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What Children Learn from the Traditional Mass

Children will learn many things from the traditional Latin Mass that they are not likely ever to learn from the modern Mass of Paul VI.

1. The Mass is a mystery of faith, a holy sacrifice. The ancient rite enshrines and expresses in the most perfect way that the Mass is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, the immolation of Our Lord Jesus Christ which wrought and continues to work our salvation and that of the whole world.

At the traditional Mass, relatively little catechesis is required to perceive the meaning of the gestures of the priest and how they illustrate this meaning. Once you know a little about what Jesus did at the Last Supper and on Good Friday, the actions and prayers practically hit you over the head with a chain of mysteries — mediation, redemption, atonement, satisfaction, adoration. The Offertory luminously foreshadows this sacrifice; the Roman Canon, which many follow in their missals, is permeated with the language of sacrifice; the consecration and elevation of the host and of the chalice, in the midst of an ocean of silence, preceded and succeeded by genuflections, evoke the making-present of Calvary.

In the years when I still attended the Novus Ordo, I discovered that my children and the children of my friends routinely did not see these connections. The modern rite was more focused on the people, with a lot of talking, and with a communion service tacked on. What was most of all hidden to the senses was that this liturgy is a sacrifice. It looks like a handling of bread and wine over a table, a meal in imitation of the Passover. The expression of the sacrificial dimension was not simply muted; it was largely absent. In a vernacular Mass said versus populum in the usual manner, with Eucharistic Prayer II as a default, how much, in either text or ceremony, strongly and unambiguously conveys the reality of sacrifice? One might say the Novus Ordo emphasizes, at best, the presence of Christ in our midst, but not His sacrifice.

To my chagrin, I realized that I always had to assert — without much in the way of supporting evidence — that the Novus Ordo was the Sacrifice of the Mass, even though it didn’t look like one and didn’t have the marvelous panoply of texts and ceremonies that underlined the sacrificial nature of the action. That bothered me then, and it still bothers me now. It’s as if the rite was designed by someone who wanted it not to be easy to perceive that the Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of the bloody sacrifice of Calvary. With the Novus Ordo, we need to do lots of extraliturgical heavy lifting because otherwise, the truth won’t be known. The liturgy does not convey the message, so we have to spend more time explaining, asserting, and keeping our fingers crossed that the brittle fideism will not give way to the ravages of forgetfulness, boredom, or heresy.

2. Absolute reverence for the Most Blessed Sacrament. Children will see only the priest handling Our Lord and distributing Him. If they attend a solemn Mass, they will see such reverence toward the host that a subdeacon holds an empty paten with a humeral veil throughout the Canon [i]. They will never see lay people walking right up into the sanctuary and manhandling hosts and chalices. Communion is given to the faithful kneeling in adoration, like the Magi before the Christ child; it is given on the tongue, as children are fed by their parents, as God feeds the world with His Providence. A paten is held beneath the chin, and often a houseling cloth is draped over the altar rail. After Communion, the priest washes his fingers and the vessels with utmost care. The liturgy spares no effort to proclaim loudly the Church’s faith in the miracle of transubstantiation; it therefore spares no effort to avoid the loss of the tiniest particle of the Body of Christ or the smallest drop of His Blood.

3. The priest is a mediator between man and God. The priest is facing eastward, away from the people, toward — Whom? To God the Most Holy Trinity, to whom the sacrifice is being offered; to the Word made flesh, really present on the altar of sacrifice. He represents us before God; he also represents God come to us. The priest’s role as mediator is seen to be essentially different from that of the laity: “Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb. 5:1). The priest at the altar truly acts in persona Christi, in the person of the Eternal High Priest who offered Himself up in love for the redemption of mankind.

