How to Talk to Children about Liturgical Evils

Recently I received the following email, and since it brought up a topic that I am sure an increasing number of parents have to deal with, I would like to share it and my response.


Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

My family and I attend a weekly TLM at our parish, or we occasionally drive about an hour to the nearest exclusively TLM church. Our parish has the Sunday TLM but otherwise is mostly “reform of the reform” in spirit. We are friends with several exemplary and devout families who are also members of the parish, and who homeschool as we do.

My oldest children are in elementary school now (the oldest is 9), and they are beginning to notice that our Mass attendance habits are different from their friends’. They can read well, so they also know that we always attend only one of the several parish Masses or drive a long way to go to Mass elsewhere. They have also noticed that there is Mass every day, but we do not go.

How does one broach the topic of bad liturgy and systematic liturgical abuse with children of elementary school age? I want to avoid two extremes. I don’t want to downplay differences and present our actions as merely a matter of taste, nor do I want to present the two liturgies as different but equally venerable, such as how we rightly regard the Byzantine rite. On the other hand, I don’t want present the differences in such a way that the kids think their good friends are not Catholic or are bad Catholics. I also don’t want to scandalize them by making them doubt the Church.

Furthermore, I don’t know how specific to get yet. Right now they don’t know that Communion in the hand exists, or extraordinary ministers, or many other evils commonly seen even in “conservative” places. These practices would be shocking to them. At some point this has to be addressed, but I am unsure when and how to present it. I would love to hear any advice you can give on this matter. May God bless you and your family!

In Christ,

N.

* * *

Dear N.,

You have put your finger on a difficult question, one of increasing concern to parents everywhere. And how could it not be? With the unexpected growth of the traditional Mass movement, the excruciating, not to say scandalous, discrepancies between the Church’s hallowed tradition and the “reformed” liturgy are becoming more and more evident — as are the stories, often humorous, of how little children respond to their first exposure to such things. For example, one of my friends’ little daughters, who had never seen a Volksaltar (people’s table, or Cranmer table, or faux Last Supper table), went into a Novus Ordo church with her father. She looked down the aisle and said: “Hey, Daddy, why did they set up a dinner table in the sanctuary? Wouldn’t it get in the way of Mass?” Or the child who, accustomed to Latin liturgy, said during an English Novus Ordo they stopped into on a road trip: “Mommy, I don’t understand what they’re doing. Can we go to a church where there’s Mass?”

But sometimes the questions are more worrisome. “Mom, you said there aren’t women priests — so what’s going on with that grown-up lady in the white robe next to the priest?” Or: “Dad, you said only the clergy should touch Jesus in the host, but Tom told me at school yesterday that his dad gives out Communion all the time.”

I think the best way to respond will includes three aspects: (1) we reaffirm the truth clearly and exclude the error; (2) we give simple, straightforward arguments about why the traditional practice is good, and if there’s time or interest, why the contrary practice is wrong; and (3) we take a positive line, as much as possible, toward the faults of laypeople and lower clergy, making excuses for them. Here’s an approximation of the kind of things I would say to children (and did say to my own):

“Johnny, Jane, there were these Catholics a while ago — more than fifty years ago — who got all mixed up in their heads about what to do at Mass, and even what Mass is. They were confused because they thought that how the Church had been praying for centuries was no longer working (although, as you can see in our family and in our friends who also attend the Latin Mass, it still works just fine today). These confused Catholics replaced Latin with English; they turned the priest around so the people could see what he was doing; they made up some music that sounded more like what’s on the radio or TV; and they thought that, because of all these things, more people would go to Mass and be enthusiastic about it.

“But it didn’t work. A lot of Catholics stopped going to Mass because they couldn’t stand the lack of reverence. And those who stayed got used to the new relaxed and not so reverent way of doing things. Today, most of the people who go to the English turned-around Mass don’t know any better. They haven’t been taught about the Church’s tradition — why she always used Latin, Gregorian chant, and incense, and has the priest facing toward the East and toward Jesus in the tabernacle. So it’s often not their fault, and it’s hard for people to develop new habits when they have bad habits.

