Every morning at Mass, like clockwork, a tall dad with quiet eyes and a lovely beard calmly and devoutly walks down the side aisle to the pew two ahead of me. He pauses and bends down to a tiny little boy of about two, who is right on his heels, and whispers to him that “remember, we genuflect”, and the little boy does so. Sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards, but always down on the right knee. His mom is already in the pew. She arrives about five minutes earlier than the dad and boy. I can’t help but think that her husband has given her the gift of a little quiet prayer before Mass. I am filled with the absolute assurance that this is a holy family. And as is the way with real holiness, they are completely unaware that they are doing anything out of the ordinary, or that they are a model for anyone to follow. They are simply taking their role as Catholic parents quite seriously at this very hidden, simple, daily Mass in the heart of a city. The little boy is the proof.
He isn’t a perfectly behaved little child. He does all the things that little children do at Mass. He sits on the kneeler and ruffles through the hymnals. He walks up and down the pew length and back again. He has dropped an occasional kneeler which makes all the devout old ladies jump in place. And yes, he has suffered the proverbial head crash on the pew a few times; that seeming right-of-passage for every Catholic toddler in the Universe. Once, he cleverly loosened the bolt of the kneeler and unscrewed it. I confess I was mesmerized by the process. He brought the bolt to his dad at the other end of the pew; the dad whose face betrayed a brief and passing look of shock before he quietly got up and screwed it back in and told the little boy to come down by him for a while. The mom hid a smile and let him sit in her lap.
The most charming thing about this little boy, though, is that suddenly he will pay close attention to what is going on up there at the altar. He definitely has his favorite parts. He watches with rapt attention when Father carefully wipes the chalice after communion. I can hear him murmuring to his dad, “the cup”. Once he said with great conviction to no one in particular, “Peace I leave you.” And one morning my daughter was amazed to hear him say, like a veritable Latin scholar, “Dominus vobiscum” in a most solemn tone as he held an upside-down hymnal. Through observing all these charming little scenes it began to dawn on me that something quite profound was going on here. This little boy, not all of two years old, was absorbing the Traditions of the Church quite organically by watching a careful and dedicated priest celebrate Mass each morning; a Mass to which his mom and dad faithfully bring him. He cannot read, nor does he have FULL knowledge, but he does have knowledge. He knows the name Jesus because he stops whenever it is said. And he knows the first line of the Our Father and says it with that distinctive pride and joy of the two year old.
In his book The Meaning of Tradition, Yves Congar says something quite striking about the apostles receiving from Jesus by both His words and example the beginnings of the oral tradition in the Church. He says:
The churches were established by the spoken word and organized in like manner…the living example of the apostles must also be given a place of importance. The Jewish ideal of discipleship entails far more than the mere learning that characterizes a pupil; it included the imitation of the master’s life and habits. The disciple not only received oral lessons from his master, to be memorized – a most effective practice for inculcating “tradition”, and one that Jesus certainly applied to his disciples. He also learned from his master’s actions and personal way of life. So it was with the apostles; they had not only HEARD Jesus teach, they had FOLLOWED him everywhere; they had seen him praying, welcoming people and healing the sick; they had seen Him celebrate the Last Supper and break bread after giving thanks to God. Immediately after Pentecost and during the next thirty years, the Christians celebrated the Breaking of Bread, although no written text on the matter existed. It enough for the apostles to have SEEN Jesus celebrate it. The Church, which had seen the apostles do it after him, thus learned the Eucharist from its actual celebration; and so it was with many other things.
I find it so beautiful that Jesus chose apostles that were observant; whom He KNEW would watch Him and listen to Him and remember how He said and did things. It was paramount that they do so for His Church to “work”. And to think of St Peter or St John doing it exactly the way Jesus had done it – perhaps imitating the inflections of his voice and the gentleness of His hands when helping the sick or remembering just exactly HOW He had sounded at the last supper and trying to imitate his voice there as well. And down through the ages up until the present time, there would always be observant men who watched their mentors and imitated their actions in order to pass them on in turn; those to whom God has entrusted the oral treasures of His Kingdom and who generously bequeath them to others before they go.
I myself would have preferred everything written down to avoid misunderstanding and conflicts, because when it comes to the faith I am admittedly and strictly “by the book.” But I must admit after watching this little boy, I find there is a certain Divinely wonderful charm in the knowledge that in every age we are gifted with men and women who closely observe and remember and pass on all the traditions one to the other, especially about the Eucharist: how it is held, how it is Consecrated, how strikingly beautiful it becomes to our eyes when honored by a particularly devout priest. And all the things we learn from our parents: how to kneel, how to pray devoutly, how to genuflect, how to hold and pray a rosary, how to devoutly receive the Eucharist. No book can show these things. They are heard and observed and then imitated. It’s a kind of organic growth – like sap passing from branch to new branch, but in this case it is grace. It is a sign of our deep faith in each member of the Body, that he or she receives the grace by Heavenly inheritance to accept and pass on Tradition, even down to this smallest two year old boy. God depends on us for this. God has asked for it to be this way, that His Word be proclaimed by one human voice to the ear of another, one devout gesture imitated by the hand of another. For we are a LIVING Church and the law is written on our living hearts, minds, memories, and senses.
These were my thoughts one dusky morning as Father raised the Host at Holy Mass. He too was imitating and carefully observing all the rubrics passed on to him by someone who had cherished the traditions before him and then loved him enough to place them in his own safe keeping at the end of a long line reaching all the way down the ages of the Church to the Last Supper in the upper room. And a very small boy, not all of two, sitting two pews ahead of me with his father’s arm around him was, in turn, absorbing that Tradition right before my very eyes. This is why we bring our children to Mass. Why we pick up those song books over and over again, why we risk the kneeler’s complete demise, why we risk the chance of a meltdown or two; because suddenly we may hear a tiny voice say, “Dominus vobiscum!” and we are assured that He always will be.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony.