It's not unusual for priests and laypeople alike to lament the lack of families in the Church. Many times we know people who self-identify as Catholic, but don't regularly fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation. Many times these people are parents who care enough about the faith to seek baptism for their children. When it comes to making it to Mass on a weekly basis, however, they struggle.
There are many reasons for this, and it's easy to blame the parents for lack of fortitude, perhaps acknowledging unsympathetically that of course it's tough to have young children at Mass, but that's just what we have to do. Or perhaps we can blame the parents for not being willing to come up with other solutions to the problem, like having a family member or a baby-sitter watch the kids at home so the parents can go to Sunday Mass. We might also blame the parents for the way they are bringing up the kids, suggesting that years ago, kids all used to sit silently during church with no complaint, and that this is all the fault of introducing television and other screens at such a young age.
But blaming parents doesn't really do much to solve the problem at hand. I've written elsewhere about the difficulty of bringing children to Mass, including noting the critical eye cast toward families with antsy (and sometimes unpredictably suddenly loud) children. Fellow parishioners can do much to be sympathetic and kind to families struggling to contain and quiet children during Mass.
However, there is one priestly practice in particular that makes a world of difference to parents with small children, namely A SHORT HOMILY. I'm a theologian by training, and believe me, I love a great theological discourse on the Scriptures. The Sunday Mass readings in particular often present a golden opportunity for such reflection. There was a time when I delighted in the long and insightful homily.
It's safe to say that those days have passed, and, by the grace of God, I landed in a parish with a pastor who is the master of the short homily. Let me try to explain the difference. A long homily means a long time of trying to keep my kids (currently five kids under the age of 11, including two squirrely boy toddlers) quiet. I seldom actually HEAR any of the homily, and I certainly could not pass a post-homily quiz on the material from the homily. If - and that's a big IF - my husband doesn't have to take a toddler out during the long homily, you might think we breathe a big sigh of relief when the LOOOOONG homily finally concludes.
You would be wrong, however. We know that what comes next is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, including the consecration, which should be among the most solemn moments of Mass. If we have successfully managed to keep the kids quiet during the homily (and by that I mean, if the kids have miraculously kept themselves quiet), we are virtually guaranteed a loud outburst during the consecration. If this occurs, it is virtually guaranteed to be completely unpredictable in terms of timing. If this occurs, we are virtually guaranteed to be blocked in on both sides of the pew by elderly kneeling parishioners, with no avenue of escape.
It's not pleasant.
Now, with a short homily, this is what happens. The kids have barely settled in after standing for the gospel, and the homily is almost done. I have heard the beginning, which is the main point, and serves as the middle and end as well. A few minutes of a simple message that makes a connection with the Scripture is all it takes, and I am virtually guaranteed to remember the message because of its simplicity and brevity (and often profundity!). There's really not enough time for the kids to get squirrelly, impatient, or bored. And now the Mass is continuing. Wow! We can make it through the entire Eucharistic prayer. The kids survive communion distribution, with music to cover any noise they might make. Now, it's the final blessing, and maybe some announcements. Voila! With the recessional, we know we've successfully survived another Sunday Mass with little incident. It's a good feeling!
And if more parents had this feeling, I think they'd be willing to take the risk of attending Sunday Mass as a family. That's why I say that the number one practice of a pro-family priest is preaching a short homily. Of course, there are many other good reasons to preach a short homily. Theologically, the homily is not supposed to be the pinnacle of the Mass, but rather point toward the Eucharist. Guidelines recommend a homily to be less than eight minutes. Lastly, it's not just kids that sometimes have a hard time listening!
So, if priests are serious about wanting families to feel welcome at Mass, step number one is to preach a short homily.