Forming a New Generation in a Church in Crisis
Interview by Natasa Wilkie
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a well-known theologian, university lecturer, musician, and author, as well as a prolific blogger. He’s been heavily involved in the Catholic traditional movement both in the USA and in Europe.
Lately, given the maelstrom the Church is engulfed in, Dr Kwasniewski has been thinking hard and practically about the future of the Church, for our children – and what the laity can do today to affect their future positively.
REGINA: What’s your biography like, short form?
KWASNIEWSKI: I was born in Chicago, raised in New Jersey, went to college in California, earned a doctorate in Washington, D.C., taught in Austria, and then helped found a college in Wyoming. Needless to say, I did not expect such a zig-zag path in life, but it seems to have been the Lord’s plan. At the university level I’ve taught philosophy, theology, music, and art history — all subjects that I am passionate about. I have also directed church choirs and Gregorian chant scholas for the past 25 years. Currently I am a full-time writer and speaker on behalf of traditional Catholicism. My wife and I have two children, both of whom we have homeschooled.
REGINA: What has been your involvement in the traditional movement?
KWASNIEWSKI: Ever since I fell in love with the traditional Mass over 25 years ago, I have always dedicated some of my time to writing in defense of it or in explanation of it. While I was still in Austria, I began to publish articles in the Latin Mass Magazine, and have written for them ever since — an article in almost every issue from 2006 to 2018. About five years ago, I began to write weekly articles for the blog New Liturgical Movement. Then I published three books on the traditional liturgy: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico, 2014) and Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages (Angelico, 2017), and Tradition and Sanity: Conversations & Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile.
REGINA: That’s a pretty prolific resume.
KWASNIEWSKI: All of these writings have emerged out of my lifelong “love affair” with traditional Catholic worship. Everything I talk about comes from my personal experience, whether it be my critiques of the Novus Ordo or my praises of the usus antiquior. I do not believe in “armchair theology.” This is about realities.
REGINA: What are your thoughts about the future for the Faith?
KWASNIEWSKI: I think we are at a crucial moment when a large proportion of the most serious Catholics — the ones who actually want to live their faith — are turning against the “spirit of Vatican II” paradigm, and especially against the “new paradigm” of Pope Francis, and returning, whether with total consistency or in a piecemeal manner, to a more traditional Catholicism.
REGINA: What effect does the clerical sex abuse crisis have on all this?
KWASNIEWSKI: As the liberals in the Church flex their muscles, the reaction “we’ve had enough of this charade” also grows. The clerical abuse scandals only add a sharp point to the growing discontent with pablum. One sees this in a lot of spheres, but the surprising increase in access to the old Latin liturgy is perhaps the most obvious sign of it.
REGINA: Can you suggest ways to make Catholic tradition more accessible to youth, especially in families in which the parents are new to it as well?
KWASNIEWSKI: Nothing can replace ongoing education. It used to be taken for granted that Catholic families would read lives of the saints and things like Gueranger’s Liturgical Year (as the family of St Therese of Lisieux used to do). Homeschooling families have an easier time of it, because the children tend to be low-tech and addicted to reading books anyway. In our family we have read hundreds of books out loud, taking a half-hour to an hour each evening for that purpose. But any family can get used to some reading in the evenings. If this is in place, one can read a book together like Fr. James Jackson’s Nothing Superfluous, which is such an interesting and well-written account of the rich symbolism of the old Mass. It will definitely help the older children and the parents themselves.
REGINA: So then, reading aloud to kids, as opposed to burying oneself in electronics.
KWASNIEWSKI: Really, the Catholic Faith is immensely beautiful in every detail of it, and it is the loss of knowledge more than anything else that has doomed us to what seems like an enormous rut of mediocrity. We have to get out of that rut, and if we can’t immediately share books with our children, we can at least read them ourselves so that we have something to say in the car ride or when a question arises.
REGINA: Many parents who are intrigued by tradition are nonetheless concerned about their children not behaving at church during EF mass, as well as not responding well to it being in a language they do not understand.
