Children change everything.
This is a truth we ponder many times in our lives. First, if we are believing Christians, we celebrate each year the coming of a child – the Child, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh – the infant, the boy, the youth, the man, on Whom all of reality hinges, Who is our head, our cornerstone, our deliverer, our life. The annunciation, conception, and birth of this child certainly changed everything in the world, and, in spite of the constant battering of unbelief against the walls of the Church, His advent among us will never cease to purify and polarize mankind until the end of time.
Closer to home, whenever a man and woman unite in marriage, God intends to change everything in their lives by the advent of a child. If they welcome the child, they start the long journey of maturing into their callings as husband and wife, mother and father, perhaps eventually grandmother and grandfather.
Those who welcome the children God sends them face many difficult decisions as the children grow up. Before, the man and the woman may not have thought much about what movies they were watching, what music they were listening to, what influences they allowed into their lives. Perhaps it has been many years since they were in school, or since the time of their conversion or reversion, so they will need to rethink, from the ground up, what educating the little ones is going to demand. As much as a newborn turns his parents’ lives upside-down, the biggest challenges arise when children are expected to begin their education. Is homeschooling the way to go? Is the local Catholic school an option? What about online curricula? As the surrounding society becomes more demented and even the parochial schools turn out to be lukewarm if not corrupt, Catholic parents who want their children to know and love the Lord and practice the Faith usually reach the conclusion that education must be done in the home. Nor should this surprise anyone, since the Church has always taught that the duty of begetting and educating children belongs, by divine right, to their parents. Children staying at home for their education definitely change everything.
Can we say the same thing about the liturgy we attend as a family week in, week out?
We know how important Sunday is: it is the Day of the Lord, the Dies Domini. We also know how important the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is, for it is where we give perfect worship to God through Christ, and receive His most holy Body as the divinizing food for our journey. Faithful Catholics intuitively know just how important it is that Sundays (and Holy Days) be properly set apart, solemnized with reverent, mystical, nourishing, and edifying liturgy. We have a duty to seek this out for ourselves, but, more to the point, we have a duty to seek it out for our children.
In my book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, I share the story of how, about a decade ago, we found ourselves at a Mass in which a grown woman, vested in an alb, went up to the altar to assist the priest with distributing holy communion. My little daughter said to her mother: “Mama, there are women priests!” [i]. This reminded us again, if we needed reminding, that the Novus Ordo has become a protected wilderness refuge for a plethora of deviations that still enjoy official toleration or endorsement, even in cases where sheaves of Vatican directives demand the contrary.
One can “out-catechize” the misunderstandings arrived at by children who are judging simply on the basis of sights and sounds, but it is an uphill battle every step of the way when the mainstream form of worship transmits a message contrary to that of any traditional catechism published in the past 500 years. The phrase “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind. No parent needs the headache of having to address, in a sort of liturgical postmortem, the errors, ugliness, or irreverence of a Mass one has just attended. It’s uncomfortable at best and discouraging at worst. Needless to say, the experience of the albèd EMHC was just one of many similar experiences that prompted us, as parents, to take far greater care about which liturgy we would be attending as a family [ii].
I once wrote about this matter to a good friend, and he wrote the following insightful words back to me:
When our oldest started noticing things and asking questions, and knowing that when we face our personal judgment we will be judged on how we performed our duties of state, we had to leave the diocesan parishes. Not only were the kids getting malnourished; we were getting small doses of poison. My wife and I had the capacity to filter most of it out, but the kids do not. The only option was to correct the priests’ actions and words, but that puts us in the awkward position of possibly disrespecting the one who has spiritual authority over us. And I have a very high view of the priesthood, and did not want to be in a position of regularly criticizing priests. After we started assisting at the TLM, I noticed, as if in retrospect, that I had built up all sort of defenses to filter out the not-so-good stuff that goes on in your average Novus Ordo Mass. We should not have to filter out stuff as we actively participate (in the proper sense) in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; I’d say that those filters actually prevent proper participation. At this point, I find it pretty near impossible to pray at a Novus Ordo Mass, and my kids do not want to go to “the English Mass,” as they call it.
This response made me realize a number of important truths about how “children change everything” in this matter of liturgy.
