25 July 2023, The Tablet

How a Catholic church mum and musician manages the weekly ritual of ‘packing the Sunday bag’

Cyril and Methodius – knitted dolls ideal for quiet children’s play in church, though so far, it’s only been adults who have picked them up.

How a Catholic church mum and musician manages the weekly ritual of ‘packing the Sunday bag’

“Cyril” and “Methodius”.

Packing the Sunday bag is one of the crucial routines for my weekend, and has been for years. It’s like packing the swimming bag for a trip to the pool in the years when your children are small enough to be taken to learn to swim, and still too small to insist on having their own bag. You need the same things repeatedly, but because they regularly have to come out as well as go back in, you have to check it every time. It’s also like having to unpack your child’s school rucksack on a regular basis; it’s quite amazing what can end up forgotten at the bottom, and you’ll never be able to find the essential things unless you’ve seen them recently. The concept of a bag that you pack once, leave in a safe place and just pick up and use without checking only works in films.

The contents of the Sunday bag have varied over time. When the children were little, the bag was full of things to make getting through Mass with small children a bit easier (for everyone else as well, not just for us). After years of doing this, I maintain that this is an art in itself. Toys need to be silent, not just in normal use, but even if someone takes it into their head to repurpose them as percussion (or weapons) – so no bricks, trains or construction toys, and preferably nothing hard. Children certainly don’t need to be completely quiet or invisible, but the parent needs to be a step ahead, and ready for the unexpected.

Any books need to be chosen very carefully, because you can’t actually settle down to reading them aloud during Mass. You probably need familiar books, preferably on holy or related topics, if you can manage it, where the child will want to study the pictures solo. And don’t take ones where something happens suddenly, because the reaction to the page turn will not necessarily be silent. And no books which talk about noise, because sooner or later the urge to vocalise will become irresistible; and absolutely nothing with batteries. If you keep certain toys only in the Sunday bag, they will be more exciting than something which was available all week, but you also don’t want something the children will squabble over.

When the children got bigger, we had other things in the Sunday bag, especially once we started along the road to First Communions. English Mass books with pictures were important here. I used to draw up little questionnaires to encourage the children to pay close attention, especially if Mass was being said not in English. I couldn’t make sermons in Czech gripping or even comprehensible, so that was when they tended to fill them in, but they could find their way through all the regular bits of the Mass. I admit the questions were often boring (how many candles on the altar this week? What colour is Father wearing?), but the point was to make them look at the altar, notice what might be going on, and match it up with what was in the book. And there had to be pencils in the Sunday bag so they could fill in the questionnaires. Oddly enough, the children remember the questionnaires positively, so that’s a relief.

Now we are all past that stage, and the main point of the Sunday bag is to make sure we have everything we need for the music. What goes into the bag is sometimes rather odd, but it’s all essential, and omissions could be catastrophic. Recently I actually left a folder of the recorder part for the psalm and Alleluia behind, and it was only a mercy dash by my wonderful husband that saved the day (luckily we don’t live very far away from our church). The problem is making sure that something goes back into the bag after it has come out for practice.

This weekend we have the parish Confirmation Mass on Saturday and normal Mass the next day, so I have been trying to make sure that there’s no confusion between the different sets of music. But we haven’t finished practising yet. Once we have, I think I will hide the Other Set, but that too is risky. Unpacking the Sunday bag, recycling the music we don’t need any more and filing the rest is a sizeable and recurring chunk of my Monday morning, but I’ll need to allow time on Saturday night to turn the bag around to avoid problems. It’s not paranoia so much as organisation (at least, that’s what I tell the children).

The bag itself needs to be easily spotted, robust and waterproof. It needs to be tougher than a plastic bag, so the trend to hessian and canvas bags has been a help, but being distinctively different from the shopping bags is crucial. And it needs to be fairly roomy, because it’s amazing what needs to fit into it.

I don’t ever take my own copies of the hymn books, missals or Mass books with me to our church on Sundays, because there is always so much confusion in the pews. There is very little room for music copies of all kinds (I always look very enviously at Anglican choir stalls), and I feel that I would never get them back once they made it into the common stock at church. So at least that’s something that doesn’t need to go in. I will take one of my own personal hymnals if I can’t find the music in the parish one, or I really dislike an arrangement, but I’m quite likely to photocopy it instead. But photocopying anything out of a book as fat as a hymnal is often problematic, so I might need to take my book, and then I have to be very careful not to lose track of it. Choir members can be surprisingly ruthless if caught without a copy once the music is starting.

Then there are the folders of the music we need every week, the Mass setting with its instrument parts. I can leave the piano music at home if I know that the organist will be there, but if there’s any doubt, I need to take that as well. Just in case. Other things I need to take if the organist is away are my very long (so that they stay visible) numbered bookmarks, which I have to put into the hymnal before Mass starts, and the large pieces of non-slip matting, which have made my musical life much easier since I discovered them. I have thin strips of it for the music ledge and the music stands, and a large piece that goes underneath the pedal of the keyboard. I’m used to a real piano, where the pedals are fixed, but with a keyboard instead, the pedal can scoot away from you each time you press it, and you can’t retrieve it until that hymn is over. Luckily the extension lead for the keyboard lives at church, but I need to remember the music stand.

Besides all this, I also need my bulldog clips. The fat music version of our parish hymnal is completely unstable on the ledge of the keyboard (admittedly, it works better with the organ) but I have discovered that bulldog clips judiciously applied can stabilise it for long enough to play a hymn. I have two huge bulldogs and two slightly smaller, and I absolutely need to take them to be safe.

I have a tin with several short pencils in it, because I’ve never known a choir where everybody actually has a pencil. My pencils migrate slowly from my desk in their youth, to the piano in middle age (about half-sized), to my tin when they are too short to sharpen easily. I also have erasers, in case I change my mind about dynamics (or someone else’s markings don’t agree with my ideas). In the summer, we have a couple of cardboard fans; in the winter, cough sweets. I don’t carry a water bottle, although several choir members do, but I reckon my bag is heavy enough already. Nowadays I also have a packet of face masks, a little bottle of hand sanitiser, and a packet of tissues, although that regularly goes missing when the children swipe and don’t replace it.

Following advice, we tried carrying a biscuit or two with us when the children were very small, but it was really a bad idea. Apart from anything else, it’s messy, and that’s not fair on the people who clean the church; but we learnt our lesson early on when Rachel sat quietly in a cathedral, holding a little rusk, as good as gold, until there was a moment of holy silence, when she managed to make crunching it sound like thunder. Gothic cathedrals have superb acoustics. After that, it was only non-edible distractions.

I thought we had got beyond the point of carrying toys to church until a couple of small girls started coming regularly to sit on the pews at right angles to the choir. So Cyril and Methodius have made it back into the Sunday bag. They are two small knitted dolls from at least thirty years ago, which we picked up in a Christmas craft sale. They were ideal Sunday toys, with embroidered eyes and buttons, no hard parts to scrape or make noise with (only Cyril still has the original little fabric flower buttons), just the right size for small hands. One was pink and one was turquoise, and we were in Prague, so they were christened Cyril and Methodius  (Cyril is slightly taller), after the great saints known as “the Apostles to the Slavs”.

They sit at the end of the pew next to the hymn books, available for borrowing. So far, it’s only been adults who have picked them up, but I live in hope. Last week one of the little girls across the way danced all the way through the Sanctus. She can borrow Cyril or Methodius whenever she likes.


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.





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