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February 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – In a blog post on January 26, Fr. Michael White got himself into hot water by criticizing parents who bring their young children to Mass. 

In an article titled “Why we don’t encourage (little) kids in Church” he wrote: “There is something in Catholic Church culture that insists kids belong in the sanctuary [church?] 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.”

Fr. White, who is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, even quotes Scripture to back himself up: “Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women and those children old enough to understand” (Nehemiah 8:3).

I was puzzled by this quotation because it appears to contradict another with which Fr. White should be familiar, as it is quoted with approval by Christ (and in relation to children taking part in what amounts to a liturgical event: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem): “Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise” (Psalm 8.3: see Matthew 21.15-16).

Even more directly comparable is Joel 2.15-7:

Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather together the people, sanctify the church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones, and them that suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed, and the bride out of her bridal chamber.

“Those who suck at the breasts” are invited to the Prophet Joel’s penitential liturgy. Are they really excluded from the High Priest Ezra’s solemn reading of the Law?

The puzzle over these conflicting passages evaporates, however, when one notices that the word “children” does not actually appear in the text of Nehemiah. The Latin says simply “in conspectu virorum et mulierum et sapientium”: “in the sight of men and of women and of the wise”. Looking at the Bible Hub where multiple translations can be seen side by side, it is clear that Fr. White went to a lot of trouble to find one which mentions children. It is possible that “men and women” refers to Jews, and the extra clause refers to sympathetic non-Jews. In any case, if the meaning is unclear, we must refer back to precedents, for Nehemiah is re-enacting the solemn reading of the Law found in Deuteronomy 31.12:

And the people being all assembled together, both men and women, children and strangers, that are within thy gates.

(See also Joshua 8.35 and 2 Kings 23.1-2.) It is hardly plausible to claim that Nehemiah wanted to exclude those explicitly included by Moses.

A lot has been said about Fr. White’s unfortunate post, but I would like to add two things.

First, a lot of people engaging in this debate on the anti-infant side do not appear to realize that by excluding small children from church they are also excluding the mother, and in practice very probably the father and older siblings. Infants ‘at the breast’ cannot be left at home while the family goes to church; nor can toddlers. It may be possible for parents to go to different Masses with different members of the family; sometimes it is not. Anyway, do we really want to prevent married couples from going to Mass together? Just how inconvenient do we want to make going to Mass?

Second, Fr. White professes not to know what small children ‘get out of’ Mass. This invites the question: what did they get out of baptism as babies? Fr. White would probably respond: an objectively efficacious sacrament. But blessings are also objectively efficacious, to those not in a state of sin.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not place a minimum age when He blessed “infants” and “little ones”, and He rebuked His disciples for trying to prevent this (Mark 10.13-16; Luke 18.15-16).

Indeed, Christ began his ministry of blessing tiny ones early, by blessing St John the Baptism when he was in his mother’s womb (Luke 1.41). The Mass and many of our other Catholic liturgies include numerous blessings, which as part of the Church’s public prayer, may be said to come from Christ Himself.

What we seem to have here is a conflict between an Enlightenment conception of the liturgy as something which has to be “understood” in a verbal, propositional way, and a conception of liturgical actions as having objective importance and an objective effectiveness on those taking part in them. As the liturgical scholar Louis Bouyer explained it:

the main business of the liturgy is not to teach us this or that lesson easily converted into pat formulas; it is to place the faithful, without them quite knowing how, into a certain state of mind which it would be perfectly fruitless to try to recreate by explaining it.

The liturgy must be allowed to do this over many years; it must soak into us. This means, of course, that it must be beautiful, since we are not going to be receptive to something which is ugly. You can’t let something soak into you when you are gripping the pew and inwardly begging the music to stop.

We all know about the receptivity of children to music: women who have experienced pregnancy can attest this phenomenon directly. Becoming familiar with Gregorian Chant and other sacred music is just one example of the ways “them that suck at the breasts” can gain a foundation for liturgical participation of later years. 

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.