If you read the Universe or follow me on social media, you may be aware that I have just returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
One of the things that struck me about this particular trip is the response of my children, especially that of my ten year-old and four year-old. I guess this is how ‘indoctrination’ or enculturation really works – not by verbal barracking or proselytising but what Pope Francis would probably term a ‘culture of encounter’. My experience demonstrates why accusations of indoctrination against Catholic schools are so far off the mark. If a family does not practice the faith at home or introduce their children to Catholic traditions, then any seeds planted in school are likely to fall upon fallow ground.
If we begin with the ten year old, when asked what her favourite part of the trip (which included hotel party nights and lots of opportunities to socialise in a small group consisting of children her own age) her response was ‘doing the high stations of the cross’. For those who have never been, there are two sets of stations of the cross in Lourdes; one high up on a hilltop which give an imposing aerial view of Lourdes which I’ve never done, the steep slope rendering them impossible for wheelchairs and buggies, the other on the flat plain, adjoining the river. The lower stations are huge modern interactive sculptures, designed to be touched, whereas the high ones consist of larger than life tableaus, which really bring the Passion to life. Both are beautiful.
Jesus falls the first time, High Stations of the Cross
The Crucifixion, low stations of the Cross
I have to confess that upon hearing that her favourite part had been the Stations, I did shed a few tears of both pride and joy and no doubt any non-Christians reading this would cite this as proof of emotional abuse, ‘fancy,’ they would say, ‘making a ten year old walk in Jesus’ bloody footsteps and gruesome death on her holiday, how deranged and bizarre, robbing her childhood and imposing your ideas upon her’, but the point is that she was given the choice whether or not to do the more grown up version and chose to do it on her own. Furthermore, the Stations of the Cross, while constituting the penance that Our Lady requested that pilgrims to Lourdes must make, are invariably joyful – they have a happy ending and demonstrate Christ’s love for us. The Passion, the crucifixion is a central tenet of our faith. It does pre-teens no favours to infantilise them and in any event, the figures, while incredibly lifelike, go nowhere near as far as the realism of the Mel Gibson, Passion of the Christ movie.
So anyway, the other things that our eldest child enjoyed were the torchlight procession, perhaps unsurprisingly, what child would not enjoy walking with lit candles through the twilight and darkness, and full immersion in the baths, again, something that I have never done, both on health grounds (last time I went I was 37 weeks pregnant) and the logistics of 3 under 5s. In terms of the baths, again (and I know this reads like a smug mother post, really I don’t care) I was delighted that one of the adult helpers commented upon how quiet and thoughtful she was during the two hour wait, joining in with all the prayers and actually setting the tone for the other children. She didn’t think it was a weird thing to do at all, Our Lady asked for pilgrims to bathe in the spring and so that is precisely what she did. At the service of reconciliation, her age group was taken off to have some age-appropriate preparation prior to confession; she was one of the last to queue up and make her confession because according to the leader she wanted to have a little bit more time to think about things, rather than rushing straight up to get it over with.
Now I certainly can’t take the credit for producing such a thoughtful and reflective child, but I do believe that having a family that practices our faith at home, not in an ostentatious way, but just in little everyday habits, along with being away with a group all with a similar attitude towards Christianity, has definitely helped, in a way that being lectured at would not, which most children find deathly boring and is counterproductive.
The big surprise of the trip however, was not my eldest child, but the response of the four-year old, who tends to stubborn, wilful boisterousness and what this has to demonstrate towards the Church, particularly those who make certain assumptions about the young and ‘traditionalism’.
While away I read Joseph Shaw’s excellent blogpost on children and Latin whose experience mirrors my own. One of the things that the eldest loved while on the torchlight procession was being able to join in with all of the Latin chants. She may not know what every single word means, but in a procession consisting of several languages, whenever the Salve Regina, Paternoster, or Gloria Patri cropped up, she was able to join in and belt it out with gusto, a smile of recognition and excitment lighting up her face. This is what we sing at home, and wow, we are singing it here. She loves this whenever we go to a certain N.O. Mass here in Brighton. What we sing should never be about how it makes us feel, but given that this is cited so much as justification for ditching the Latin and plainsong, I suspect like most children, mine loves it because being able to join in makes her feel included and actually the Latin, quite grown-up. Children savour big words, they adore feeling as though they are adults, words like consubstantial make them feel all clever and sophisticated, like they too have been let in on a secret.
So on to the 4 year old, and also the 3 year old. Most of the basilicas in Lourdes, frankly aren’t very inspirational, especially the basilica of Pope Pius X, which resembles a giant underground car park, draped with flags of the saints in an attempt to give the place a spiritual air, but which from a distance could pass off as advertisement posters. The children absolutely loved the place. Why? Because it gave them licence not to concentrate and to run about in several different directions. Church meets play area, the low benches providing plenty of opportunity for imaginative young minds to double as hurdles, balance beams, places to hide underneath, swing off and climb over. Their attention wasn’t focused, all they could see was the play potential of the place.
Interior of Pope Piux X basilica – lots of potential for adventurous toddlers and not much to capture their attention
On being informed however, that our final mass would take place in the Our Lady of the Rosary basilica, I have never seen the children so excited. For the uninitiated, this is the Church that Our Lady requested was built, on top of the grotto where she had manifested to Bernadette Soubirous over a period of 15 days. The building itself is incredibly imposing and ornate, decorated with irridescent gold mosaics, surrounded by statues and topped by a golden crown, signifying that of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven.