First, my correspondent points out that children are naturally absorptive and inquisitive. We could add to this that they are naïve, innocent, and trusting. So their experiences are always teaching them something about the nature of what they are seeing and hearing – far more intensely than the experiences of older people, who have seen and heard a lot more and had time to process it and learn about things from other sources. We can “shut it out,” close our eyes, meditate on something beautiful we once saw or heard, or “offer it up” as a penance, but their eyes are wide open, taking it all in, and it shapes them. What they see is what they are going to believe, and if we keep correcting erroneous inferences from what they see, it fractures the fundamental axiom lex orandi, lex credendi. After all, how we worship is supposed to dictate what we believe! Children should therefore be protected from imbibing contradictions.
Second, we parents are responsible for the spiritual formation of our children. This is not something that can be outsourced to clergy, CCD teachers, or parochial teachers. No matter how much formation they are getting from the outside, it is not likely to be enough, and it may not even be correct (by which I mean: in conformity with established Church doctrine). We need to ensure that the faith of children is fed from pure, uncontaminated sources; that their hope is directed primarily to heavenly realities, with worldly projects in second place; that their charity is enkindled by the sight of loving homage being paid to the Divine Lover and by the sight of other devout Catholics observing the proper order of love: God first, my own soul second, my neighbor’s soul third, my neighbor’s body fourth, and my own body last.
The liturgy is for the purpose of honoring and glorifying God, but precisely by doing this well, it also nourishes us. Ironically, when liturgy is done “for the people,” it ends up not benefiting them because it does not order them rightly to God, Who is supreme. Take ad orientem worship: when the priest and the people together face the same direction, toward the East – the symbol of Christ, Sun of Justice, who will return to judge the world from the East, as He tells us in Scripture (Mt. 24:27) – we all immediately experience that the sacred liturgy is something being offered to God, without the need for any tedious explanation. It is quite intuitive. One must actually be brainwashed, to some extent, to experience ad orientem as “being ignored by the priest.”
Such examples could be multiplied. Every traditional practice of the Catholic Church is catechetically powerful in this way, without the need for words. The reformed liturgy jettisons or inverts many of these symbols so that, again without the need for words, they catechize us in the opposite way, so that we draw false conclusions. Only those who are well catechized can intellectually resist the performative and habituating pressure of the new rites – what my correspondent referred to as “small doses of poison” [iii].
Third, my correspondent noticed how unhealthy it was in his own soul to have had to develop over the years so many layers of armor against bad liturgy. It reminds me of what it’s like to have suffered from abusive relationships, so that one’s idea of love or marriage is tainted, and it’s harder to be open to the other – to be vulnerable in the right way so = one can be profoundly affected. One puts up defenses, pulls around oneself a tough outer shield. Those who have been to enough unfortunate instances of the Novus Ordo are likely to develop a knee-jerk reaction: “Don’t get anywhere near my insides. I don’t know what you’re about to do to me, but whatever it is, it first needs to pass through my cognitive and affective filtration system.”
I’ve referred to this problem as “Mosebach’s Paradox”: the more one understands what the liturgy is, the more one is tempted to become a theater critic when confronted with aberrations or bad taste. It’s obviously the worst possible disposition to be in for liturgy, since we are supposed to surrender ourselves to the work of Christ in our souls, above all in the liturgical rites of His Church. But we have been through so much in these past decades that we are shell-shocked.
It’s time to get unshocked. It shouldn’t be the case that attending Mass is like having teeth pulled without anesthesia. The only way that’s going to happen is to assist at a Mass that we know will be sound, prayerful, formal, orthodox, and beautiful (or at least silent). This is a liturgy to which we can gladly surrender ourselves, with no filters on. Then, paradoxically, we will be achieving, perhaps for the first time, that “active participation” for the sake of which the entire Catholic universe was atom-bombed in the 1960s.
Some parents, particularly those with small children, may be wondering: “Isn’t the traditional Latin Mass longer and more difficult to get into, and harder to keep your children well-behaved at?” The answer is both yes and no. Yes, it demands more of everyone – but as I argue elsewhere, it also delivers a lot more. The Catholic richness it provides is worth the added time and trouble [iv].
