I know that the words nightmare and Mass don’t usually belong together, but as a mum with six kids, let me assure you, ‘nightmare Masses’ are a thing! Don’t get me wrong: I love the Mass and strive to go daily. It’s my food for the journey—a small taste of heaven.

I suppose we all have our own version of a nightmare Mass. I am guessing for a priest it might involve misplacing a well-scripted homily minutes before Mass, or unexpectedly running out of hosts. For me, a nightmare Mass is when I am so overwhelmed by the demands of the children that I leave without having heard a word, generally feeling more frazzled than when I arrived.

Over the years I have experienced many nightmare Masses, especially when the kids were little. Two of these stand out in my memory.

The first was an Easter Vigil Mass. After years of attending Easter Sunday Masses, one year we felt brave enough to attempt the vigil. I say brave, because the vigil’s length and lateness are not well suited to families with small children—as we were to discover. It got off to a promising start. The kids were thrilled to begin outside in the dark and were captivated by the outdoor fire. However, their inner pyromania was ignited when they were presented with their very own tapers. My husband had been asked to help with the lighting of candles around the church, and the readings seemed to take an eternity while I was left to supervise alone as the kids experimented with dripping wax and exasperated each other by blowing out their siblings’ flames. And then, when the time finally came to blow the tapers out, no one wanted to acquiesce. To top it off, our youngest was miserable with a temperature and whimpered from beginning to end. Mother guilt! Over the years, we have found that sitting in the front pew has helped the children to be more engaged in the Mass. When they were well behaved, they looked like a row of cherubs, but when they misbehaved, their escapades were there for all the congregation to see. That night, it was quite a performance!

The second occasion was the baptism of our third child. From the front of the church, as I proudly gathered around the baptismal font with husband, priest and godparents, I glanced up at the congregation and caught my mum’s panicked eyes. ‘Where’s Georgie?’ she mouthed. Georgie, our second child, who was just two years old, had broken ranks and was nowhere to be seen. I almost dropped the baby, and the proceedings halted while uncles and aunts dispersed on a rescue mission, some racing out the church doors to scan the busy highway. She was found playing peacefully in the sacristy. The crisis was over in minutes, but I lost ten years that day!

More recently, and with our kids now grown, we spotted a new family in attendance at our parish. They were conspicuous, at least to us, because the father of the family happened to be a high-profile AFL footballer who played for our beloved Hawks. We pounced on them after Mass, keen to make their acquaintance, and enjoyed a long cup of tea together. Weeks later, the mother of the family confided in me that she had been about to give up on trying to attend Mass as a family but had resolved to make one last attempt at finding a parish where her young family weren’t shushed and frowned at. How sad!

Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me’ (Luke 18:16). He didn’t qualify this with ‘if they are quiet, if they are in pressed shirts, if they don’t wriggle around’. His welcome is unconditional.

As a mum who is shortly to become a grandmother—yes, I am beyond excited—it is my hope that when my daughter first attends Mass with her newborn:

  • she will be welcomed with a smile. Getting young families to Mass is a huge organisational feat, with mothers often battling their own exhaustion, juggling sleeps and feeds, and dealing with crises of lost shoes and car seat tantrums, even before Mass begins.
  • someone will ask her name and remember it the next time she comes. ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1).
  • someone will tell her how beautiful her baby is and what a great job she is doing. Years ago, I recall a priest telling his congregation that if they didn’t like the sounds of the children during Mass, they could go and sit in the crying room themselves. Alleluia! Young mums are particularly sensitive to the disposition of the priest towards their noisy baby. A kind gesture or word of encouragement means the world.
  • someone will offer to make her a cup of tea at the end of Mass and she can meet some other young mums. It’s very consoling and encouraging to know that other young families are making the effort to get to Mass. Providing opportunities to connect with others who are facing similar challenges helps young parents to understand that ‘I’m not the only one.’

Finally, I pray that my daughter has more dream Masses than nightmares and, most importantly, that her new little family will find the parish a place where their faith will flourish—a home away from home.