Thus, the old rite clearly distinguishes between the priest and the people — they are not lumped together, as in the modern rite, but are treated in accordance with their ontological distinction [ii]. For example:

  • The priest recites the Confiteor first, for himself, and then the servers recite the Confiteor for themselves and the people.
  • At High Mass, he and he alone intones the Gloria and the Creed, and then continues to recite them separately, while the people or the choir sing [iii].
  • The prayer Suscipe, Sancte Pater in the Offertory strongly brings out the priest’s role as mediator, as well as his personal sinfulness in the face of such a lofty role: “Accept, O holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this unspotted host, which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my innumerable sins, offenses, and negligences, and for all here present: as also for all faithful Christians, both living and dead, that it may avail both me and them for salvation unto life everlasting. Amen.”
  • The priest receives Communion first, in order to complete the sacrifice, and only then offers it to the people. He says the “Domine, non sum dignus” three times, and only afterward do the servers or the people say it three times [iv].
  • The Placeat tibi at the end of Mass again brings out the priest’s special role: “May the performance of my homage be pleasing to Thee, O holy Trinity: and grant that the Sacrifice which I, though unworthy, have offered up in the sight of Thy Majesty, may be acceptable to Thee, and through Thy mercy, be a propitiation for me, and for all those for whom I have offered it.” This is not the prayer of a mere “presider” or “president of the assembly.”

4. The very words of the Mass are sacred and special. This is powerfully symbolized by the Latin spoken from start to finish (except in the homily, which is not, strictly speaking, part of the liturgy, but an explanation of some aspect of the liturgy or the creed or the readings for the people’s benefit). The use of an archaic language demonstrates, without the need for any explanation, that the liturgy does not belong to the everyday realm, the commonplace, as the use of a modern vernacular suggests [v]. Pertinent as well is the great respect shown to the missal throughout the liturgy — propped on a gold stand or a pillow, and carried back and forth by the ministers in ceremonial fashion, accompanied at solemn Mass by candles and incense.

5. The music — especially the chant — is unique and dedicated to God. The effect of an archaic sacral language is only strengthened when liturgical texts are sung to the subtle melodies of Gregorian chant, with its eight “modes” and non-metrical flowing rhythm, which is like nothing else we will encounter in the realm of music. Gregorian chant arose exclusively for divine worship and lends itself to no other use: it is set apart for God. It is the sonic equivalent of incense, chasubles, and golden chalices, which are used only for worship. Such things are the privileged “honor guard” and “attendants” of Christ, powerfully evoking His presence and effortlessly guiding us into that presence [vi].

6. The Mass is a solemn, serious business. The liturgy is totally focused on the sanctuary, the altar, the sacrifice, the heavenly banquet, the Bread of Angels. It is orderly, disciplined hard work: there is formality, harmony of gesture and words, prayerful concentration. If someone were to disturb the priest and say, “Why are you not paying attention to us? Why did you leave us behind and not telling us where you’re going or for how long?,” he would be able to respond in the words of the child Jesus in the Temple: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). Jesus said this even to His supremely holy parents, who were utterly mystified. He was reminding them of the primacy of the kingdom of God and of the glory due to the Father, which no earthly good can outrank.

7. The source of our unity and community is in Christ and flows out from Him to all of us. Rather than having a horizontal feel and emphasis, a closed circle of people affirming one another in Pelagian fashion, at the TLM we orient ourselves consistently to God in adoration, seeking our salvation, our fellowship, our very identity, from Him. Above all, the utter novelty of a simultaneous eruption of the “sign of peace” in the Novus Ordo, which transmits the subliminal message that peace among us spouts up like a geyser from within the human community, is absent from the solemn Roman Rite, which instead shows the “pax” coming from the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, truly present on the altar as the Prince of Peace, cascading outward from Him through the priest, deacon, and subdeacon, rippling to the people — much as Communion begins with the priest alone, then moves to the other ministers, and finally comes to the faithful.

