Bad Liturgical Parenting

In a wonderful article from years ago that I only recently discovered, “The Mass and the Four Most Important Lessons of Childhood,” Michael P. Foley argues that the four basic responses that parents teach their children from an early age map onto the four basic purposes  of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:

Implicit, then, in the objective to raise children who say “I love you,” “thank you,” “please,” and “I’m sorry” is something more than a trivial habit of politeness, a meaningless conformity or capitulation to social convention. Somehow, the aim is to form a young mind into the kind of person who is loving, grateful, deferential, and, when necessary, contritely determined to make amends. Perhaps this is because such qualities are not only choices worthy in themselves, but they also lead to the acquisition of other virtues. …

Interestingly, this fourfold path to authentic human flourishing, as it were, bears a remarkable similarity to the traditional theology of the Mass. Specifically, saying “I love you” at home is analogous to the act of adoration that takes place in the Mass, “thank you” to thanksgiving, “please” to petition, and “I’m sorry” to satisfaction.

Strikingly, the four acts to which Dr. Foley refers line up with major themes of the four great prayers of the Ordinary of the Mass:

  • the Kyrie corresponds to contrition (“have mercy on us”);
  • the Gloria to gratitude (“we give thee thanks”);
  • the Sanctus to adoration (“holy, holy, holy…”);
  • the Agnus Dei to petition (“grant us peace”).

It is true that all four acts are mingled together in each of these prayers, yet there is a certain progression from one to the next. The Kyrie is penitential; the Gloria is full of rejoicing; the Sanctus is a solemn chant of angels bowing before God’s throne; the Agnus Dei is pleading for salvation from the Savior now present on the altar. The millennium-old Gregorian chants of the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, as well as many of the polyphonic Mass settings, musically evoke these very spiritual attitudes and habituate us to make a serious response to Our Lord, as befits His divine Majesty.

We see here, too, a model of the basic order in which we proceed in the Christian life. First, we repent of our evil. Then we give thanks for God’s mercy. After this, we are ready to adore Him with a pure heart. Lastly, we present our needs. We remove impediments first, honor God for His glory, and think of our own wants last.

Now, what happens when parents neglect to form their children in the habit of saying “please” and “thank you,” “I love you,” and “I’m sorry”? The kids become little self-centered barbarians, incapable of moving on to the finer feelings and higher realities in life. They are rude or miserly towards their superiors, shrewd with their equals, bullying toward their inferiors. In short, they are malformed human beings who think of their wants first, do not think of the needs and demands of others, and don’t even recognize the impediments to their own maturation. We can see this today in so much deplorable behavior of children and young adults, who get away with things that no parents would have tolerated decades ago.

Following Foley’s insight, what do you suppose would happen if the spiritual fathers of the Church, the bishops and priests, failed to form their spiritual children in the proper habits of saying “I’m sorry” and “thank you,” “I love you” and “please” to Almighty God in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? What if, instead of ensuring a true discipline of self-denigrating sorrow, prompt thanks, adoring love, silent respect, and humble petition, they provided a relaxed, casual environment, where the priest and people face each other in a self-congratulatory and self-celebrating circle, to the accompaniment of folksy, trite, sentimental, trendy music? Would the children of the Church ever learn how to worship God that way? Or would they become little self-centered spiritual barbarians, over-confident toward their heavenly Father, chummy with their neighbors, and altogether bereft of the “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom?

This is exactly what happened – not just here or there, but everywhere in the Catholic Church. Growing up in a post-Vatican II parish, I fell prey to it myself. I was told to receive the host in my hands and to take the cup from the obligatory “extraordinary” minister of holy communion. I cannot remember ever hearing anything serious about the Eucharist. I was an altar boy who served with altar girls, and it was not apparent to me from the casual atmosphere of the sacristy or the minimal rubrics that we were taking any of this very seriously. I became a lector, and later an extraordinary minister myself, and joined the contemporary choir. I even wrote a guitar song during my time in the charismatic movement. Yes, I was trying to live my faith, but what was I living? All this was vanity of vanities, bearing little or no resemblance to Catholicism as it existed from the time of the Apostles to the Second Vatican Council. It was only later that I was given the light to see how sacrilegious these practices are, how much they grieve the Holy Spirit Who guided the development of doctrine, morals, and liturgy over twenty centuries.

