When going to church, count your chickens

By Molly Howat, Contributing writer

I distinctly remember the first time I attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Trujillo, Honduras.

My team and I had just arrived at the orphanage where we were to be working, having just finished Spanish school in Guatemala for three months.

I was anxious to settle into the community and excited to see the church that would be my spiritual home for the next several months.

As we entered through the open door, we gazed at each other with an unmistakable look of shock. Running in between the aisles and flying onto the pews were none other than about 20 chickens! Yes … chickens!

Life and worship in this simple town would hold a steep learning curve for me. The first Mass with the chickens was a complete disaster on my part. I was mesmerized by the clucking poultry. I spent the vast majority of the liturgy looking around for ushers to escort our feathery friends out the closest door.

Free-range chickens

There were no ushers and, much to my dismay, I seemed to be the only person present who was even slightly bothered by these birds. I wanted to wrest the microphone away from the pulpit and shout, “For the love of Colonel Sanders, how can you people pray in these conditions?”

Fortunately, for the entire congregation, my Spanish was not up to par, and I resisted the temptation. Suffice it to say, the Mass mercifully ended, and I left the church in haste.

When I inquired about the farm-like atmosphere of the cathedral, I was told that they had to keep the church doors open because there was no air conditioning. Thus, keeping out the chickens and other wandering livestock was not high on the priority list.

So why am I drawing a connection between chickens and children? Simply because what I learned from the chickens, you can hopefully learn from children.

As the weeks went by in Honduras, I began to actually forget about the chickens when we attended Mass.

How is it possible to stop noticing a flapping fowl three feet from your face? You choose to focus on something more important.

I suppose at every Mass, I could have just chosen to watch the chickens. They were entertaining to boot. I could have done a complete dissertation on the activity of hens in spiritual locations.

Jesus wins again

At some point, though, Jesus won out. At some point, I decided that I needed to focus on the Lord, no matter what distractions surrounded me. Therefore, I did just that.

When a chicken would make a rather loud noise, I would consciously choose to not look and instead I would try to recall words of Scripture: “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’” (Matt 8:20).

Or “In his hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10).

I would attempt to spiritualize the very distraction that was trying to capture my attention. For the most part, it worked!

The point I’m trying to make is that we need to train ourselves to overcome distractions during prayer, whether it be at Mass or throughout our day.  Remember the martyrs being led to their deaths (now there’s a distraction) who would sing hymns of praise and recite Scripture to keep their focus. Let us imitate their discipline, lest we find ourselves one day in greater distraction that even children can be.

Regarding children, here are some of my honest thoughts:

I think cry rooms can be wonderful tools to give parents a place to calm their children. Nevertheless, I think cry rooms have introduced a bit of a sterile environment to the church community.

At some parishes, people now expect a sort of perpetual adoration chapel-like atmosphere. We can sometimes forget that Mass is a community event.

Recall the Mass throughout the centuries. It was first celebrated in the houses of the Christians. Imagine the possible scenarios there!

If I cannot bring my children to the adoration chapel because they make noise and I cannot bring my children to Mass because they make noise, where am I supposed to be able to let my children encounter the Lord in his flesh?

We all know Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14). Do we believe that?

Yes, out-of-control children should be brought to a place where they can calm down. Yes, wailing babies should be brought to a place where they can be consoled.  However, concerning the general background noise of kids sometimes being kids, babbling babies, toddlers who occasionally forget to whisper (the struggle is real), a kid who is just having a bad day and starts to cry – let them come before the Lord.  I think Jesus is overjoyed at their presence.

I want my children to know that they are deeply loved by him. I want them to grow up knowing deep in their hearts that church is a place to encounter the One who created them and knows the longings and struggles of their hearts.

Children may not understand the exact theological implications of the Mass, but when I whisper to them at the Consecration, “Look! It is Jesus!” they look.

Oftentimes, I think the Lord loves those “looks” even more than the holiest prayer uttered by the most saintly among us. Let us not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.

Molly Howat and her husband Cory are parishioners of St. Clement of Rome Parish in Metairie. They have four children.

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