How "active participation" can be something other than what you're thinking.
Hello, Katrina. My question for you is about actively participating at Mass. Is it still considered “participating” if I can’t fully concentrate on the readings or the homily? My two daughters are 3 and 8 months and I’m usually pretty distracted with making sure they don’t get too loud and fussy and disturb others around us. Some Sundays I completely miss all the readings and even the homily. I wonder if I should just wait until they’re older to come to Mass so that I can concentrate and actually participate. Is it considered participating at Mass if I am barely mentally present?
Yes, you’re still participating in the Mass! In fact, I would even argue that some “participation” starts the minute you wake up and make the decision to attend Mass. I remember the level of determination and will it required just to get out of the house with a small child, never mind the sheer Olympic feat required to even find a moment to shower, dress, and pack a diaper bag.
I think the confusion lies in the meaning behind the phrase “active participation.” If you think it only means being able to say all the responses, sing along to all the hymns, and attentively listen to all the readings and homilies without once letting your mind wander, then I can see where that would lead to frustration and disappointment, perhaps even feeling like you failed at being present.
This term, “active participation,” came from Pope St. Pius X at the turn of the 20th century. Then it was brought into the teaching on liturgy from Vatican II:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.
But actively participating doesn’t just mean external action, like gestures and responses. It also refers to interior participation. Coming to Mass with the intention of being present, to the best of your ability, is an act of participation. As a mother your primary duty is to your children and attending to their needs. If their needs happen to require your attention in the middle of Mass, that doesn’t negate your presence there. Even if you spend the entire Mass chasing a hyper toddler around the narthex while nursing an infant, and all you can spare is 30 seconds acknowledging the mystery unfolding before you, you are participating. Your intention and interior desire is to be present, so be present to the best of your ability in the small seconds you are given.
“But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain  .” SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM
Active participation can also refer to the disposition with which we enter into the liturgy as well. Do we chose to come begrudgingly to Mass with a “why bother” attitude? Or with an attitude of gratitude for whatever little nugget of the liturgy we might happen to absorb in the midst of the mothering chaos? Do we gratefully attend to the duties of motherhood or resent the attention our children require from us because it’s a distraction?
Your commitment to take your family to Mass is an act of prayer in itself and a work that merits the effort, so please don’t ever stop taking them to Mass.
In the meantime, don’t make Sunday Mass your only moment to try to connect with the Lord. Consider spending whatever brief moments you can spare throughout the entire week with Him — try reading the daily Mass readings in the morning or evening after your girls have gone to bed, pray while doing chores, sing hymns with your daughters, pray the Rosary at the park, or maybe ask your husband or a family member to take over so you can spend an hour at adoration.
Be encouraged that, by your example and commitment, your daughters will learn the importance of regularly attending Mass. Find strength and peace in knowing that God is pleased with your efforts, however distracted they may be.