Charlotte was Both

Kids in Church Part 25683a

I’m going to try to knock this blog post out in 20 minutes. It’s either than or I’ll be at it for an hour, and I can’t do that.

Last night, a blog post from the pastor of The Church of the Nativity in Maryland started circulating on social media. 

His inspiration being Sunday’s first reading from Nehemiah, he continues:

There is something in Catholic Church culture that insists kids belong in the sanctuary for Mass. I must say I don’t totally understand it, but it is definitely a Catholic thing. Part of the thinking is that sheer exposure to the service imbues them with grace and other good things in some kind of effortless and mindless sort of way. But if they can’t understand the readings and they cannot take Communion, it is unclear what they are “receiving” Sacramentally.

Another argument suggests that kids need to “learn the Mass” and that can only happen through physical attendance. I liken it to bringing a toddler to a lecture or presentation intended for adults, because there is information you want your kids to have. Nobody would ever do that, because it obviously wouldn’t work. They must be introduced to the information in age appropriate ways if they are to learn. Everybody knows this, and yet we ignore it in church.

To this end, I will sometimes see a Mom sitting in the very front row with her child. The front row so the kids can “see the altar” (as if they’re looking ). Then, a tormented exercise is undertaken in which the kid, who can be distracted with Cheerios for only so long, becomes disruptive.

Which becomes a distraction for everyone, including liturgical ministers and the homilist. I cannot begin to tell you how incredibly difficult it is to try and preach over a crying baby.

In this exercise the parents are fighting a losing battle, and sometimes suffer the unkind, but understandably disapproving glances of the congregation. Saddest of all is the experience for the kids themselves, which can be something approaching agony. Church can easily becomes a place they grow to hate…

This is why we invest in our children’s programs. We love the children of this parish so much we want them to have a great time and learn to love the Lord too, through age appropriate messages and worship. Meanwhile their parents can devote their full attention to worship.

The author, as I said, is the pastor of a Catholic church – the parish at the center of the popular and widely touted “Rebuilt” program for parish renewal.  Rebuilt is very consciously modeled after Protestant megachurch planning and growth and, as I said, has been held up as a model for the entire Catholic world.

Well.

Now, the conversation about this post across FB and Twitter has taken a predictable course – defending the presence of children in Mass, naturally. I want to take it in a slightly different direction, but first I want to mention this:

I wasn’t taken to Mass until I was five years old. 

Nope. I was not well-behaved, my mother wanted to focus, my dad wasn’t Catholic, so sure – why not just leave me at home until I was closer to the age or reason?

(And I should mention – for those of you who don’t know how ancient I am – we’d be talking about the years 1960-1965 here. My mother was a decidedly pre-Vatican II Catholic. Didn’t bother her to leave me at home.)

So I have always been cautious about the young-kids-in-church discussion. Catholicism, in general, has never idealized – the family in church – image as much as Protestants have, and upon reflection, it should be easy to see why. It actually might even help to consider my arguments about the impact of the Reformation on women to get this point. Family plays an essential role in a child’s religious development – parents take on an obligation to form that child in faith at baptism – but there’s also a deep sense of when we look out on a congregation – we don’t see a collection of little families – we see one family, part of which is gathered under this roof, and that extends around the globe.

So over the years, as I have read anguished blog posts from parents of young children along the lines of I want the whole family to be at Mass together, it’s so important for us to be at Mass together as a family, but Junior throws fits and makes us all miserable – I’m always the cynic in the back row wondering why not just split up and go to different Masses, and keep Junior at home until he gets in control in a few months or next year? It’s….fine. Really. 

BUT.

BUT.

This blog post?

The problem I have with is deep, wide and permanent as long as those words exist arranged in that way in that space, expressing those ideas.

Why?

Because I don’t see authentic Catholic sacramental theology or ecclesiology there. It’s gnosticism.

Part of the thinking is that sheer exposure to the service imbues them with grace and other good things in some kind of effortless and mindless sort of way. But if they can’t understand the readings and they cannot take Communion, it is unclear what they are “receiving” Sacramentally.

Look. This fellow is fighting a battle, in part, against a spiritual mindset that has brought little kids for baptism and First Communion, and maybe Confirmation and then just – left. He’s trying to bring those people back, helping them form a more conscious, intentional faith. Got it.

But this is disturbing.

In short – these two sentences don’t express Catholic teaching on grace, cooperation with grace or the effect of the sacraments.

It expresses a tragically impoverished understanding of the Mass – perhaps it’s a Bible study with an opportunity to pray and sing? I would argue, that this vision of the Mass is actually more expressive of a belief in “MASS AS A VENDING MACHINE” which we’re told was the hallmark of pre-V2 spirituality – why? Because it suggests that’s God’s action in my life is pretty much totally dependent on the value of the currency I bring into the exchange.

What is missing?

The fundamental reality that the Mass is the action of Christ.  It’s cosmic. It’s not about me sitting there. It’s about Christ redeeming the Universe. 

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.

It doesn’t matter how much we mentally apprehend. It doesn’t even matter if we receive the Eucharist or not. Jesus still acts in the Mass, the Mystery of His Sacrifice, shared with us and the whole world as his life, Bread, food – is still present.