KWASNIEWSKI: It is a challenge, to be sure, with small children, but one that many parents have risen to meet. The sung Mass, and especially the solemn Mass, are very appealing to children because there is so much to look at and be inspired by and listen to (in the chants). To say it provocatively, verbal comprehension is the lowest and least important level. Worship of the transcendent God goes far beyond bite-sized chunks of language: it is a whole ethos, an atmosphere, a world that envelops the senses. Children know the difference between something that everyone is taking seriously and something that no one can take seriously. I know a boy who was kept happily occupied for a long time just watching the thurifer and his “playing with fire.”
REGINA: What can parents do to help little kids at Mass?
KWASNIEWSKI: If parents come equipped with picture books for the littlest ones and missals for those who can use them, and if the parents are willing to “tag team” when children are fussing or crying, all the children will eventually acclimatize and come to love this solemn and beautiful time. For more, I would draw the reader’s attention to a pair of articles published at OnePeterFive: “Helping Children Enter into the Traditional Latin Mass” Part 1 and Part 2.
REGINA: What is it that attracts children and teenagers to traditional worship?
KWASNIEWSKI: I think the answer is just how obviously sacred it is. We are not at a sing-along, a birthday party, a catechism lesson, a boring adults’ event. We are in the presence of the thrice-holy God, with a hushed silence, strange music, clouds of incense, an exotic language, women wearing veils and men obviously intent on something. The entire atmosphere that the old Mass promotes and demands is itself the most powerful catechesis ever offered, and it communicates far more powerfully than a thousand sermons or books.
REGINA: What if children don’t immediately ‘get’ it?
KWASNIEWSKI: I’m not saying that everyone immediately “gets” this. But if a family gives it time, it ends up having the most amazing effects on the children. They learn to sit still, to kneel, to watch, to pray. I barely knew how to pray until I began attending the old Mass, and I think this is the same experience countless others have. To put it simply: the traditional Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is absorbing for those whose eyes and ears adjust to it.
REGINA: Why do you think this is?
KWASNIEWSKI: The traditional Mass is so bafflingly other, so strongly contemptuous of one’s individuality, that it commands respect. I think young people clue in to this rather more quickly than we give them credit for. Isn’t it similar to the way young people, at least the motivated ones, will be attracted to a taskmaster sports coach, or a critical commandant of a teacher?
REGINA: How did the idea of making a traditional missal for children develop?
KWASNIEWSKI: When our son had reached the point where he could read easily, we wanted to give him a missal at Mass that contained the main prayers to follow. He had outgrown the large print paraphrase missals (“see Father go up to the altar: he is offering sacrifice to God”). But he was not yet ready for a 2,000-page Baronius missal, which is heavy enough to make a loud noise when dropped, as we have learned on many occasions, and complicated enough to cause many distractions (“Mommy, what page are we on? Where are we?”).
REGINA: Yep, that missal makes a loud noise when dropped.
KWASNIEWSKI: So I decided to create an in-between missal that would have the full Ordinary of the Mass, with beautiful works of art — classic paintings and icons and woodcuts — but none of the Propers. And yet it clearly indicates where the Propers are, so that the child can turn to his parent or sibling and ask to see (e.g.) the Lesson or the Gospel. It worked very well for both children.
REGINA: And then?
KWASNIEWSKI: Our friends noticed we had it and asked if they could have a copy. After it was “tested out” this way in a few families, I decided to go public with it. But I have never advertised it, so it’s only become known slowly, by word of mouth. The Fraternity of St. Peter started carrying it in their bookstore.
REGINA: Do you have final words for what Catholics can do, in this moment?
KWASNIEWSKI: All this being said, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the traditional liturgy is only for the highly educated. Anyone who attends Mass for a span of years will come to appreciate its subtleties and beauties. It speaks to the soul quite directly.
The most important thing to do now is to capitalize on this providential moment by urging all the good clergy we know to learn or offer or increase their offering of the old Latin Mass and the other traditional sacraments. The Church’s renewal will come through her tradition or I’m afraid it will not come at all.