Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the topic of introducing children to the traditional Latin Mass and making it fruitful for them. The second part is available here. NB: This article, along with its companion piece, has been published in rewritten form as chapter 20 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass.
Parents today are sometimes worried that if they attend the traditional Latin Mass exclusively, their children will not know what to do with themselves during Mass and get so bored that they’ll hate going, or at least not come away from it with the spiritual goods they need. And yet, every child-saint we know of grew up in the ambiance of the traditional Latin Mass — there was no other for nearly the whole history of the Western Church. We wonder: How did the little Thérèses or Padre Pios of the world feel so drawn to the Mass? Was something different back then? Were children better catechized? Were parents more on the ball?
Lest we be too hard on ourselves, it’s only fair to recall a few advantages that people enjoyed in the past.
Often, families would not even take children to Mass until they had grown to an age where they could sit still, read a book, and appreciate the pageantry or pray a Rosary peacefully. When older kids went to church, the youngest ones stayed at home, watched over by a relative or housemaid.
The further back one goes, moreover, society at large tended to be much more formal, polite, and respectful. Everyone knew how to sit still and keep quiet for long periods of time without seeking to be entertained or pleased. This attitude of self-control carried over into churchgoers and children. One could realistically count on the majority of people getting into uncomfortable, fancy clothes, riding in a bumpy carriage to church, and sitting there in the freezing cold for a two-hour service — the sort of thing that happened every winter throughout Europe and America. The comforts, conveniences, and distractions of our age have made it much harder for us and for our children.
It helped, too, that the Church before the Council seemed – more or less – to have her head screwed on straight. She had one liturgy celebrated across the world, one doctrine taught everywhere, and one moral code inculcated rigorously, if not always heeded (such is fallen human nature). Whenever the unity and certainty of the Catholic Church is loud and clear, the faithful — including children and young adults —can respond with an intuitive assent and trust. Where there is ambiguity, doubt, or pluralism, the response called forth becomes progressively weaker, and this, unconsciously. The saints of the past grew up in a Church that was certain of herself, her faith, and her worship. We are living in rougher times, when parents need to become, in a sense, the guarantors of a faith of which the shepherds are sometimes ashamed. This is no easy task, since children are strikingly able to detect the most subtle discrepancies and hypocrisies.
Last but not least, Catholic churches used to be built in a grand and magnificent manner, with beautiful images and symbols everywhere you looked — so much for children to wonder at and learn from. Fortunately, there are a sizable number of such beautiful – let us call them European-style – churches in our country. If you happen to be able to attend Mass regularly at one of them, thank the Lord for it. The church building and its noble furnishings are already doing some of the work of catechesis for you, as they are meant to. You might be surprised, if not horrified, to know how many Catholics out there have to attend Mass at aesthetically God-forsaken structures that make prayer and contact with the loveliness of God so much more difficult, especially for children.
But the traditional Mass, in itself, is stronger than all our difficulties and dilemmas. It has the incredible strength of something ancient, deeply rooted, full of inextinguishable life, and perennially fresh, ready to form our minds and hearts if only we can get near enough to it.
Preparation in the Home
Even if cultural, societal, or artistic factors made — and, in fortunate situations, sometimes still make — a parent’s work easier, as I mentioned above, I think it’s fair to say that it will always be a challenge to initiate children into the richness and intricacy of traditional Catholic worship. It can never be taken for granted in any age that the next generation will be liturgically initiated, as if it were an automatic process.
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.
All of this presupposes the importance of entering into the liturgy. As Dom Gueranger and the original liturgical movement emphasized, we need to get to know and love the prayer of Holy Mother Church, and doing so requires an effort to become well acquainted with it. I have some recommendations along these lines, but many readers will have excellent ideas, too — and I hope they will share them in the comments below.
There are, in my view, two distinct aspects of improving a child’s hold on the Mass and the Mass’s hold on the child: remote preparation (i.e., what we do at home), and proximate aids (what we do at church). Today I will take up the former, and next time, the latter.
