The Fourth Commandment as Applied to Liturgical Abuses

While my parents are well within the Baby Boomer age range, they were not hippies. But if they had been, and if there were extant film footage that depicted them frolicking in mud pits at Woodstock, or holding up “Drop Acid, Not Bombs” picket signs, I would not let my children see it. If such film existed, I would do whatever I could to obtain it, and I would bury it, or burn it in my fire pit. Being a good and decent son, I would shield my children’s grandparents from their worst excesses, as Shem and Japheth covered the nakedness of Noah. I would do this because displaying my parents’ indiscretions to my children would detract from the office they hold as their elders, and possibly diminish the respect their grandkids had for them. And I would do this not only for my parents, but for my own grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family priests.

Just as I would obscure my elders’ cultural indiscretions, I would mask their spiritual follies. This is why in part, every Sunday, instead of attending Mass at the church that is little more than a stone’s throw from our house, we drive to a TLM parish three highways, four towns, and twenty miles away from us. On the way we pass numerous parishes that would provide my children with a virtual slideshow of their elders’ spiritual, liturgical, and architectural indiscretions. There’s one church whose sanctuary resembles the waiting room in a dentist’s office. Over there is Saint So-and-So’s, whose confessors have never met an impenitent Sixth Commandment violation they didn’t absolve, no questions asked. On the right stands the church I was baptized in, whose current pastor permits Bette Midler ballads to be sung at my relatives’ funerals.

Now, attending the TLM is a good thing in and of itself. Marcel Lefebvre, in his advice to families wishing to combat the spirit of modernism and liturgical abuses infecting the Church, exhorts parents to “[h]old on to the true Mass and the sacraments such as were formerly administered everywhere” (Open Letter to Confused Catholics, p.158). Recently in OnePeterFive, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski pointed out that the ancient liturgy “most deeply forms the minds and hearts of our children in reverence for Almighty God, in the virtues of humility, obedience, and adoring silence. It fills their senses and imaginations with sacred signs and symbols, ‘mystic ceremonies’ (as the Council of Trent puts it). Maria Montessori herself frequently pointed out that small children are very receptive to the language of symbols, often more than adults are, and that they will learn more easily from watching people do a solemn liturgy than from hearing a lot of words with little action. All of this is extremely impressive and gripping for children who are learning their faith, and especially boys who become altar servers.” So, yes, we attend the TLM for the eternally good value it possesses in and of itself.

However, we also actively avoid the worst incarnations of the New Mass because “besides obeying our parents in all that is not sinful, we must also help them. When we are helpful to our parents, we can be sure that God will be pleased” (Baltimore Catechism). One way we can be helpful to our parents and elders is to refrain from revealing their past liturgical foolishness to the generations that followed them. This applies even more to families with young children who have already been attending the TLM regularly.

An example from my own family: Fulfilling duties of charity occasionally means attending the Novus Ordo for weddings, funerals, and other relatives’ sacraments. My nine-year-old son, James, has been an altar boy at the Solemn High Mass for several months. He is already developing a solid Sensus Fidei and notices the differences between the two forms of the Roman Rite. Whispered conversations at these events usually proceed along the lines of: “Dad, where’s the altar?” “It’s right there.” “Why does it look like the counter in grandma’s kitchen?” Another: “Mom, why wouldn’t the priest give me communion on the tongue?” Or our current family favorite: “What religion is this?”

Underlying all of these questions is the uncomfortable fact that we are in the church of someone we love, participating in the Mass that nearly all of our Catholic relatives have attended willingly for decades. In the late 1960s and 1970s, other families joined traditional societies, turned East, or lost their faith and dropped off entirely. We, however, are the descendants of those who accepted the Vatican II reforms, and we must now abide the tension created when our liturgical worlds collide.

Another example: The church nearest us is an attractive Norman-Gothic building constructed in the late 1950s. While no one would describe it as grand, it is nothing like the architectural monstrosities erected in the decades that soon followed. In the late 1960s, this church was placed in the care of a priest who is now a retired monsignor and a longtime family friend. A “renovation” of the sanctuary followed soon after and stands unchanged to this day. The interior of the sanctuary is bare white. A cross shape has been incised, cookie cutter-style, into the rear wall, where a bloodless corpus is suspended over fabric whose color changes with the liturgical calendar. The free-standing “altar” consists of three slabs of marble whose arrangement appears to have been inspired by the edifices of Stonehenge. Two household planters stand like ancient Druids at either end (sometimes, at least, though not in the image below). The tabernacle might as well be on Long Island.