8. Our religion is something given to us, received by us. We receive the words of the Mass from tradition, represented by the altar missal; we receive the peace of Christ from the altar; we receive the Holy Eucharist from the anointed hand. The stability and fixity of the rite, and its palpably ancient ethos, strongly convey that the Christian religion pre-exists us, our intentions, our efforts, our “good ideas,” and will continue long after we have crumbled to dust. How good it is for modern men to be, for a change, not producers, manufacturers, or inventors, but humble beggars elevated by His gracious will to the King’s high table? His heavenly wedding feast was already in full swing long before we came on to the scene; it will continue forever, with us (please God) or without us.

9. The Mass goes beyond the local community. Theoretically, any Mass celebrated among the one billion Catholics of the world is the Sacrifice of Calvary. However, with the new Mass being said in hundreds of languages, in many conflicting “styles” of worship, with the activation of multiple sets of options, the local “flavor” overpowers the recipe, so there seem to be as many different liturgies as there are celebrating communities. This fosters a negative parochialism that separates Catholics into dens and tribes, almost like the thousands of Protestant sects.

From one end of the Earth to the other, the traditional Latin Mass is offered with the same age-old prayers in the same universal language according to exactly the same rubrics. As children grow up and begin to travel outside their home town, any Latin Mass they find in other cities or other countries will vividly bring home to them the unity and universality of the Church. While tapping into local cultures, the old Mass always transcends the boundaries of nations and the particularity of peoples. Indeed, this transnational divine cultus connects us organically to every generation of the past and of the future until the end of the ages. Its frequent invocations of the holy angels (mostly abolished in the Novus Ordo) draw us into fellowship with the exalted choirs of Heaven who minister in this world while dwelling beyond the realms of flesh and blood.

10. The Mass is the supreme school of prayer. This, admittedly, involves the assistance of the parents, but the traditional Latin liturgy provides an optimal environment for awakening the interior life of the child, offering him an opportunity to settle down, enter into quiet, and discover the meaning and power of adoration and the other acts of prayer. No one has expressed all this better than the English author Fr. Bryan Houghton, whose literary character Bishop Edmund Forrester describes (obviously in semi-autobiographical manner) how he learned to pray:

I learned to say my prayers at my mother’s knee — and I still say the same ones each night. But I learned to pray when I was dragged off to Mass on Sundays. Something was altered with Mummy and Daddy. They did not talk to each other or even look at each other. Mummy usually fiddled with a Rosary. Daddy thumbed intermittently a Garden of the Soul which one of my nephews still uses. My eldest sister, Gertrude, who became a Benedictine nun, knelt bold upright with her eyes usually shut. As I looked around it was the same with all our other relatives and neighbours. What was most unusual was that nobody paid the slightest attention to me. Even if I pulled Mummy’s skirt, she just gently pushed me away. I once tried to climb on Daddy’s back; he lifted me off and put me under the seat. That, too, was strange: although I was in my Sunday best, I was allowed to crawl about the floor provided I did not make a noise. Funny little boy that I was, I realized perfectly well that something was up.

Over there at the altar was Father Gray, a stern old man. I used to hide in the lavatory when he came to visit us. He was dressed in brightly coloured clothes and looked like a fat butterfly. Most of the time he said nothing. He was looking the other way and paid as little attention to Mummy and Daddy as they paid to me.

I do not think I was a particularly precocious child but I was certainly very young when I tumbled to the fact that all these people were praying without saying prayers, as I did. Children are imitative: I too wanted to pray without saying prayers. I opened up to my sister Gertrude. “Just sit quite still, like a good boy,” she said. “You are too small to kneel. Keep your hands still as well, on your thighs. Try not to look round and keep your eyes shut if you can. Then just say ‘Jesus’ under your breath, slowly but constantly. I’ll prod you when you say ‘Thou art my Lord and my God’ and you can say it with me.”

That, mutatis mutandis, is I suppose how we all learned to pray. The point I am getting at is that the Mass itself was our school of prayer. It was there that we learned to be self-effacing, detached, recollected and to adhere to the Divine Presence. It was also at Mass that the simple faithful practiced prayer throughout their lives. They may have known little theology but they prayed as theologians often do not. Moreover, the simplest of them attained to heights of prayer and sanctity far beyond me. [vii]

* * *

“Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them,” says Our Lord Jesus Christ (Mt. 19:14).