Remote preparation includes anything the parents do at home to fill the imagination of their children with Catholic symbols, saints, stories, and associations, anything they do to form the mind with doctrine and to form the heart with prayer. I am an adamant proponent of John Senior’s ideal of reading aloud, singing, sewing, drawing, building ships or planes, and, in general, anything deeply human, hands-on, and low-tech. These sorts of things till and fertilize the soil of the soul, so that the seed of the liturgy can be planted and bear fruit. Children who are immersed in good books and develop a habit of enjoying the world of the imagination will not only be better prepared for their school studies but, more importantly, will find the liturgy easier to enter into. Good resources include Marigold Hunt’s outstanding books (A Life of Our Lord for Children, The First Christians, St. Patrick’s Summer, A Book Of Angels,) Fr. Inos Biffi’s An Illustrated Catechism (which contains simple but profound reflections on the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments, and prayer, accompanied by neat illustrations), Fr. Demetrius Manousos’s Know Your Mass, and Fr. William Kelly’s The Mass for Children.
The “domestic church” at home has to be strong. The family culture should be deliberately related in some way to the liturgy. For this purpose I especially recommend the books of Mary Reed Newland, such as We and Our Children: How to Make a Catholic Home (in the original version published by Angelico Press) and The Year & Our Children: Catholic Family Celebrations for Every Season, and a newly released book that is set to become a classic of its own, The Little Oratory by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler. (To learn more, see my review at NLM.) These books have lots of great, practical ideas about how to bring the riches of the liturgy and the observance of the liturgical calendar into the home so that one is more “in sync” with the liturgy when one attends it. For the benefit of older children, I would also recommend occasionally listening with the whole family to a talk by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. There are so many available. “The Meaning of the Mass” is a particular favorite of mine.
For families that homeschool, it is crucial that there be some study of Latin, even if it be as simple as studying the prayers of the Ordinary of the Mass, so that an opportunity is created to think and talk about what they are saying. I have found it to be the case that the traditional Mass prays perfectly for (or about) everything we could ever need to pray for (or about), and does so in the most beautiful, humble, and fitting manner. It is the supreme school of prayer. I’m not saying that people need to become Latin experts to appreciate the TLM, but rather that some exposure to and comfort with this language will pay big dividends when it comes to praying at Mass without a missal, following along in a missal, serving at the altar, or someday singing in a choir or schola.
To capitalize on the natural love children have for singing and to foster an instinct for sacredness and Romanitas, it is so important to sing Catholic songs at home, especially simpler Gregorian chants. The familiar Salve Regina works especially well, but one could include the “Ave Maria,” “Salve Mater,” “Adoro Te,” “Ave Verum Corpus,” and “Veni Creator Spiritus.” Don’t worry if only one person in the family can sing well; that’s enough to start a tradition of daily singing, and people do get better over time. Highly recommended is Veronica Brandt’s A New Book of Old Hymns (and, in general, I recommend Veronica’s posts at Views from the Choir Loft, such as her review of Know Your Mass and her suggestions for teaching children Latin prayers).
In addition to singing, or in lieu of it if you are afraid to sing yourself, make sure you have some good sacred music recordings of chant, polyphony, and traditional hymnody. Of the superabundance of fine recordings out there, let me just mention a few. My favorite disc of hymns is A Vaughan Williams Hymnal. My favorite set of chant recordings, by a long shot, is Gregorian Chant for The Church Year, a set of six CDs for only $30.13 (at the time of this writing). The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles are wonderful, too, and when you buy their CDs (]Angels and Saints at Ephesus, Advent at Ephesus, Lent at Ephesus) you are supporting their traditional monastic way of life. For polyphony, I can recommend just about anything recorded by the Tallis Scholars, the Cambridge Singers, the King’s College Choir, the Oxford Camerata, or The Sixteen. (I am beginning to sense here the need for a separate article, or series of articles, on “How to Build Up Your Very Own Classical Music Library.”)
In any case, playing such recordings on Sundays helps accentuate the specialness of the Lord’s Day and, once again, bolsters and expands the imaginative associations that Catholics ought to have as part of their inheritance, effortlessly inoculates the young against later abuses they are bound to encounter, and, best of all, provides a stream of beautiful music and lyrics that children uncannily memorize and spontaneously reproduce if they hear it often enough.
I welcome suggestions from readers in the comments about things they have done at home to prepare the family for a more fruitful encounter with our Lord in the Mass.
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. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism, writing regularly for OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, and other websites and print publications. He has published eight books, the most recent being Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.