There are Sundays I barely hear my voice when I’m preaching. The gentle drone of toddlers drowns me out.
When we surveyed our parish, we discovered that the median age was only 25 years old, thus Mass at our parish is crawling with children, who are highly engaged. Altar servers debate fiercely over who gets the best tasks, storming the sacristy before Mass to claim coveted jobs. The children in the pews whisper loud commentary to their mothers, explaining that the Host looks like bread but is, in fact, Jesus. One little boy, in a symbolic act, once rolled an apple towards the altar. The toddlers squeal when the sanctus bells ring. A number of teenage girls sing in the schola. We’re one big family at prayer.
It wasn’t always this way.
When I arrived in the parish, there were very few children. At some Masses, none at all. I love parishioners of all ages and particularly delight to chat with older parishioners after daily Mass, but a parish lacking the younger demographic lacks a future, so I asked visiting young families what was missing. They replied that they desire reverent worship. They want to be challenged by beauty and immerse their children in the fullness of Catholic culture and devotion. They want their children not only to be told that Jesus loves them, but for them to see, hear, smell, and feel it.
I set out to offer a Mass that would appeal to children as well as adults. We started using incense, gave the altar servers cassocks, fixed up the unused organ, and added some Latin and chant. We reintroduced colorful old devotions like veiling statues in Lent, the Rorate Caeli Mass, and Eucharistic processions. In short, we used the already-existing liturgical treasures of the Church to curate a sense of imaginative wonder. The goal is not a consumerist worship experience but, rather, a transcendental one.
This is all it took. In five years, our parish has almost doubled in attendance and overflows with people of all ages. Every Sunday we give God our most beautiful liturgical gift, incarnating our worship into poetic prayer because the Mass is a lived reality, an open door to eternity. The sacramental grace of the Eucharist reveals itself to even the smallest child and draws us into the universal embrace of God’s love.
God is Truth, but he is also Beauty. These two virtues are linked, which is why the medievals referred to beauty as the splendor of truth. For our worship to be truly life-altering, it cannot merely hold to intellectual truth about Jesus, it also must give body to that truth by revealing his beauty.
The proper language of the Mass is poetic. A poetic mindset looks to the future with hope and grasps unnamed realities. It explores inner landscapes, timeless and wide, beauty beyond the reach of everyday language. The Church has always understood that the Mass is less a catechetical lesson and more a dizzying encounter with a Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.
Our parishioners have difficulty expressing why the Mass affects them so deeply. They only know it does, even as the children are busy with their own boisterous prayers. They only know they want to tell their friends about it.
I consider that guarding sacred beauty is my fatherly duty. As priest, my intent at Mass is to fade away so Christ might increase, drawing each soul into his gravitation toward the great center. The insistence for imaginative beauty is not something our parish has invented as a matter of personal taste. It’s already present in the ancient Mass. Our task is to be attentive, to reach out and touch the hem of Our Lord’s garment.
It’s interesting that this seemingly impractical insistence on the poetic has resulted in quite measurable results – a growing parish, enthusiasm for evangelization, and lives changed. Our choice for beauty has had stunning results, none more than the dawning knowledge of each parishioner who comes to Mass that they are known and loved.
Fr. Michael Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord parish in St. Louis, MO. His book, “The Forgotten Language – How the Poetics of the Mass Can Change Your Life” releases March 2023.