Let them come to Him in the awesome Mystery of Faith, the Sacrifice that unites God and man. Let them come before His flesh and blood with utmost reverence. Let them behold Him in the ministers He has chosen as “other Christs” so that His work may continue at their hands. Let the little children come to know the sight, the sound, the smell of holiness as they watch, listen, and linger in the house of the Father, while the words uttered and sung by countless saints are repeated to Heaven’s delight and Hell’s dismay. Let them come before the Lord in solemn joy to experience the peace that surpasseth all understanding. Let them receive abundant gifts from the hands of Jesus and, above all, the gift of His Body. Let them know they are entering into the presence of hosts of angels, adoring the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

Do not hinder them by bad liturgy, and all of the falsehoods it tells — for example, that there is no great distinction between the nave and the sanctuary, or between the priest and the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion when it comes to distributing the divine mysteries. Do not hinder children by masking or blurring the unique dignity of the hands of the priest, anointed to handle the most holy Body and Blood of Christ. Do not hinder them from coming to the Lord by any of the distinctive practices of the Novus Ordo, driven by a false theology that decatechizes and recatechizes the children — “re-educating them” Soviet-style into a “new paradigm” of Catholicism.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. How we pray shows, and teaches, what we believe; these, in turn, shape our way of life in their image. What faith do we profess, and how do we live our lives as Catholics? Look to the liturgy and it will tell you.


A rewritten version of this article has become chapter 18 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).


[i] In ancient times the subdeacon would have been holding a small fragment of a host consecrated in the bishop’s liturgy, but even when this custom fell away, the rite retained the gesture. For us, it is a reminder of the sanctity of everything connected in any way to the Most Holy Eucharist.

[ii] This actually works toward a deeper unity of the entire body of the Church. Hierarchy and unity are correlative, not opposed, as democracy falsely assumes.

[iii] I have defended this practice — a clear instance of the influence of the Low Mass on the High Mass, which most liturgists deplore — in my article at the New Liturgical Movement weblog: “Is It Fitting for the Priest to Recite All the Texts of the Mass?

[iv] The way that the Novus Ordo conflates the priest’s Communion and the people’s testifies to Protestant influence. As Catholic theology teaches, while it is desirable for as many of the people as possible to receive Communion (provided they are in a state of grace and properly disposed to do so), it is necessary only for the priest to communicate in order to have a valid celebration of the Mass. This is because the priest, in representing Christ, represents the entire Mystical Body, head and members; the sacrifice of the Cross is complete in and of itself even before its fruits are communicated to individual members of the human race.

[v] Please do not tell me for the millionth time, as if I do not know it, that Eastern Christians use the vernacular. First, this is not entirely true; plenty of Eastern rites still employ, wholly or partially, archaic liturgical languages hallowed by centuries of unchanged usage. Second, there has always been linguistic diversity and adaptation in the East in a way that is completely foreign to the tradition of the West, where the sole liturgical language for 1,600 years was Latin and Latin alone. Either that linguistic unity was something God willed or the Roman Church has simply been messed up for a very long time, and we might as well go Orthodox. I do not find it hard to believe that it was God’s will and that the vernacularization of the Roman rite was an enormous error chosen by arrogant, shortsighted clergy.

[vi] Although Latin and chant can sometimes be found in celebrations of the Novus Ordo, we must remember this crucial point: the foremost beauty given to us in the Church is the beauty of the rite itself, which expands outward to include and inspire other arts. Latin and chant came into being as the clothing of the traditional rite, or better, as the “body” that corresponds to its “soul”; their greatness is bound up with its essence.

[vii] From the epistolary novel Mitre and Crook, first published in 1979 (reprinted by Angelico Press, 2019), 168–69.

Image: Joseph Shaw via Flickr (cropped).

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