntly tell them to leave you alone, or c) bring it up to the priest. I’ve heard priests offer smackdowns of the Judgy McJudgersons during the homily after an upset parishioner discussed it with them! You never know.
But don’t LEAVE the Church because of it! Because I promise you, WE WANT YOU HERE. You are welcome! You are loved. And even when it doesn’t seem like your fellow parishioners want you, JESUS wants you. You are here for Him, and He is here for YOU. You may find that for your own comfort, you need to change Mass times or even parishes. But don’t leave Christ altogether because some of His followers are poor representations of His message. He, more than anyone, understands the pain, the isolation, and the judgment. He is the Good Shepherd who cares for you and calls you by name. Don’t let yourself be separated from Him because of other people. It was never between you and them anyway.
“Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2182)
** I highly recommended chatting with your priest outside of Mass if you have an extenuating medical circumstance that requires breaking of the fast for Communion, or any other necessary accommodation that could potentially be confusing to others worshiping alongside you. It’s not that we need our priest’s “permission”, but rather, the opposite – it is often comforting to get his reassurance and support in our unusual situation. Rather than wondering if someone is going to rat you out to your priest and waiting for him to approach you about it, you now know that he is entirely aware of the situation. He can sort out whether the person is coming out of genuine concern or because they are a busybody, and respond accordingly.
Colleen is wife to her wonderful husband and mama to three boys and three girls. She spends her days reading stories, practicing skip counting, and sweeping Cheerios with a baby in her arms. She enjoys sharing her Catholic Faith with others, and trying her best to live out her vocation generously, graciously, fully. She loves the Traditional Mass. She also appreciates anything crafty or chocolatey, and is blessed to reside in the great state of Kansas, which actually is not all black-and-white – she has the red shoes to prove it.