Children in their squirmy or noisy stages are going to be a handful of trouble at any liturgy and will always require tag-teaming with one’s spouse or the intervention of a mature sibling. Children who are older and have learned to sit still will often find much more to interest them and keep them occupied during a Latin Mass, above all a sung Mass (High Mass or Missa cantata), than they will ever do in typical Novus Ordo surroundings. Many families I’ve spoken with have reported better behavior at longer Latin Masses! There are many reasons for this, but briefly: there is quite a bit more ceremony and pageantry to watch, the vestments and church decorations are usually more beautiful to look at, the music generally has a calming and quieting effect, and the congregation tends to be intently focused on the Mass in a way that makes it easier to swim in the same direction. Indeed, the whole thing feels more serious, more solemn, more transcendent, more awesome, and children, even small ones, can pick up on that difference in atmosphere almost as intuitively as animals respond to upcoming changes in the weather.
With parents and their needs uppermost in mind, I published a two-part article at OnePeterFive back in 2014, with a lot of practical suggestions, drawing on the experience of several families with whom I was in contact: “Helping Children Enter into the Traditional Latin Mass” (part 1, part 2). I summed up my case this way:
It is a worthwhile challenge to embrace, because the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is your children’s point of contact with the greatest, longest, and deepest religious tradition in the entire world. As the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, the Sacrifice of the New Covenant supersedes Jewish worship and therefore most fully embodies all that God gave to Israel. The Mass is an act of sacrifice that, as the Roman Canon reminds us, circles all the way back to the prefiguring sacrifices of Abel, Abraham, and Melchisedech. Within the Christian tradition itself, the Rite of the Church of Rome is among the most ancient. Its single historic anaphora, the Roman Canon, is older than that of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Within the Western tradition, there is no loftier expression of the divine mysteries, no more nourishing access to them. The hard work it takes to enter into this liturgy is repaid a thousandfold in the never-depleted insights and consolations it affords. For this reason, the work of teaching another how to enter into it is a genuine spiritual work of mercy.
A last thought. One of the longest lasting ways children change everything is that they make you think, regularly, about their future. How will they respond to the grace of God? What will their vocations be? As difficult as it is on the human level to give away a child to the Lord as a priest, friar, monk, or nun, every Catholic parent should nevertheless be praying for such an immense grace to be given to one of his children, if the Lord wills it. Nothing is more important in the life of the Church than holy clergy and religious, who represent the “head” and “heart” of the Mystical Body of Christ. There will never be a renewed and healthy Church without an enormous number of good priestly and religious vocations.
Where are these vocations coming from today? To a surprising extent, they are fostered in communities centered on the traditional Mass. The reasons for this deserve a fuller treatment (which they have been given several times – see, for example, New Liturgical Movement here, here, and here), but suffice it to say that young men and women who fall in love with the worship of God are the ones most likely to respond generously to an invitation to give their lives completely to Him. Parents who sincerely desire to foster openness to priestly and religious vocations will find no better way of doing it than by frequenting the very same ancient Latin liturgy under which vocations flourished for so many centuries.
Two things are necessary, then: begging the Lord for vocations and bringing up young people in an environment well suited to responding to His call. The local Institute of Christ the King parish that I am now blessed to be able to attend shows both elements. Whenever Benediction is held, everyone present prays together: “Lord, send us priests. Lord, send us holy priests. Lord, send us many holy priests and religious vocations.” Thanks be to God, this parish in the past 15 years has given to the Church seven young ladies as nuns.
Children need many things from their parents. They need our time and loving attention; our guidance and encouragement; our teaching and sharing of what we have learned; and our good, consistent example. They need us to do them the favor of establishing clear boundaries and enforcing a reasonable discipline. The list could go on. But within this complex role of parenting, nothing we do for our children will be more important than bringing them up in the Catholic Faith, and within the Catholic Faith, nothing is more important than the greatest act of prayer ever given to man: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Parents cannot give a greater gift to their children than a formative exposure to and a lifelong love for the glories of Catholic Tradition.
[i] In this excellent guest article at Fr. Z’s site, Fr. Tim Ferguson explains how it happened that lay people ended up serving in ministries that used to be reserved to minor clerics. In an article that appeared at OnePeterFive under the pen name Benedict Constable, I argue that women should not be lectors at all; in two articles at New Liturgical Movement (here and here), I argue that women should not be altar servers. As for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, they should not exist at all, whether male or female.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.