by Thomas Howard
In the household where I grew up outside of Philadelphia, going to church (and Sunday school, as it happens we were Protestant Fundamentalists) was as natural and inevitable as eating dinner together. Actually, that last phrase about dinner may not be as helpful as I originally thought: I realize that nowadays it may be a rare family that really does, seven nights a week, sit down around a table that has been set, with the father presiding at one end and the mother at the other.
My childhood occurred in the 1930s and ’40s when, despite the Depression and the War, domestic life had not flown into fragments, as has happened since. Back then, things like dinner and going to church and also family prayers twice a day were as regular as the ticking of the clock. And they were quintessentially family propositions. No one was at liberty to absent himself barring, of course, some genuinely legitimate reason like the flu, or “grippe” as we used to call it.
Such a routine might well sound grim to families and perhaps particularly to the young nowadays. Golly! (one might think): that sounds like Massachusetts Bay Colony to me! No thanks!
There is an intriguing paradox here, however. A helter-skelter household may have a certain kind of “freedom” about it, in the sense that no one is held to any sort of routine and regular responsibility, and everyone can fly in and out, grabbing a slice of microwave pizza or one of those thick drinks in the graphically appealing bottles by way of a meal. But the immemorial testimony of mankind is virtually unanimous: order and routine are, oddly enough, liberating. The rules become guardians of true freedom.
I was immensely impressed at a large theme park several years ago: rather than leaving the throngs to crowd around the entrances to the various amusements, jostling and shoving for position, they had set up iron fences that snaked back and forth and kept us all in line. No one needed to fret and protest, “Hey! They’re cutting line up there!” The fences gave us all the freedom to relax and enjoy.
But what are we leading up to? In a word, we’re leading up to the topic of going to Mass together of looking on the Church’s liturgy as a profoundly important family occasion, not to be taken lightly. It is not for nothing that Vatican II and the popes speak of the family household as “the domestic church.” For it is (or should be) in the day-to-day routines and intimacies of family life that we all have the chance to learn charity, or to “grow up into Christ” (cf. Eph 4:15).
To many, such a line of thought will sound idealistic, not to say farfetched. But if we reflect briefly, we will agree that indeed there are few better opportunities in life for us to learn the simple, yet mountainous, lessons of love. Why mountainous? Because, as anyone who has tried it will testify, some of the simplest requirements of love are the hardest as hard, we might say, as making it up that last bone-wearying mile to the summit. For example, what about just refraining from tossing off the remark that will so neatly cut someone off at the ankles? Not easy. Or what about returning generosity and good humor for some insult? Or keeping a steady temper and good cheer when a thousand irritating trivialities have conspired to drive us up the wall? Not easy.
This discussion may seem somewhat afield from our topic of going to Mass together as a family. But there is a connection or more than a mere connection: we could say it is all of a piece. Living a truly Catholic life cannot really be parceled out into bits and pieces: the Rosary here, Mass there, a novena now and again, CCD religious instruction class, a retreat, and so forth. There is only one agenda for the Christian, and that is, as we mentioned above, to be configured to Christ. The Church is the place where this occurs and by “the Church” we mean our private prayers as well as public occasions like the liturgy, since it is as members of one another as well as of Christ that we live.
For centuries, the notion of families attending Mass together was generally taken for granted. We are not an audience: we are congregatio, brought together by the Holy Spirit, as Blessed Pope John Paul II stresses in his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. Referring to the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, he says, “the unity of the Body of Christ is founded on the activity of the Spirit, guaranteed by the apostolic ministry and sustained by mutual love” (no. 47).
There we have, in brief form, a hint of the whole picture. The Holy Spirit is indeed the One who brings us together. If we have a keen sense that it is the Holy Spirit no less in our families than in our parishes who unites us to each other and to Christ, we will see the seamlessness, so to speak, of the “domestic church” and the parish. The latter, of course, is the local epiphany of the universal Church.
And the Mass is the central act in the Church. If, in our busy, even frenetic, world of today, Catholics could recover the notion of the liturgy as family worship, great benefits would be gained. There simply is no better teacher of the Faith than the liturgy!
The liturgy is actually an unfurling of the entire Gospel. At each celebration of the Mass, God’s whole saving revelation of Himself is opened up before us. It may be the case that, in many families, the parents find themselves somewhat uncertain as to how to go about passing along the fullness of the Faith to their children. It is not unusual, of course, for parents to hope, vaguely, that CCD classes will somehow take care of the matter. And certainly we are all profoundly grateful for the faithful and hard-working volunteers who, year after year, give their time to teaching in the parish.
But we also know that it is often the case that, if what is taught in the parish is not undergirded and affirmed and energized by the way the Faith is held and practiced at home, there can occur a certain “slippage.” How many Catholic young people look on confirmation as a sort of graduation from churchgoing? And from how many people do we hear the words, “I was brought up Catholic, but …”?
Thinking back on my own Protestant background, I am absolutely sure that the long-term effects of finding myself in the pew week after week, year after year, with both of my parents there, and all the siblings that these effects are incalculable. The family solidarity constituted a firm foundation for the lively faith that led me eventually into the ancient Roman Catholic Church.
Catholics, of course, are particularly fortunate, in that their “worship service” does not take the form of a meeting, as is the case with Protestantism. Catholic worship is an enactment that calls for the whole person to participate, physically as well as spiritually. (Outsiders wonder what all the up and down, genuflecting, bowing, kneeling, and crossing of themselves on the part of the worshippers is all about.) Catholic parents can, little by little, one item at a time, explain simply to their children what this or that act signifies and thus, over a period of time, draw their children into intelligent, believing participation.
For example, parents can explain that the sign of the cross is a most solemn business, for by it we signify in a bodily way what we wish to be the case in the inner man. Namely, we place our whole being intellect, affections, and actions willingly under the Cross of Jesus Christ, who invites us to enter into the great mystery of His own self-giving on our behalf, learning what it means to give ourselves for others (“self-donation” is the term the Holy Father often uses).
Or the holy water font. Is it just an offhand act we hurry through as we come, distracted, into the church? It should remind us of the water of our baptism, whereby we were “buried with Christ” and risen with Him to newness of life. Or genuflecting. It is easily done, and therefore often thoughtlessly done. But what an opportunity to impress on our children that, like the seraphim themselves, we bow the knee in the presence of the Most High who is, in fact, present here, in the tabernacle. What a chance to introduce the whole idea of majesty, holiness, glory, and exaltedness into the imagination of our children, who certainly are not encouraged along these lines with the fare they are offered on, say, MTV.
The Confiteor. Acknowledging that we are sinners will strike our nonreligious contemporaries as an exceedingly unhealthy opener for worship. Heavens! We ought to affirm and assert ourselves, and not grovel in this way. But Catholics know that it is not groveling: it is the true and healthy stance of the creature before the Creator and Redeemer. It glories in the joy of forgiveness. It exults in the stark truth: we have failed. But God receives us anyway. It is yet another chance to initiate our children, naturally and simply, into what the Good News is all about.
As anyone can see, we could run on to many pages with a line of thought like this. But let us at least say that the Mass is a glorious opportunity for catechesis in the best setting of all the family.
Thomas Howard, a prolific author and noted expert on C.S. Lewis, taught English at Gordon College, an evangelical school, before he entered the Catholic Church in 1985. From 1985-1999 he was professor of English at St. John’s Seminary College of the archdiocese of Boston. The foregoing is a slightly edited version of “Family Worship” from The Night is Far Spent, a collection of essays published in 2007 by Ignatius Press, reprinted here with permission. Among his many other books are On Being Catholic, and Lead, Kindly Light (Ignatius Press).
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