A couple of weeks ago I was at Sunday evening Mass and sitting a little behind me was a young mum with her 2 toddler height children. They were, to be fair a little unruly and she did a sterling job of trying to keep them contained. I turned to her at one point and smiled, trying to keep the irritation at bay (it had been a long day); I find it difficult to be irritated when I have looked the other in the eye. A short while later, I was drawn to more noise and noticed others reaction, some of whom shot daggers at her, while one woman sitting next to her, whispered encouragement and tried to distract the younger child. I overheard the mother say ‘I could cry, it’s so hard’.
Here was a woman, a mother clinging on by her fingernails. I was not sitting close enough to offer her and her children the Sign of Peace but after Communion I managed to grasp her hand as a sign of what I hoped was solidarity and compassion. She smiled a heartfelt, weary smile of gratitude.
I can remember taking my four darlings to Sunday Mass with me and some weeks it was all I could do to allow the words to wash over me. I so desperately needed to be comforted by the Word of God, strengthened in communion with my faith community. I needed to receive the Lord in the Eucharist to give me the strength to go on being a mum, let alone a good enough mum, for a while longer. Seeing her on that Sunday evening brought back the memory of when I too barely hung on by my fingernails.
Yet Sunday after Sunday I went because going to Mass was the only thing that made any sense of my life as a single mum of four under 7, my ‘failed’ marriage, my tiredness, my loneliness, my sadness.
I remembered all of this on hearing the stories in the Gospel of Mark. I didn’t just reach out and touch the hem of His garment, nor did I beg to be touched by the fringe of His cloak, I hung on with all my might, sometimes slipping to hold just a thread that I hoped would not unravel before I did.
Of course I was not merely hanging on for dear life all the time and it did get better. I became more organised, I used to keep a bag that we only took to Mass packed with pencils and paper, pictures to colour (it was long before any Redemptorist resources!), books to read and the odd toy that did not make a noise, but the greatest and most helpful ‘distraction’ was the love of my faith community for me and my children. The elderly couple who chose to always sit behind us so as to smile lovingly at the ‘baby’ in my arms; the Religious Sister who sat in the same pew helping to ‘hold the line’ and surround all four of them in love; the other parents who would keep an eye on the others when one of mine was potty training; and the many others who made my children (and therefore me) feel genuinely welcome, wanted and loved.
Many years later one is still serving at the Altar, another trains new servers when home from University, and another is a parish music director…taking a little poetic license with the words of a Meatloaf song, ‘three out of four ain’t bad’. I have no doubt that it was because they were held in love and felt at home in our parish that they are still active members of the faith community.
So when we see mothers (or fathers) struggling at Mass, with children who interrupt our time with the Lord at Mass, let us pray for them, thanking God for their courage to come to Mass, for expending possibly their last vestige of strength in living out the Baptismal promises to bring their children up in the faith. Let us offer to help them, to welcome them, to hold them in love.
For if we don’t we run the risk of both denying Christ’s call to ‘let the children come to me’ and not having a Church in the future.