I know, I know. The likelihood that sharing my thoughts and preferences might have any real life effect are slim. But I can't help myself from thinking them as I go into different churches and experience the liturgy in very different environments. I'm a mom to a mess of little boys and that is currently the vantage point I have when I go to Mass in all sorts of locations. We've been to beautiful cathedrals and
ugly, er, different quasi-church buildings, massive basilicas and tiny chapels, modern parishes and ancient shrines. We've seen a lot of churches. Through all of this, my belief that the physical environment in which we worship has a significant effect on how we worship has become increasingly solidified. Not only does it affect my own worship and faith, it affects the kids. I'd even go so far as to say it can have an effect on the catechesis and faith choices of our children later on. I've noticed a few things and have a few thoughts. Most parish councils are composed of parishioners beyond the parenting small children phase, it seems, so perhaps this is a perspective that might be worth a consideration should any random pastor confronted with the prospect of a new church design want (yet another) opinion.
I, of course, know finances and time and space are all huge stresses and considerations. So are probably a million other things that I have the luxury to ignore with this little post. And I don't at all think that every parent will agree with everything I've written. But here are my thoughts to take for what they're worth. You know, for the next time you just happen to be designing a church...
1. Please reconsider that trendy "in the round" plan.
I know modern architects and builders may have convinced the world that having parishioners seated in the round is "more welcoming and inviting" or some such thing. I'm convinced that not one of those people have ever brought children to church. Because if they had, they would know that instead of feeling more welcomed, you now realize that every. single. eye. in the church can now see your children and any and every thing they do. Heck, even when they're really being great, it's still very hard realizing that everyone can see every wiggle and nursing session, every missalette fight and spit up. While I can't speak for every parent, I feel so much more self-conscious and hyper-vigilant in churches designed like that. In a traditional straightforward seating, I feel so much freer to relax and worship and enter into the liturgy knowing that my kiddos' good or awful behavior is much less likely to be a distraction to someone else. I want them to be there and I expect them to not sit perfectly still, they're kids after all, but I also want people to not be distracted by what's going on in our pew.
2. Pews - the higher the better.
We parents love them, especially we mothers who may need to nurse or who are managing fidgety toddlers. A high backed pew can cover a multitude of sins. I think that's how the saying goes, right?
3. Design your 'cry room' well.
You may not know it, but cry rooms are the topic of much debate and controversy in the Catholic mom world. Who would have thought, right? But there's lots of talk. Should we use it? Shouldn't we? Are we expected to use it all the time? Does it make children unwelcome in church? There's lots to discuss there but I fall into the line of having a small room available in the back to use only when necessary and only by parishioners who truly need it. Not elaborate but with a few chairs and kneelers and certainly not at the side or where everyone in the parish can still see what is happening (yes, those are out there!). It's really helpful for moms with a newborn learning to breastfeed or a chatty or furious toddler or a child with special needs to have a safe space to go. But please no televisions or buckets and buckets of noisy toys. A good speaker and window is helpful to help us still celebrate the Mass while we are in there. And, if I may be so bold, please consider placing a sign somewhere that the room is only to be used as necessary for those who, for whatever reason, cannot be in the main church that day and it is not just a play room or an "able to slip out post Communion easier" room. We want children in the main church! But we would love a place to go where we can slip out when needed and nurse the baby or change the messy diaper or deal with the fit and still (somewhat) hear the Mass and feel like we are present.
4. Toddler-proof those kneelers.
Ah, kneelers. We love the kneelers. But you know how kitchen drawers now can have the "soft close" option? There MUST be something like that that can be designed for kneeler hinges now. The entire congregation will be grateful, I promise, especially come Communion time when a well placed slam can shake the whole church and interrupt the holiest of prayers. Our toes and shins will also approve.
5. Please, for the love of all that is Holy, place Jesus front and center.
It's helpful for all of us to be directed towards the One Whom we worship but even more so for children. It helps us know where to genuflect and it's hard to understand why we would have Him any other place, you know? I really don't know how to explain to my children that yes, Jesus is present in the Eucharist in the tabernacle but, if He is truly God and we're here to worship Him, why He would then be off to the side or hidden in a closet. I think placing Him anywhere else risks the child (or even the adult) believing that He's not the whole reason we're there. I know that kind of perceived disparity is what led my heart away from the church as a teenager. (They say they believe this but it sure doesn't look like it...) If we believe it, our churches should wholeheartedly reflect it.
6. Let the music ministry be placed behind the people.
I've definitely found it's more helpful as a family with young children to have the music ministry in a choir loft or in the back. When they are in the front, it seems like a show rather than a liturgy, and children (maybe even all of us) get a bit more conditioned into thinking it's more about entertainment than worship. My eyes inevitably go toward them rather than Him and the altar. I find it's helpful when the music is coming from behind us rather than at us. It feels more like we as a community are worshipping together and the movement of the music goes toward Him rather than toward us.
7. Finally, more than anything, make it beautiful.
When we go into a church we want it to feel different. We want our eyes and ears and noses and imaginations drawn toward heaven. That's why we're there and we make the (sometimes heroic feeling) effort to come with all of our children. We want to worship with all of heaven and the Church on earth. And I can guarantee you that children notice a difference. I've seen my children sit in awe and worship during a two or three hour Mass in the most beautiful basilicas, drawn into the beauty and mystery of the space. They don't behave the same way in the other churches. They're more distracted and fidgety. There's something about true timeless beauty that draws all of our souls more into the sacred. The places that look and feel and smell like church...we need those. There are so few buildings of real beauty left, it seems. Our minds, and especially our children's minds, are inundated with cheap marketing and garish visuals all the time. We need something different, an escape from the ugly. Please don't feel like you have to dumb down the art or music or design or give us something more 'modern'. We have that all around us. Please give us something truly beautiful and timeless, a place where we can encounter Beauty itself. It's not wasteful or outdated or beyond our means. It's what our souls are craving, even those of our children.
So there's the long winded opinion from a random mom of the littlest parishioners. I truly believe these little choices can welcome more families and let them know they are loved, valued, and help them truly encounter the person of Jesus Christ, which is the point of it all.