Catholics who spent their early years as I did – how many of them have long since fallen away? Many of my relatives, friends, and acquaintances; we all know, or know of, far too many. There but for the grace of God went I. How many millions have fallen away during and after the Council, because they could no longer find the religion of Christ, could no longer recognize in the ever-shifting rites of the Church the earnest discipline of a loving parent, inculcating repentance, gratitude, adoration, supplication?

The reformed liturgy has trained Catholics to think, first and foremost, of their (supposed) needs and wants; just consider how “active participation” has been understood and practiced as a sort of blanket excuse for liturgical experimentation, so we can all “be involved.” It has trained them to neglect the Creator’s divine right to the worship of His creatures. It has habituated them to anthropocentric customs and art forms that deplete spiritual insight and wipe out asceticism. In short, the new liturgy has failed to inculcate the fundamental virtues, and the shepherds who sheepishly embraced it failed in their duty of parenting the offspring of God.

Notice that the four acts – adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication – are all directed to God.  The Mass is about Him, not about us, except inasmuch as we find ourselves in Him. Therefore, anything said or done, seen or heard that detracts from our saying to God “I’m sorry,” “thank you,” “I love you,” and “please” is not simply beside the point, as if it were a mild slip-up; it is offensive to God and harmful to our souls.

For example, if you wanted to say “thank you” or “I love you” to someone, would you turn your back to him first and then say your words as if to someone else? Would you first establish eye contact with a different person and then say these things obliquely to the one for whom they are intended? No, of course not, unless in jest, in parody or mockery. Or if you were welcoming the king or queen of a nation, would you have the band play the Beatles?

This absurd situation obtains at most celebrations of the Novus Ordo. Systematically, the altars were turned around. The Mass, that awesome sacrifice offered by the God-man Jesus Christ to the Most Holy Trinity – the sacrifice of a God worthy of a God, which thereby benefits man in reorienting him to the Alpha and Omega – was turned into a service in which a “presider” addresses himself to an “assembly,” facing the people all the time, even when he is apparently addressing God, praying toward the people when presumably praying for them to God, turning his back to the Lord for Whom modern man no longer has any time or any serious thought. And all the while, the miserable muzak grinds on, shredding peace, obliterating contemplation, severing Catholics of today from the Church of the ages.

Is all this a minor problem, one easily fixed – perhaps even one that is getting better with time? Or is it a serious problem, deeply ingrained, and getting worse?

It is the latter. We are now dealing with a generation of Catholics, multiple generations, that have known nothing other than abusive liturgical parenting; people who don’t know what reverent liturgy looks like, or what real sacred music sounds like, or what theocentric adoration feels like. The vast majority of believers around the world have never attended an authentically Catholic liturgy. With each passing decade, the way back to sanity and sanctity grows longer, harder, more remote, more countercultural.

Yet there is cause for hope. True liturgy appeals to something profound within man’s soul; it calls out to those who are serious searchers; it rewards those who stumble upon it by divine favor; it grows in attractive power as the rest of the Church evaporates into irrelevancy. It may still be a lamp barely taken out from under its bushel; it may still be a tiny light shining in a vast darkness, and blocked from view by moutainous ecclesiastical barriers; but it is really there, and the warmth and luminosity of it is unmistakable once you get within range of it.

The recent exercise in Bergoglian Peronism that was the Youth Synod yielded one of the most ridiculous propositions ever seen from the Vatican – namely, that Catholic sites on the internet be regulated and evaluated for sound content. We know, reading between the lines, that this proposal was directed at conservative and traditional sites successfully opposing the “new paradigm” on all fronts. One of the most poignant ways in which these resources have helped bring about a bit of springtime in the midst of the postconciliar winter has been the burgeoning display of photographs of magnificent solemn liturgies in all of the Church’s authentic rites. When practicing Catholics who are not already familiar with the glorious Roman liturgy see these photos, their curiosity is piqued, their capacity for the divine provoked, their aesthetic sense awakened, their hunger for something more than Vatican II Catholicism stirred up. When they act upon this actual grace and seek out a liturgy that corresponds to the greatness of God and to His image in man, it is the first step toward a deeper conversion.

This is why the devil hates it so much – why he hates, in fact, all things traditional. They are the fruits and tools of good parenting in every sphere of Catholic life, be it liturgy, devotion, doctrine, morals, or artistic culture, prepared for us by centuries of spiritual fathers who lived fervently and profoundly understood the fundamental acts of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. These are the acts that save the souls of Catholics from the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is never too late to adopt better spiritual parents and to begin your childhood anew.

A rewritten version of this article has become chapter 19 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).

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