Catholic bling for children – a golden crown, what’s not to like?
The children could not wait. It was for them, like going to Cinderella’s castle, all week long they had been pestering us to climb up and down the stairs of the side of the basilica going to the ramparts, the Church was a source of amazement and fascination, like something out of a fairytale. They were drawn to it and dying to go inside, knowing that it was a special place, ‘guarded by statues.’
Exciting looking Church – who’s inside…
When inside, they were not disappointed. Every single wall is covered with a gold mosaic, depicting one of the mysteries of the rosary. We were seated by the Nativity mosaic, to which the children went running up to “look mummy I can see Baby Jesus…and the wise men…and the angels”. They were transfixed, not knowing where to look next, but engaging with what they could see, instantly recognising the scene, despite the fact that some would claim that Byzantine iconography upon which the tableaus are based isn’t child-friendly, and wanting to walk around the church and stare. And stare. Inevitably towards the end of the Mass, they did begin to get fidgety, due to the prolonged announcements, but there was a considerable period of time where they were happy just to sit and gaze in wonder, and a curiosity was aroused to ask more – what’s that picture over there, who’s that, why are the windows round, and so on.
Part of the Nativity scene that my children instantly recognised
During the Eucharist, presumably the ciboria belonging to the Basilica were used, and again, they were an object of wonderment to the children, having an obvious golden lustre. ‘What’s in there mummy’, asked the 3 year old, ‘is it treasure?’, ‘well actually yes it is’, being my response, ‘it’s the body of Jesus’. ‘Can I have it too’ she asked for the very first time.
Upon leaving the church, the children asked if they could go there every time they went to Mass and have repeatedly asked the same thing since returning home.
This is what the iconoclasm of the Reformation and to some extent the post-conciliar era, have deprived our children of – their cultural heritage which they are hungry for and able to engage with, which needs no dumbing down. I’ve never ever seen the children so excited about a church before, nor indeed so willing to engage. Not only with the basilica, but the whole spirit of the place; despite some of the tacky tourist overtones, the holy sites themselves in Lourdes retain an aura of great reverence, this really is the place where the veil between this life and the next is extremely thin. The 4 year old asked us whether or not Bernadette was sad when she never saw the beautiful lady again and insisted upon the lengthy story being read to her every night at bedtime, proving that when she wants to concentrate and engage, she is able to. To put things into cultural perspective, I was sent to a Catholic secondary school but had no idea who Bernadette was, what had occurred at Lourdes, other than it was something to do with Catholic superstition and the name of Madonna’s daughter!
For those who would say that the Church ought to concentrate all of its resources on the poor and embrace simplicity in all things, including buildings, vestments, ciboria and so on, I can only point to John 12:5. Yes, we must help the poor, but not to the exclusion of everything else, it helps no-one to lift them out of poverty if we then exclude them from the richness of the Gospel. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are here to serve God, spread the Gospel and not just get caught up in single issues, whether that be the pro-life cause, or fighting to get rid of poverty, something which in any event, will never be accomplished.
The money is well spent, if, as with my children, the surroundings of a building really helps draw them closer to God and want to engage with and understand what is going on inside. The fact that a 3 year old thought that a ciborium contained treasure, demonstrates the importance of the symbolism. No complex theology was needed to draw her eye to and cause her desire for the Eucharist. She could see how important and valuable it was for herself.
Reflecting on this later with an older religious sister, she disagreed and said what a shame it would be if the Church were to go back to a more formal liturgy, roman chasubles and so on and doubted whether or not altar servers ought to wear robes. She thought that a modern style was so much more universal and engaging, especially for the children. When I told her my experience, she was rather lost for words, believing that my children had a unique privilege due to their parents, but actually our family faith and habits are no more sophisticated or complex than the average Catholic, 50 or 60 years ago. There is nothing difficult, elite or complicated about being able to repeat a chant that you hear regularly in Church. Nothing deeply erudite about saying grace before meals, bedtime prayer or having a holy water stoop by your front door, or some statues or icons somewhere in your house, which can be picked up extremely cheaply.
The main objection seemed to be that traditionalists (as good a description as any can be found here) are concerned with ritual, rubrics and nothing else, whereas charismatics have their heart of fire for Christ. To me this seemed grossly unfair, why is a traditionalist deemed incapable of burning with love for Jesus and the Gospel, simply because they prefer the Extraordinary Form? The two traits are not mutually exclusive.
My children aren’t traddies, we don’t go to the Extraordinary Form often enough, none of us wear mantillas (so as not to draw attention to ourselves as much as anything else, although I bet the girls would love them) but they certainly responded far far better to a traditional version of Catholicism and the simple piety on offer in Lourdes, than anything they have in this country, although when we do go to a NO Mass at local church in Brighton which does celebrate the EF, their behaviour is markedly improved – the solemnity with which Mass is celebrated and the disposition of the other Mass-attenders has an impact.
A young seminarian whom I discussed all this with on the train journey home, posited that we need a new word to describe a new culture, noting that the pendulum is still swinging back into position since the extremes immediately following V2 and that nothing yet is settled, we are still on shifting sands. He coined the phrase “tradismatic”, a combination of traditionalism and the overt burning passion and fire for God manifested by the charismatic movement.
I’ve been rather taken with the phrase and the idea. The future’s bright, the future’s tradismatic! I hope it takes off.