Is your parish family-friendly?
Who doesn't want the church to grow or the next generation of Catholics to embrace a deep love for their faith? One simple way we can do this is by asking how our parishes are welcoming to families — of all ages, abilities, shapes, and sizes.
Start small. Are electrical outlets covered to keep out babies' fingers? Would parents know what room to visit if they needed to soothe a toddler tantrum? Are there changing tables in both men's and women's restrooms?
Is childcare offered during parish events? Are the sounds of children welcome in church — and not just the cries of babies but the sounds or movements of children with disabilities? Are teenagers encouraged to serve as lectors, altar servers or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion?
Making a parish family-friendly is a practical and spiritual undertaking. It both requires a checklist and an examination of conscience. Where have we done the holy work of welcoming each person as Jesus? Where have we failed to reach part of the body of Christ?
Over the years, readers have sent me examples of signs posted near church entrances, printed in parish bulletins, or tucked in pews to let parents know their children are welcome.
I found one such poster on vacation years ago as I quieted a fussy baby in the back of church. "Jesus said, 'Let the children come to me,'" it read. "Remember that the way we welcome children in church directly affects the way they respond to the church, to God, and to one another. Let them know that they are at home in this house of worship."
The poster offered ways that parents might engage young children. Sit near the front so it's easier to see. Explain parts of the Mass in age-appropriate ways. Sing the hymns together. Feel free to use the gathering space if you need to leave with your child.
But the last words held the most important message to all parishioners: "The presence of children is a gift to the church, and they are a reminder that our parish is growing! Please welcome our children and give a smile of encouragement to their parents."
Making a parish family-friendly is not just the work of the pastor or staff. It's a charge to all of us.
I've heard a thousand horror stories of parents shamed during Mass who never returned. But I've also heard heartwarming testimonies about pastors and parishioners who went out of their way to welcome families.
We can debate pastoral approaches for addressing the variety of parishioners' needs — from separation strategies like cry rooms, nurseries or "family Masses," to inclusive approaches like offering religious books for children to read in the pews.
But the best way to learn what your particular parish might need is to start asking families.
Could you organize a family holy hour of eucharistic adoration where parents or grandparents can bring children to pray without worrying about their volume?
Can you add supplies in the restrooms like baby wipes, diapers, and sanitary products: a simple gesture to show that this is a church that cares for body and soul?
Could you ever offer a daily Mass outside of work or school hours to allow more families to attend?
Welcoming families is not a one-size-fits-all task, and every parish is limited in its ministries and resources. But even the simplest approaches can make a big difference.
No matter what we do, we follow the lead of our Lord who drew children close to his side and reminded us that whenever we welcome a child, we welcome him.
Laura Kelly Fanucci is a columnist for the Catholic News Service