Dear Sister Sunday,
I see a man each week at Mass. He comes alone and is very reserved. Last week he came with a little girl, who looked to be about twelve. She spent the entire Mass playing a game on her phone. Thumbs moving, her eyes glued to the screen, she never looked up or participated in any prayers or songs. It was very distracting. I wanted to yank the phone out of her hands, but I stopped myself. Should I have spoken to the man who brought her? The girl? What should I have done?
Agitated in Atlanta
Let’s begin with what we know, which is almost nothing. Is the little girl his daughter? If so, does he see her very seldom? In that case, she may be raised by someone who doesn’t go to Mass and so hasn’t taught her how to behave during the Liturgy. And, if he has very little time with his maybe-daughter, he probably doesn’t want to use much of it disciplining her.
If God asks you to dine, you have nothing else on the schedule.
Perhaps the child is a niece or the child of friends. Maybe he was taking her with him while her parents were occupied elsewhere, recovering at the hospital, say, or caring for an elderly parent or delivering a baby. In that case, the man may not think he is authorized to act in loco parentis and apply the appropriate discipline. Or, in the case of a sick parent or grandparent, the girl may be under enough stress that the adults in her life are allowing her the (one hopes, temporary) narcotic of video games.
The omnipresence of portable devices is distressing. And they certainly do not belong in church. (And, yes, I’m talking to you, Important Busy Person Expecting A Very Important Call. Unless you’re waiting for word to unleash nuclear warheads, it can wait.) Sister knows a wonderful priest who takes off his watch before Mass, a reminder that this is time out of time, not bounded by the ordinary constraints. If God asks you to dine, you have nothing else on the schedule.
But, back to this sad little girl and her, undoubtedly uncomfortable, adult companion. Here’s what you can do: Provide a model. Make sure your own phone is turned off, safely stowed, and in the upright, locked position before take-off. Be present: Listen, sing, kneel, stand, pray. Above all, pray. Pray that something in the hymns, the gestures, the candles, the smell of incense, the reverence, the hospitality, or the ancient stories will stir this child to wake from her technology-induced coma. Pray for God to soothe her brain and allow her to rest her thumbs and her racing thoughts. Pray that she will fall in love with something beautiful, something true, something good, something that will open her eyes to wonder. Pray for the man in whose care she is.
If this child comes to Mass again, be sure to smile and welcome her. After Mass, make a point to go up and introduce yourself. Offer to introduce her to another girl her age in the parish. Tell her about some of the youth activities going on in the parish and the diocese. You have to establish a relationship before you can speak, and be heard, about unacceptable behavior. This is what parents know, and this one of the reasons part-time parenting (if that, indeed, is the situation) can be so hard.
And, remember, Aggie, you’re not the host here. Or the Host. You’re a guest, same as the rest of us, and just as unlikely as the rest of us. God is the One who invites and God has invited Miss Candy Crush, too. Pray that you, and she, and all of us, will accept the invitation and partake of all the good things God sets before us at Mass.
Thanks for writing.