Showing that we're open to life can be easy and inexpensive
Back in November David Mills wrote an excellent series of articles about the need to support poor or low-income families if we’re going to preach the Gospel of Life. Over the past decades, tremendous strides have been made toward doing this in the case of women facing crisis pregnancies — but there’s still often little support on the parish level for couples who would never consider abortion but who might find it difficult to be open to life. As Mills points out, parenthood should not merely be a burden that falls on individual families but a shared responsibility of the community.
While he offers some great ideas for how individuals in the pews can help out, we might also consider some simple, inexpensive ways that parishes can help to recognize motherhood, welcome families with small children and provide for the needs of pregnant and nursing women.
Deacon Greg Kandra’s note on welcoming cards placed outside of Mass is a great start. If this is cost-prohibitive, even a running note in the bulletin could suffice.
Blessing pregnant women and their unborn children can be a helpful way to show that the parish values new life and recognizes the work that a woman undertakes with pregnancy. It’s also a good way to make the parish community aware of expectant mothers and to provide an opening for individuals to offer help. Blessings can also help women feel less anxious, especially as labor approaches. Priests might consider offering women in late pregnancy the option of receiving a blessing during Mass, or in larger parishes might include a blessing for all pregnant women in the parish several times a year. The appropriate rite already exists and can be found on the USCCB website.
According to the bishops, “Such a blessing sustains the parents by imparting grace and comfort in time of concern and need, unites the parish in prayer for the unborn child, and fosters respect for human life within society.”
Space for Nursing
Nursing mothers might find it uncomfortable to attend Mass, especially if they’ve been made to feel that other parishioners perceive public breastfeeding as “immodest.” Even if Pope Francis has repeatedly made it clear that the Church welcomes breastfeeding mothers, for those who still find the pews unwelcoming, or who have a child with particular breastfeeding needs, a secluded spot can be a welcome relief. Nobody likes having to lug a hungry newborn around in the narthex, or trying to manage a shrieking infant while simultaneously wrangling a hard plastic chair out of the vestry one-handed. A parishioner, CWL or Knights of Columbus chapter might consider donating a nice rocking chair designated for nursing, but even a secondhand armchair from the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store can make a new mother feel like she belongs in the parish. Depending on the circumstances, a simple screen room divider could provide some added seclusion. Just make sure that wherever she’s invited to sit, the speaker system will enable her to follow the Mass (good speaker systems are particularly important for cry rooms too!).
Meals for Moms
In many Protestant churches it’s common for the community to organize hot meals for families that have just welcomed a new arrival. Most parishes have a lot of older women who love to cook and also love to look at newborn babies, and setting up a sign-up sheet for volunteers willing to provide a home-cooked meal to postpartum mothers is neither costly nor difficult. Having someone bring food, especially when a woman is exhausted from giving birth, is a really powerful way of making new mothers feel less isolated and more supported.
Make Confession Times (and Other Parish Activities) Family-Friendly
Accessing the sacrament of reconciliation can be difficult if it involves arranging childcare, or its only offered at inconvenient times. Operating the confessional half an hour before Mass may be great for parishioners who can easily show up early and use the extra time to pray their penance. It’s not so great when it means forcing a cranky infant or toddler to sit in church for even longer than usual. Parishes might consider offering a time on Saturdays where families are specifically welcomed and where parishioners volunteer to keep an eye on younger kids so that moms can confess in peace. This same principle applies to about any parish activity: free childcare makes it easier for parents to attend.
In too many parishes, if you want to change a baby you’re basically stuck lying him or her down on a wet counter, or even on the nasty floor of the bathroom. Providing a safe, clean space for parents to diaper small people should be a given in any organization that is pro-life. Putting the changing area in both washrooms communicates that diapering can also be undertaken by fathers. Ideally, the changing table should be stocked with wipes and several sizes of diapers in case the diaper bag is forgotten in the mad scramble to get the kids out the door in time for Mass. And don’t forget a trash can nearby. Those special infant seats that hang from the doors of restroom stalls so that parents have somewhere to sit a small child while they themselves use the facilities would be an added bonus.
Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. She blogs at Catholic Authenticity.