The mystery of Christmas is a central mystery of the faith, and it is one for which children have a special affinity. The secular Christmas season focuses on children, but it has always been a children’s feast, with boy bishops on St Nicholas’s Day, presents and the child in the crib.
This opportunity to communicate the faith to children is not neglected: our churches are equipped with Nativity scenes and Catholic schools go to great lengths to sustain the sense of occasion.
We may complain about the Christian message of Christmas being swamped by consumerism, but the fact remains that the emotional effect of Christmas on children in Catholic homes is likely to be the deepest and most lasting impression made on them by the Church. It survives in many a heart in which the faith has otherwise expired. We might say that, in terms of communicating a deep truth of the faith to the young, and engaging with the world, Christmas is our most successful evangelising moment of the year.
How does this work? It isn’t because the Incarnation is dumbed down. You can avoid talking about the Christ Child as God, but the kinds of ersatz theology designed to make the Resurrection (“Jesus is alive in our hearts”) or the Real Presence (“It’s just a symbol”) easier to believe don’t work with the Nativity.
Nor is it because the penumbra of the feast, the crib and the carols and the devotions have been stripped away to reveal the essential point: on the contrary, the essential point is surrounded, underlined and pointed to by a devotional cottage industry. Nor is it because the liturgy has been made as like as possible to the secular world. Rather, the most popular Mass of the year is at midnight: in imagination, if not always in chronographic fact.
Christmas is successful, and it is a traditional Christmas that is successful. It is a traditional Christmas that people overwhelmingly want to give their children, because they know it is successful. What that means for nominal Catholics is not (or not only) an annual attempt to enjoy Brussels sprouts, but a yearly trip to church. They want it for the same reason the more regular worshippers want it: as they might put it, it is “magical”; as we might put it, it puts us in the frame of mind in which the mystery of the Incarnation can enter into us and transform us. And that is something not only for children, but for everyone.
This success should make us stop and think about passing on the faith to children for the rest of the year. How much does it really help Catholic children, we might ask, for a church’s devotional images to be removed, for Mass to be made to seem as everyday as possible and for doctrines to be dumbed down?
Certainly, these things were never designed primarily for children’s benefit. Might a liturgy which communicates the ineffable mysteries of the faith through a mysterious, dramatic and evocative ritual, work outside the Christmas season?
It is one of the ironies of the debate about the Church’s traditional liturgy that it is said to be accessible only to an elite, while the actual congregations attending it present a complete social mix, include both sexes in roughly equal proportions, and are frequently filled with children. It is a widespread observation that the average age of a church’s congregation plummets when the Extraordinary Form is offered. I know that the prejudice against this idea is a powerful one, but any reader who wishes to check can do so by popping in to one of these celebrations – at any rate, when it takes place at a reasonably “child-friendly” time of day.
What do children make of it? Do they understand all that Latin? Let me let you into a little secret: they don’t understand all that English in the Ordinary Form. Children have limited linguistic skills and even older children find following the texts on a Mass sheet a chore. For children, the liturgy is an experience, not a text.
The more interesting question is: what does their liturgical experience evoke for them? What the experience of the Traditional Mass brings home to children, as to adults, is not the detailed content of the prayers, wonderful though they are. Rather, it is a sense of entering into a saving and transformative mystery. Pope St John Paul II said of the liturgy of the Eastern Churches that it addressed “the whole person”, and not just the intellect; the same thing is happening with the traditional liturgy of the West. Intellectual appeals are not the ideal format for evangelising children.
More Christmas Masses in the Extraordinary Form are taking place in England now than for two generations. Make this year the year you experience it for yourself.