We aren’t rigid; we just want something that works
By John Byron Kuhner
Yesterday I was present at a well-attended Mass in North Carolina. The Mass had many virtues. The congregation was welcoming. The music was not exactly high art, but most of the people sang. Every pew was full except for one on an aisle which had no kneelers: since we were late, that was the one we had to use. We were glad to use it: it’s always nice to be in a full church.
It was, in general, the picture of a thriving Novus Ordo parish. Except for the one glaring problem. “My goodness,” said Lynn, a grandmother who had adopted and was raising her grandchildren, “it’s so nice to see some other children here,” referring to my children. In the whole church there were three families with children, including my own; besides Lynn, there was a couple with a son who vanished after the service was over, so I did not get a chance to meet them. The parish had only one Sunday Mass, so I believe this was representative of the state of the parish.
Almost everyone there was old. And there was, in general, a kind of “grandma” aesthetic to the place: the pews looked like my grandma’s furniture; the art looked like what would hang on my grandma’s walls; the music was thin, fragile stuff I associated with grandma. My grandma ate more graham crackers than anyone. This music was like that. Musical graham crackers.
After Mass, I asked my daughter Eva if she liked this church. “No,” she said breezily.
“Why?” I asked. “I don’t like the sounds here,” she replied. She’s four, and puts things in unexpected ways.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I like bells,” she replied. “There were no bells.”
When I thought about it, I realized she was right: there had been no bells at the elevation of the host. I have four children, ages one through six, and they are all squirmy. I spend a great deal of time during Mass trying to keep them seated and quiet. But I have noticed an almost unaccountable thing: they are better behaved, and prefer, the Tridentine Mass. More than that: they are best behaved during, and prefer most of all, the silent canon of the Tridentine Mass, with its incense and bells. For the talky parts of the Mass — and the homilies most of all — they squirm and fidget and ask me how long it is until Mass is over. But during the consecration in the Latin Mass, they feel the intensity in the room, and they respond to it. They respond with silence and attention.
And so we find ourselves going to the Tridentine Mass by preference, because our children prefer it — even when we get priests who give us 20-minute sermons that are like torture. The kids still do better with those Masses than with Novus Ordo Masses.
They have another reason for preferring Latin Masses. There are more children there. They want to be where the other kids are. When a church has no children, they make the determination that church is not for children. When there are children, they enjoy watching the other kids and looking for future friends and playmates. Though sometimes they make faces at the other kids and laugh and get silly, in general their behavior improves at these parishes. Nothing gives my children the capacity to sit quietly so much as the sight of other children sitting quietly. (Though sometimes I think it’s useful for them to see kids melting down too: they whisper to me things like “That boy’s being bad.” They make the determination that they don’t want to be like that.)
After this Mass in North Carolina, I spoke with a couple who sometimes attended Latin Mass. “I actually don’t love Latin,” the husband told me. “I just prefer the Rite. I wish we could have the Tridentine Rite, but in English.” They went during the week. I said I was looking for one on a Sunday. “I think there’s one in the next town over,” he said. “At eleven or twelve. It’s not so easy to find out because they’re not putting it in the bulletins anymore.”
Pope Francis has painted his crusade to exterminate the Tridentine Mass as a battle against “rigidity.” Stuff like that makes me want to scream, then to laugh. Do I know rigid people who love the Latin Mass? Of course I do. Do I know rigid people who are atheists, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, and Novus Ordo Catholics? Yes, I know rigid people like that too.
But there are also people like my children, who just like bells and want to be with other children. They’re not rigid: they’re squirmy, and need something intense that can focus their attention. There are people who like the old rituals, though they don’t love Latin. They’re not rigid about it; they just prefer the old rituals. There are also people like me, who are willing to go anywhere so long as I can instill in my children a love for Christ and His Church. There’s a group of us who are pragmatic lovers of the Latin Mass: we don’t have any ideological objections to the Novus Ordo. It just doesn’t seem to work, for my generation or my children’s generation. And for my children to remain Catholic, we need something that works now.