Jesus said, "Let the children come to me ..." One parish is following his example and seeing amazing results.
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Like many churches, Saints John and James Parish in West Warwick, Rhode Island, has seen a gradual decline in attendance over the past number of years. So it came as no surprise when it was merged with another nearby parish.
When I was first assigned there as a priest, the parishioners could not imagine a bright future for the parish. Its faithful — and they are faithful — were growing older, and the number of funerals far outnumbered the number of baptisms we celebrated each year. The future, if we stayed on this path, looked rather bleak.
But two years in, and with some grit, reverent worship, and familial support, a new sound was heard in church that turned a number of heads.
It was the sound of a baby crying in the back of the church and a young mother desperately trying to calm her little one. We have no cry room so there was no place to hide.
Despite my initial fears, the people were enamored. This little cry was a sign of life, a new awakening, like the new springtime so often spoken of by the great St. John Paul II.
The young family was brave, bringing their child into the church, especially when they realized that theirs was the only child at the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass. After Mass, I encouraged them to stick around, come often, and to know that they would always be welcome.
That little life became the talk of the parish. By that evening at least a dozen people had remarked how nice it was to hear the little one in church and their hope that more would follow.
A little while later, our parish was blessed to baptize nine children between July and September. Our parish is now growing and the welcome children receive has made all the difference.
Recently on Twitter, I found a post of a young mom that had a picture of a card in her pew with the words, “My parish does some things right.” It was a letter to young families, reminding them that it was a joy to have them, and a reminder to parishioners to be kind, and to remember that children are the future hope for the parish. Without shame, I copied the idea and placed it in my bulletin that same week and included the card in the pews with a picture on the back to be colored in for the little ones who might need something to keep them occupied.
Moral of the story: the future of our Church will not be the money kept safe in endowments or trusts, or in buildings that seldom see a full congregation. The future of the Church must be our children, and we must do everything we can to help young parents bring that hope to fruition.
Here is the letter we make sure is in our pews for all our parishioners:
Dear Parents of Young Children,
Welcome! We are grateful that you and your family have joined us for Mass at SS John and James & St. Mary Mission. It is our hope that your little ones will grow up to be vital members of our parish family. We are grateful that you begin this journey with us.
Please relax! We know that it’s not easy to get your whole family to Mass, and it can be even more difficult to keep all of your little ones still throughout, but your kids should know that this church is their home and we, the community, are all brothers and sisters. They should feel welcome and at home in this place of worship, in the house of God.
We invite you to sing, pray, teach, respond, and explain what is going on at Mass with your children. Our liturgy is full of life and our little ones learn how to worship through you and your participation. Children learn by example and your dedication to coming to Mass and attentiveness to it will be their best lesson.
Also, everyone knows that children sometimes cry, make noise, or escape from your watchful care. Don’t be overwhelmed, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! We are one family, and in christian charity we are called to help our brothers and sisters.
The presence of children in Mass is a gift to our church and a sign that we are growing! We should rejoice that our children are with us, and that our parish welcomes new life! Please remember to keep encouraging our young families, offer your help if they need it, and support them as best you can!
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)