When I was a young, single professional living in Washington, I harbored a secret judgment against churches that had cry rooms. In my naivete, I considered parishes that built these spaces to be intolerant of young children.
While I appreciate a reverent Mass, a silent church is a dying church, I thought.
It seemed to me that the parents who took their children to the cry rooms were doing so out of a sense of shame, their pained and wincing faces saying to the rest of us, “I know, I know; we should have just stayed home.”
Fast forward three-and-a-half years later to my life with a toddler and an infant in tow. I now consider the cry room a sanctuary within a sanctuary, a gift of which only compassionate and loving parent-architects could have conceived. On any given Sunday, my husband and I exchange looks of compassion with the other parents as if to say, “This is the way we pray the Mass now, too.”
Some babies wind up in the cry room because, as the name aptly suggests, they are inconsolable. And some toddlers are clever enough to know what kind of behavior will get them sent there.
But I’ve found that parents like me also bring their children there so that they can be children – wild, free, curious, bustling with energy. It’s not that asking a child to sit through the Mass is misguided. They’ll eventually need the stamina to make it to the final blessing.
But asking a young child to sit still for any length of time, even at the dinner table with food that he or she likes, is nearly always a fool’s errand. Children want to play. And that’s a good thing, because that’s how they were made.
That’s why I am glad for cry rooms and vestibules (de facto cry rooms, if we’re honest), that have big open windows. The design is not only good because parents can see out, but because everyone else can see in.
Family-friendly spaces are hard to come by these days. I find myself rejoicing when I find a public restroom that fits my double stroller or an airport terminal that has a play area. In a world that encourages us to delay having children and to limit our family size in pursuit of other goods, the cry room stands as a symbol of accommodation, of making room for the joyful chaos of family life.
The Mass is the church’s greatest prayer. It is solemn and serious. In today’s world, it’s often the one space where people can escape the pull of their phones and the noise and distraction of screens. Quiet and stillness are necessary for real communion.
But the Mass is also where heaven meets earth. It’s when angels who exist only for God’s glory praise and dance in exultation. The liturgy, according to theologians like Fr. Romano Guardini, can be described in terms of playfulness:
“The child, when it plays, does not aim at anything. It has no purpose. It does not want to do anything but to exercise its youthful powers, pour forth its life in an aimless series of movements, words and actions, and by this to develop and to realize itself more fully. … And because (play) does not aim at anything in particular, because it streams unbroken and spontaneously forth, its utterance will be harmonious, its form clear and fine; its expression will of itself become picture and dance, rhyme, melody and song” (“The Spirit of the Liturgy”).
There are Sundays when I long for the prayer life that I had as a single person, which was more focused, more peaceful. But in this season when I find myself peering out from the cry room, wiping sticky hands and runny noses, I’m grateful for a space that allows me to participate in the foretaste of heaven with my children, who I hope will play before God for all eternity.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.