Once again, problems arise when my wife and I have occasion to visit this church with our three children, especially the elder two. My kids know that this church is where their great aunts and uncles were baptized and married, where their grandfather served as an altar boy before Vatican II. Furthermore, they know that it doesn’t look Catholic. When they inquire about its appearance, am I to tell my children “Well, it was quite a pretty church until our friend Monsignor X took a sledgehammer to the altar rails and moved Jesus to a broom closet?” No. Out of charity, I must conceal this priest’s rashness from them. The priest who vandalized my family’s parish is a priest of the Order of Melchizedek, who participates in the priesthood of Christ, presides at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offers absolution for sins. The office this priest holds is a holy one, and we honor and encourage respect for him by concealing his transgressions from the generations that followed his.

The fomenters of Vatican II are now our elders and lawful superiors, and the best way we can honor them is by limiting our exposure to their worst missteps. The Roman Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ, our Holy Mother. Let’s treat the worst excesses of Vatican II as if they’re our biological progenitors’ embarrassing college Hare Krishna phase. Sure, we show our kids the photographs of their grandparents as children, eating ice cream floats in saddle shoes and cardigan sweaters. We show them the Polaroids they took of each other as young adults, proudly bouncing us on their knees as new parents, or watching us open our He-Man action figures on Christmas morning. But the pictures from those awful undergrad years that depict them sitting cross-legged, mouthing drug-induced mantras in polyester robes…let’s box them up in a dusty corner and pretend they don’t exist. To do differently would be to sully our children’s perception of their elders, whom we love despite their past infractions.

Avoiding the New Rite entirely, especially when family obligations are involved, might not be possible. Duties of charity are, indeed, duties, and we must avoid turning our love for the church of tradition into distasteful standoffs born of superiority. But if we limit our exposure to it to those occasions when our presence is truly required, and do our best to avoid churches that embody the worst excesses of Vatican II, we can hope (especially if our children are still young) to decrease any blemish that might have attached itself to their impression of their forbears’ liturgical sensibilities.

A bit of context, too, can go a long way. As they get older, our children can be made to understand that most of their elders – laymen and women especially – aren’t theologians and professional liturgists and simply believed that they were receiving what the institutional Church had passed on to them.

It is no secret that tradition-leaning Catholic journalism and social media these past few years have been awash with bitterness toward the upheavals of Vatican II and the generations perceived as having allowed and encouraged them. These commentators capture the contrasting feelings so many of us had after discovering the ancient Mass – reverential awe in the face of the supernatural beauty we had just encountered on the one hand and our sense of betrayal after considering that our spiritual heritage had been denied us on the other. They capture the dumbfounded looks our children give my wife and me at their cousins’ First Communions, the acid I get in my throat at family weddings, the sensation of embarrassed discomfort I’m overcome with at my uncles’ funeral services. Above all, they address the underlying questions we silently ask our older brethren at these events: “How could you have allowed this to happen? Why did you think this was okay?”

I’ve spoken here of honoring our parents and elders. How do we honor our children, who will someday be parents; aunts; uncles; and, God willing, priests themselves? Perhaps by passing on the heritage we ourselves were denied. Perusing traditional media of late has given us glimpses of hope for the future. Many writers and commentators note the number of traditional-leaning seminarians and of young priests reclaiming the Church’s ancient beauty. They are conducting their own renovations and building places that future generations will be proud of.

The neighborhood church I mentioned earlier has a new young pastor. He has asked the altar girls for their resignations and will soon commission a beautiful new high altar and reredos. In fact, he’s employing the same architect who renovated our own vibrant TLM parish just a few years ago. With its luminous sanctuary, polyphony-filled Masses, virtuosic M.C.s, and swashbuckling thurifers, our parish is the antithesis of the liturgical poverty of my generation’s youth.

I am a police officer, and I know well that the appurtenances of my profession are the objects of longing of nine-year-old boys everywhere. I have caught the envy in James’s eye as I remove my portable radio from its charger, or make my service weapon safe when I return home. What my son does not know is what his father would give to have served at the ancient Mass as his son does every Sunday, connected to the saints, his ancestors, his history.

Like most boys his age, James is a Star Wars fan, and, like young Skywalker, he is discovering a patrimony that was nearly kept from him. His little sister and I accompany him to the sacristy early on Sundays to prepare for the Solemn High Mass. I help him button up his cassock before he whisks up the stairs, deftly holding up the sides of the garb so as not to trip. In the hallway outside the nave, he joins a small army of young men receiving their assignments – torch-bearers, patens, tower bell-ringers, sanctuary gate-keepers. They form up by height and rank. The incense whirls, the bell rings, and they process in to the entrance hymn, the priest and solemn ministers following behind in birettas and shining vestments. They will go in to the altar of God, to God, who brings joy to their youth – to a youth that is reclaiming beauty from generations that conspired to destroy it. And their descendants – their own children, grandchildren, parishioners – will honor them not by concealing their transgressions, but by proudly displaying to a fallen world the gifts their forbears bequeathed to them.

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