The Lord hears the cry of the poor

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father ,” says St. James, “is to care for orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27).

I’ve often wondered whether this verse doesn’t imply a general ethic for how we treat any woman with young children. For example, a mother is struggling to lift a stroller with a baby onto a bus. The husband and father, away at work, cannot help. If we help her lift the stroller, or later on the bus offer up our seat for her, don’t we honor the meaning of the saying?

Every child apart from his father is a kind of orphan; every wife separated from her husband is to that extent a “widow.” The early Christians followed the idiom Jesus used and referred to death as “being asleep” (“Lazarus is sleeping”, Jesus said.) They therefore had to conceive of the state of a widow or orphan as temporary anyway.

Put this thought from St. James together with one later from his letter. Suppose, he says, that a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into church, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in. Suppose the people in the church, “pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes” (that is, they cater to his wishes) and give him a special place to sit. But they tell the poor person, “stand there” (probably in the back). Then, says St. James, these Christians have “shown partiality” and “dishonored the poor person.” They have failed to keep the maxim, “love your neighbor as yourself” (2:1-8).

Likewise, suppose today a businessman in a suit, or a well-established retired couple, come into a church, and also a woman with young children. (Paint the picture as bleak for her as you wish. She is wearing sweats because she had no time to shower. Her several children are boisterous, runny at the nose, complaining, carrying sippy-cups and covered with crumbs.) Suppose the priest and ushers cater to the wishes of the businessman and retired couple, but they tell the woman with her children to sit somewhere else. The businessman and the couple complain, and a priest or usher “suggests” to the woman that she really ought to confine herself to the “Cry Room” in the back of the church. Haven’t they shown partiality and dishonored the “widow with orphan children”?

We speak of a “preferential option for the poor.” But who is poor? Any infant is poor, just as, assuredly, the child in the womb is poor. A housewife is poor -- she belongs to certainly the most despised and rejected class in the United States today. She makes no money and has perhaps even given up a career. She commands no resources and has no subordinates working under her. She is without honor. Her sacrifices are unappreciated and even unwelcome by those politicians and do-gooders who strain every nerve to replace her service with subsidized day-care and extended school hours.

You would think that a preferential option for the poor implies that a church should set apart special seats in the front of the church, precisely to honor women who make the sacrifice of attending Mass with their little children. And maybe if there are parishioners who can’t tolerate the sounds which children naturally make, a room could be built in back of the church for them, a “Silence Room,” where they can sit apart and in controlled tranquility, away from those annoying sounds.

But I jest: I don’t wish to see Cry Rooms converted into Silence Rooms. I want to see them torn down. Cry Rooms should all be abolished.

This is one case where “abuse takes away use.” The intention at first was good: a mother or father in the congregation with a child who is screaming out of control will, out of charity, want to get the child out of earshot of everyone else. The portico or doorway would serve the purpose well enough, or even the car (as millions of parents could testify). But if they must leave, then why not prepare a place where they can still hear the Mass and be comfortable?

Thus the Cry Room in its only defensible form: as a place where a parent may temporarily bring a screaming child.

But Cry Rooms in practice have become something else. They are places of exile, where finger-wagging ushers, and even priests, send mothers with children, because the sounds they make might disturb the hearing aids of the retired folk in the “regular congregation.” They are slums, where during Sunday Mass it is thought good to allow children to act just as they might in the kitchen at home -- eating, drinking, rough-housing, and even playing video games. They are hideouts for Pharisaical adolescents who are confident that they’ve fulfilled the Sunday obligation by sitting for 50 minutes in a space contiguous with that where the Mass is offered.

Cry Rooms in practice are based on the false premise that one can’t expect a young child to be well-behaved for an hour, or that loud sounds, and “what comes from without,” can destroy worship.

Cry Rooms in effect negate the doctrine of “opus operatum.” A mother with young children will struggle to get to daily Mass on the conviction that simply to be present there conveys grace. And when she arrives, we tell her to go somewhere else.

Michael Pakaluk, the father of 12 children, is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Integrative Research at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, VA.