I remember going to see Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ shortly after it came out. The theatre was packed, so I was flanked by strangers on both sides. On my right side sat a middle-aged woman who introduced herself to me before the film began. Her name was Janie. She spoke to me about her church and her daughter’s struggle with faith and so forth. On my left sat two elderly Latina women, a mother and her daughter. They spoke to each other in Spanish and did not seem to take much notice of the crowd. It was clear that they were eager for the film to begin.
About fifteen minutes in, I realized that the more elderly of the women to my left could not make out the English sub-titles accompanying the Aramaic and Latin dialogue. Hence, the daughter was attempting to translate the sub-titles into Spanish (whispering of course) throughout the film. Now Janie did not approve of this. I remember she kept leaning over me and glaring and sighing as the daughter provided Spanish translation and commentary for the mother.
This went on for the duration of the film. I remember at one point laughing silently to myself. Here was Janie so hungry for her fix of Christian compassion that she would glare and sigh at two elderly ladies one of which did not speak English. Talk about missing the point. How typical, I remember thinking.
The aim of this post is not to discuss high and low points in Gibson’s directorial filmography or movie theatre etiquette. Rather, I wish to draw from this story to offer a moral critique of cry-rooms in churches. If you do not have kids you may not have noticed these or thought much about them, or maybe you have. For my own part, as a parent of four, I recall feeling a great sense of relief upon first entering a church with a cry-room. Particularly those of us with children can empathize with the anxiety that comes with bringing small children to Mass. They cry or scream or produce bodily functions at extremely inappropriate times. They grab and pull at the hymn books. They crawl around and wave at people around them. They randomly holler out non-sequitur gibberish. They punch, and push and pull when frustrated. Come to think of it, their behavior is not altogether dissimilar from drunkards at a sporting event.
And our fellow parishioners take notice of all of it. Some smile. Some glare. Some roll their eyes. Some sigh and whisper something to the person sitting next to them. I often don’t think there is malice behind it; they are not deliberately trying to make us or our children feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Rather, they simply, like Janie, can’t contain their frustration with distractions at a time when they are trying to be very spiritual.
So, at first, I was relieved to go into the cry-room with the other tired looking parents clutching their diaper bags and sticky children’s books with the pages half ripped. Here we won’t be bothering anyone. Here we’ll be out of the way. Here we won’t be a nuisance to the other parishioners. They can enjoy their spiritual solemnity with relatively little fear of random disruption from the diaper and bib crowd.
But we moved and the new church did not have a cry-room. This meant that my wife and I simply had to ignore the occasional dirty looks. We had to learn to improvise. Sitting up front actually helps, though the parental instinct is to sit near the back in order to secure an easy escape route. We learned that, though our children cannot participate in Mass completely, they can in their own limited way, and greater inclusion in the Mass is more effective at improving their behavior than the exclusion of the cry room with its sticky common toys and books. Looking back on it, the kids in the cry-room never really seemed to notice that a Mass was even taking place. They seemed to regard going to church as a kind of poor man’s Chucky Cheese. And even this may be an overly charitable description. One Catholic author referred to the cry-room as a “Catholic penalty box…with low-lighting, [a] bad sound system, and a fish-bowl feel” whose very design makes one to feel disconnected from the Mass.
There is an interesting parallel between my experience with Janie at the movie theatre and cry-rooms in churches. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was, at least on some level, an example of the sacred invading a secular space. Movie theatres are generally reserved for the gods of sex, money, power, and other idols. Janie’s behavior at any other movie would not have seemed ironic, inappropriate or out of place. Shut-up, don’t kick my seat, put your phone away and leave me alone; I’m trying to entertain myself. Cry-rooms, on the other hand, are an example of the secular invading the sacred. We live in a culture where the diaper and bib crowd are usually regarded as inconvenient and unworthy obstacles to grown-up fun and freedom. Time magazine recently featured a cover article titled “The Child-Free Life: When Having it All Means not Having Children.” (A profound critique of which can be found here.) The cover picture features two twenty-somethings relaxing on a beach. I get that our culture is this way. I get that I will receive dirty looks if I bring a crying baby to a nice restaurant or that my wife may get dirty looks if she breast-feeds underneath her shawl while sitting on a park bench. I don’t like it, but I get it.
But going to Mass should be different. Here “all are welcome” should not just be a slogan or hymn lyric; it should be true. Here all the normal differences that divide us should be discarded. The diaper and bib crowd have a right to not be segregated from the rest of the faithful as do their parents. They have a right to participate in the Mass to the best of their ability, even if this is very limited. Their parents have a right to not be made to feel like they are somehow committing an indecency by coming to Mass with their kids. Thus, the cry-room should be discarded. The concept of a cry-room may square with our modern secular culture, but it does not square with the Catholic liturgical tradition.
But if one must have some special room for a select group to be singled out as different from the rest, and if one’s church already has a cry-room in its design, then perhaps one could just change the name of it to the judgment room. All the Janie’s of the world can go in there and seal themselves off from the distractions that vex them so. For the Janie’s are not fully involved in the Mass any way. They are too busy working up just the right combination of glare and sigh to express their frustration at whoever was rude and inconsiderate enough to bring their children to Mass that day.