Okay, first I want to clarify that this is not meant to make parents who do use church nurseries to feel guilty. You have to do what you have to do to survive, after all! I've already clarified that I'm a really grateful for cryrooms, so I don't expect that all children will be able to sit through Mass (especially small children).
But that being said, I think there's something missing from the church nursery/children's Liturgy of the Word phenomenon. They both can accomplish good, and I believe that they are done with the best intentions, but I think that they are less than ideal.
(Pictures from our rest stop at St. Meinrad's Archabbey on a recent road trip. So gorgeous!)
Sometime when Maria was a baby, we did a church swap with some dear non-Catholic friends of ours. I'd been to non-Catholic churches before, but I had never visited one with my children.
One of the appeals of Protestant/non-denomination churches for a lot of families is the availability of resources. There's free coffee in the lobby, upbeat music and messages, and...a complicated and impressive system for dropping off your children. Many of these churches have well developed programs for children (which is fantastic), but the downside is that these "children's churches" occur during the main church service. As a result, there aren't many children in the actual church service.
Incidentally, in churches like this, I think the "children's church" concept actually makes sense. These church services are geared for a particular age group, and if the focus is learning about Jesus and the Bible and doing some praise and worship - well, the kids can accomplish that just as well (or even better!) in a children's church service.
Likewise, if you go to a church like this, a church nursery makes total sense. The point of these church services is to hear the sermon, and to receive words of formation and encouragement. If you're pacing with a screaming baby or toddler, you can't hear the message.
But the purpose of the Mass is different.
Mass isn't about feeling certain spiritual things. It's not about hearing a great message. It's not about singing and hearing fantastic music. It's nice when these things happen, but Mass isn't about them.
Mass is about encountering the living God, receiving Him into you in the Eucharist, and worshiping Him in union with the rest of the assembly and the Communion of Saints. Mass is about partaking in the ongoing heavenly liturgy, and it is the closest we get to heaven on earth. In the liturgy of the Mass, the immeasurable love and sacrifice of Christ on the cross is made present again. We don't just remember what happened then. We are literally present at that original sacrifice, as the Eucharist makes it present again.
Aside from the Mass, we can't experience any of these things.
Part of the beauty of the Mass, too, is that every member of the Church matters. From the tiniest newborn and newly baptized baby right on up to the oldest, dementia-suffering person, each person's presence matters. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are all perfectly united to each other and to all the rest of the Church - both on earth and in heaven.
We listen to the Scriptures and encounter Christ in that. We listen to the homily and are instructed and encouraged. But even the Scriptures aren't about personal fulfillment - they are a part of the work of Christ. They are a part of what unifies us as one in the mystical, Eucharistic body of Christ.
The Mass matters. The Mass has eternal implications.
Young children understand this better than we'd think. One of my primary focuses during Mass in their first three years or so is helping my children to understand that Jesus is truly present at church (in the Eucharist), that He loves them, and that we are called to offer Him our love. It never ceases to amaze me how their belief in Jesus in the Eucharist is often stronger than my own. Both my girls love blowing Jesus in the tabernacle kisses. Maria is always asking to go see "Jee-us" in the "Do-do" (stroller). Children sense Jesus' presence in the Eucharist.
What makes Mass different than other types of church services is that - unlike other church services - it is not our work. It is the work of Christ, of which we are partaking. Mass is the re-presentation (i.e. the making present again) of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is made real, again. Christ is not crucified again, but we are able to be present at the foot of the cross.
And each member of Christ's body matters in that sacrifice. It was for us all that He accomplished the work of salvation.
This is exactly why church nurseries and Children's Liturgy of the Word services (that occur in the middle of Mass) don't make sense in the Catholic Church. We need those littlest ones at Mass! They, by the nature of their baptism, have a rightful place in our midst. Not only that, but Mass isn't about teaching our children. The work of catechesis happens during the liturgy simply by experiencing the liturgy. Any "teaching" can occur before or after Mass. But what is happening at Mass is not just about good behavior and learning about the Bible. It's about standing at the foot of Christ, with all the Church. It's about encountering Christ, alive today and present in the Eucharist. Nothing can take the place of that.
*Again, if you need to use church nurseries and the like for a period of time, it's your judgment call as a parent. You know your children best, and God has given them to you! The point that I'm trying to make is that you don't need to be afraid to bring your young child to Mass. They have a place there, and it's okay if they're too little to pay attention. Their presence matters, and God will work on their little hearts in ways you can only imagine!