“God did not want this situation to last forever, and He didn’t want the Church to lose the beautiful Mass He had given her, so He raised up bishops, priests, and Catholic men and women to keep celebrating the Latin Mass. Today, there are more places than ever where you can find it. It’s been a huge grace for us that this Mass has come into our lives, and when God gives a gift like that, it’s a sign of love and a sign that He is asking something special of us. Meanwhile, we should pray for the Church and for all Catholics, that they will come back to the old ways and rediscover what they have lost.”

There’s no getting around the awkwardness of the conversation and the real tragedy of the subject, but, as you say, we don’t want to give the impression that everyone who goes to the new Mass is personally guilty of the rupture baked into its prayers and ceremonies, or of the irreverence that is nearly endemic to it, given that the liturgy is always sliding down to the lowest common denominator.

We will not be able to escape telling the children, sooner or later, that popes and bishops and priests mess up — even seriously. We can see this with the abuse crisis. (Talk about an awkward conversation to have with children: “Danny, Lilly, there are some wicked priests who lure little children into confessionals and then hurt them very badly so that it ruins their lives” — it makes me sick just thinking about it, let alone saying it.)

The other point to be aware of is the child psychology of judgment. Small children can be pretty oblivious. Younger children into their early teens, however, do see and hear things, and they will tend to judge in black and white terms. Something, or somebody, is good or evil. Gray areas are confusing before the teen years. And this is not a bad thing, because we first have to get right the fundamental principles of morality before we can move into the subtleties. As Michael O’Brien and Anthony Esolen (among others) discuss, it’s important that children’s literature feature characters and stories that are black and white: shining heroes and dastardly villains, where the evil are thwarted the good prevail — not complicated, broken people wrestling with mediocrity or hypocrisy or conflicted ideals, or endings where the good side fails and the evil one triumphs. When children get older, they are more capable of hearing nuances and processing distinctions: “This behavior is harmful, but it’s passed down in families and those who do it can be less responsible for it,” or “So-and-so thought he was doing something good, and it could have been good, but the timing was so wrong that it ended up being very harmful.”

There is no perfect solution to the problem of how to present evil — it is irrational and ugly, so it can never “make sense” — but I am sure that we have to avoid the extreme of a pragmatic relativism (“everyone’s doing the best he can; we shouldn’t judge people”) and the other extreme of an unhealthy judgmentalism. Our kids will likely come out with piercingly harsh judgments even when the only thing we’re doing is teaching them the Baltimore Catechism. We need to find ways to both affirm the truth they are seeing and tone down any sharp edge toward individuals.

Be aware, too, that these sorts of topics are likely to come up between them and their non-traditional friends and, therefore, between you and parents of children who do not attend the same Mass. The devil loves division; all the insanity in the Church has been much to his benefit. We should not seek “unity” at all costs — that is a classic liberal position, which reduces all to uniformity. But we want to keep and foster the unity of charity to the extent possible, without abandoning the truth we have seen (thanks to God’s mercy). Our Lord does want to use us to evangelize our fellow Catholics into the tradition they have lost, or rather that has been hidden from them.

All things considered, it will go easier for families who attend a parish or chapel where only the traditional Mass is offered. The children will not see the deformity and abuses of the new rite until much later, when they are mentally more equipped to deal with the shock. In mixed parish situations like the one you describe, it will undoubtedly take a lot of small conversations over a period of several years — almost like a boat tacking back and forth, now pointing out the evil of something (because it is evil!), now urging a charitable and gentle attitude.

So I think parents get along as best they can, saying a bit here and there, a little more as time goes on, and finally having in-depth conversations with the children in mid-adolescence and young adulthood. Every one of these topics needs many conversations; once, no matter how thoroughly, will never be sufficient. As a general rule, it is when children and youths bring up a topic themselves that they are ready to talk about it. If they don’t bring it up, it’s okay to let sleeping dogs lie; no need to mention the worst atrocities.

