This past Yuletide, my husband and I decided to escape the Minnesota winter by taking our family to South Texas. We had a joyfully green Christmas, with our children running wild on the beach while the Gulf of Mexico lapped at our toes. We didn’t miss the snow. Of course, there are always drawbacks to such ventures, and this was no exception. While Christmas at our home parish is something to savor, our Christmas liturgies this year featured campy banners, schlocky music, and homilies with little discernable connection to the Catholic faith.
The children found this confusing. They’ve spent their lives as parishioners at St. Agnes, a wonderful parish in St. Paul where sacred liturgy is always celebrated beautifully and with great reverence. Consequently, they are totally unfazed by the liturgical use of Latin, but I’m not sure the younger two even recognized the schlocky liturgies we attended as “Mass.” (Coming out of one, our two-year-old said something about “the party” we had just attended. And our eventual return to St. Agnes inspired him to chirp out, cheerily and with something like relief, “Oh! It’s the Jesus place!” In his eyes it had obviously been awhile since we’d been to a “Jesus place.”)
Our five-year-old knows his days of the week, and he understands that Sunday means going to Mass. He knew, in a general sense, why we put on our Mass clothes and filed into the 1970s monstrosity that had to pass for a church. For a time he watched with curious interest, but he became quite nonplussed when, right in the middle of the Roman Canon, the congregation spontaneously started hugging, exchanging pleasantries, and flashing “peace” signs at one another. Exchanging a few obligatory, perfunctory handshakes, I suddenly felt a tug at my sleeve a tug. “Is it over?”
My son didn’t understand why you would interrupt a sacred event with a completely random “social minute.” Frankly, I don’t get it either so I couldn’t really explain. Sure, it’s pleasant to greet your friends, but can’t you wait 20 minutes for the coffee hour? Very few Masses run much longer than an hour, and they already involve a lot of standing and sitting and kneeling and singing. If my five-year-old can make it through without breaking off to chat with his friends, I think most grown-ups should also be able to manage this.
Don’t misunderstand. My children are far from perfect, and I would never put myself forward as a model Catholic parent. As converts, it often feels to me like my husband and I are making most of it up as we go along. Of course, marriage always involves some negotiation of different backgrounds, and raising children in a faith that’s “new” to both of you adds an extra twist. But nobody really starts “from scratch” when it comes to home and family, so I like to think of our parenting style as a kind of interesting “fusion cuisine.”
I’m sure we’ve already made plenty of mistakes. This much we know, however. You should take your kids to Mass someplace where strenuous efforts are not made to bury the sacred mysteries under layers of “accessible” and “plebian” and “nothing much to see here, folks.”
Children aren’t afraid of mystery in the way that adults so often are. They don’t need to have it diluted and downplayed for their ready consumption. To a child, there’s nothing awkward about the straightforward assertion that Christ’s own Body and Blood are literally present in the Mass. If the Word became flesh in Palestine, why not right here?
It seems especially natural to them to talk about this because, in the liturgies they see, the Sacrament is obviously central. At St. Agnes my children sit through the Roman Canon (the older ones know that this is a particularly inexcusable time to misbehave) and then watch people kneeling reverently at the altar rail, waiting to receive (on the tongue, of course) from a priest or deacon. It’s obvious to them that this exchange is special and memorable and unique. It’s not snack time. I don’t mean to suggest that the Blessed Sacrament cannot be received reverently in the hand, but I think it’s pretty clear that young minds and imaginations are not similarly impressed by a line of jean-clad people waiting to be handed a wafer by the lady in the purple dress.
I’ve yet to hear a single compelling argument as to why all this beautiful and decorous ceremony needed to be stripped down. Altar rails make the distribution of Communion more efficient, and they are convenient too in that they enable the communicant to compose himself for a moment before receiving. This (as I know from experience) is particularly appreciated when one has a baby in arms or (and?) a young child by one’s side. At the altar rail I can “settle” my children first, and still enjoy at least a few seconds’ worth of private reflection before my turn comes. Communion lines offer no such luxury.
Practically speaking then, altar rails are serviceable and efficient. Obviously nobody objects to making accommodations for those who are physically unable to kneel, but these are exceptional cases. Why then do so many oppose altar rails and reception on the tongue? The real reason, I believe, is that it simply feels awkward to some to receive in the traditional way. In private conversation, some cradle Catholic friends have effectively admitted this to me. Reception on the tongue feels “weird” to them, or even unseemly, as though they’re participating in a kind of medieval play.
In part, this probably just reflects the difficulty of getting used to something new. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. The traditional posture is one of reverence and trust. It causes shame and embarrassment to those who don’t feel that in the presence of Christ’s Body.
St. Agnes is the sort of parish that makes one forget why a book like Spirit of the Liturgy even needed to be written. It’s still a lovely book, of course, but don’t most Catholics understand these principles more or less implicitly? Isn’t this just our common heritage and the natural rhythm of Catholic life? When parishes like St. Agnes become our regular liturgical home, it starts to seem that way. What we experience there is simply Catholicism, as we and our children and our fellow parishioners know it.
Once in awhile I’m forced to venture into the wilds of masstimes.org and be reminded that in fact, the parish around the corner probably looks nothing like St. Agnes. It’s likely a mess of altar girls, guitar bands, and people who wouldn’t even consider that they should walk 10 feet to the vestibule after Mass before carrying on a normal-voiced conversation. (Because it’s not like the sanctuary is a place of prayer, or anything. I mean, Mass has been over for two minutes! How much prayer time do you need?) It clearly doesn’t even occur to them that Christ is present in the tabernacle, mere steps away from where they stand.
Numerically speaking, St. Agnes is the aberration, and the schlocky parishes are closer to the rule. But I want my children to see it the opposite way. I want them to view mystery and unashamed reverence as “normal Catholic life.” I want them to see the campy banners and “Here I Am, Lord” as the wonky aberration. At some point, inevitably, they will notice that wonky aberrations are almost ubiquitous in the Catholic world, while good liturgy is often hard to find. My hope is that, by that time, they’ll already be accustomed to reverencing Christ’s Body, such that it doesn’t cause them embarrassment or shame. Hopefully they’ll have an appetite for beauty and mystery that no other meal can satisfy. Hopefully they’ll always be able to see Christ’s Sacrifice with the wonder and credulity of little children.