Yes, we are called to cooperate as much as we are able in order for the grace available to take root in our lives and bear fruit. It’s not a vending machine. Of course it isn’t.

But nor is the power of God to work in us limited by our understanding and our own capabilities.

We do not say to a child or person of diminished capability: If you can’t recognize me and articulate what I’m doing for you and why – I won’t take care of you. 

Well, what father among you…will give him a snake instead?

As I said at the beginning, I’m fine with not bringing little kids to Mass if it’s best for a family. No one should hold themselves up to a fantasy ideal and suffer for it. I’m also very good with a cacophony of children’s voices during Mass – what our former Cathedral rector approvingly referred to as the “baby choir” at the end of one particularly lively Mass.

Oh, and I hate Children’s Liturgy of the Word and think it should never happen in any Catholic Church.

No, I’m just deeply disturbed – if not surprised – by the shallow vision of the Mass and the sacramental life offered here. I understand where it’s coming from, but the foundation for the answer to the problem is all wrong and it’s wrong because it’s disconnected from Catholic theology.

This is not about competing buzzwords: reverence, dignity, welcoming, acceptance, affirmation, orthodoxy, margins. 

It’s simply about what the Mass is. 

Is it the act of Christ – or ours?

Your answer will shape your evangelization, your presence to the marginalized, and yes, even the way you celebrate the Mass.

So no. I didn’t take (too much now) time to address this blog post because I want to join the zillions musing over the question of kids in church. No – I think it’s important – vital – to look at these words and allow ourselves to be challenged by them, as ministers, evangelizers and yes, as just weak disciples.

The sacramental life of the church is indeed not magic or a vending machine. The great spiritual teachers of our tradition tell us over and over that spiritual growth demands much from our end: The fruit of the sacramental and spiritual life flows from our cooperation – which takes the form of openness, obedience to God’s Word, repentance, and a life of caritas. I wrote about St. Francis de Sales last week. Go back and read that, read him.

So what is the difference between that kind of receptiveness and readiness and what this pastor is suggesting?

First, his vision is narrow – it’s deeply individualistic. That cosmic dimension of the liturgy, of the Church – is just not there.

Secondly, receptivity seems to be defined as mental understanding rather than what the Saints have always told us it is: the love of God and the desire and will to be conformed to him, no matter what the cost.

And do you know what? If your liturgy touches the whole person – through what surrounds us, through the imagery, the music, the scents, the shape of the structure, the atmosphere – every person of every “level” will be reached.

Basically: God is at work in the world, and it is my privilege – and duty, if I’m baptized – to cooperate with him. That can only happen if I am allowing myself to be formed by him – if I am, as St. Paul says, conforming my life to his.

But God’s work is not dependent on me. It doesn’t depend on my understanding, and it doesn’t even depend on my reception of Communion.

Eh, too much time. Perhaps I’ve just tossed enough out there for you to think about. I’ll end with in the best way: with a passage from a work of fiction. It’s always the artists who get it right.

Ninety years ago, screenwriter Myles Connelly published a short novel called Mr. Blue. In a way, as John Breslin, SJ says in this piece – which we used as an introduction to the Loyola Classics version of the novel  – was an alternate-universe Great Gatsby. It tells the story of Mr. Blue, a St. Francis-type figure. The novel has been now republished by Cluny Press, edited and introduced by Stephen Mirarchi of Benedictine College. 

In the novel, Blue tells a story – a story of the end of the world. And at the end of the world, one priest climbs to one mountain to celebrate one last Mass – with bread made from wheat he has grown himself. As this writer summarizes it:

In the climax of Blue’s tale of a new world in which even laughter and curiosity had been forbidden by law, a priest, the last Christian, climbs the highest tower in a city of metal and, using hosts made from wheat he has grown himself, offers the last Mass, fulfilling his promise to “bring God back to the earth.” As the government’s forces prepare to destroy the priest high atop the tower using planes and bombs, the priest began to repeat the words of Christ at the Last Super (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26):

One plane is now low over the roof of the tower, so low that the crew can make out the figure of the cross on the priest’s chasuble. A bomb is made ready

And now the priest comes to the words that shall bring Christ to earth again. His head almost touches the altar: Hoc est enim corpus meum…

The bomb did not drop. No. No. There was a burst of light beside which day itself is dusk. Then a trumpet peal, a single trumpet peal that shook the universe. The sun blew up like a bubble. The stars and planets vanished like sparks. The earth burst asunder… And through this unspeakably luminous new day, through the vault of the sky ribbed with lightning came Christ as he had come after the Resurrection.

This image of a loan priest standing atop a tower in a burned-out world from which even the most basic expressions of joy, fraternity, and human freedom had been banned is a powerful one. But the power at work here isn’t in the revolutionary act of the priest but in the way we are reminded of the expansive power of the Eucharist.

Basically:

If people have a vending machine mentality towards the sacraments, maybe it’s because what we’ve presented them and the way we’ve done it leads them to conclude that what they’re getting has no more value than a Coke: it’s pleasant in the moment, it’s what I like, it adds a little bit of fizz to my life, but it’s okay if you like Pepsi – or nothing. Sure. Why not? 

It’s not like it’s going to change the world or anything. 

 

 

 

[One hour later….]