At the start of any conversation on difficult matters, say a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance, and invoke everyone’s guardian angels. With conversations like this, our angels help a lot “behind the scenes,” gently nudging us and giving us the intellectual prompts we need.

Remember that you are always free to say: “There’s no need to get into specifics right now,” and indeed at times it is best to let things slide, or to be somewhat vague. You could say of a bad liturgical practice that “it’s not as reverent as what we do at the Latin Mass,” because this may be enough for a 9-year old, who isn’t ready to hear: “This is a form of sacrilege, which means treating holy things with indifference, carelessness, or contempt.” The line “we can talk about this when you are older” is sometimes a better answer than laying it all out at the moment. We cannot shelter them forever or keep pushing off difficult conversations, but we should shelter them until they are mature enough to begin to face these matters with discretion and faith.

Ultimately, we want the children to acquire and exercise discernment, which comes slowly: discernment between things that are objectively evil because they are against God’s law or displease Him or harm people (often unbeknownst to them), and things that are subjectively evil because they are known and willed as such by individuals; discernment between bad ideas and bad intentions, or good motives and good results; discernment between individual sins and “structures of sin” (by which I mean: when a whole group of people gets trapped in bad behavior and can’t even see anymore that what they’re doing is bad — e.g., extraordinary ministers of holy communion or modern music ensembles in churches).

Going beyond your immediate set of questions, I find the issue of how to talk about Pope Francis quite similar, since the magnitude and multitude of evils under this pope are astronomical. It’s impossible to keep children in the dark forever; they perceive when something fishy’s going on, and they pick up on clues. At the same time, we don’t want to exterminate their confidence in Christ’s guidance of the Church by pounding on the deviations of this or any pontificate. What’s the “virtuous mean,” as Aristotle would say?

Here is what I would say, and what I personally do. We should pray daily for “the pope and his intentions,” cultivate reverence toward St. Peter and the saintly popes of the past, and teach that the Church is structured hierarchically with the pope as the bishop over all the other bishops, while excluding any language that smacks of ultramontanism or excessive papal adulation (the “J-P-II-We-Love-You” or “Santo Subito” fan club). Remarks along these lines:

“The pope is very important, but his role is that of a guardian of the Faith who receives and hands on what Jesus and the apostles and their successors gave us. God gives the pope special gifts for his job, which he has to cooperate with, as all of us have to do in our own vocations. In the Church’s history of 266 popes, there have been some outstanding papal saints. But popes, like all bishops and priests, are still fallen human beings like the rest of us, and God allows them to sin and to make mistakes — just not big enough ones that the Church would utterly fall to pieces.”

Older, well catechized children who have already read lives of papal saints (e.g., St. Gregory the Great, St. Pius V, St. Pius X) could then be exposed to information like this, to get a more complete picture, which will inoculate them against a false exaltation of the person of a particular pope and his “agenda.”

We should always encourage praying for the conversion of any sinner we are talking about, or praying for the end of a certain evil — even pausing the conversation at that very moment to pray an Our Father or a Hail Mary or some other prayer. This makes it is clear that, just as we learned what was right and wrong from God (either by natural law or divine law), so we are entrusting the problem to God and not acting on the basis of our own rightness or righteousness, or as if we could fix it ourselves. As many saints have said, it is impossible, or at least more difficult, for us to remain angry with or bitter about or harsh toward those for whom we sincerely pray.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Kwasniewski


Postscript to Readers: I fully acknowledge my limitations to address these questions. All parents basically feel overwhelmed (to one degree or another) by the challenges of parenting in the modern world. I’m hoping some of the readers here will share what has worked well, or poorly, over the years in their attempts to deal with these sorts of issues.

Recommended Readings: If you are a parent worried about the effects of switching over to the Traditional Latin Mass, you may wish to consider the effects of NOT switching over… The following articles may help with discernment: “Children Change Everything: Prioritizing Family Worship,” “Discerning the Priesthood: One Form or Two Forms?”, “Sorting Out Difficulties in Liturgical Allegiance,” and “Pouring the Argument Into the Soul: On Taking Care How We Worship.”

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