In any discussion of the Catholic Church the imagination usually conjures up a grand view of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, with the Holy Father waving from the window of the Apostolic Palace. When talking about changing the Church then, it comes as no surprise that this is the default view.
If the Church is to change so must this view. Step into almost any weekend Mass in the United States and you will usually be greeted by dwindling and aging congregations, with very little youth or vitality. This is not sustainable. There is no debate that change is needed, but a lot of debate over what needs changing. I think the answer, the essentials missing from most parishes, are quite clear. Imagine this scenario if you will:
Scott is happy with his neighborhood non-denominational church. He started attending because it’s the closest to his home. The facilities are a beautiful example of modern architecture, and the community is an active and welcoming one. Scott attends the 11:30 AM service most Sundays, and the preaching is captivating, with an exciting praise and worship band performing the latest Christian music. Since he started going to church here, he’s been caught by an intense longing to grow closer to Christ. He feels like something important is missing, but doesn’t know what. Somewhere along his quest for Christ, he decides to try attending a Roman Catholic Mass. He searches for the closest Catholic church’s website and double checks to make sure it is Roman Catholic. Most of the content includes vague references to mission and community like his church’s does, but without the same professional and eye-popping graphic design. The website looks like it hasn’t been updated for a few months, and nowhere can he find current information about community activities. On Sunday morning Scott pulls into the parking lot of the Catholic church. The building looks a bit like a flying saucer attached to an aircraft hangar. As he walks inside he is greeted by a very friendly usher and finds his way to his seat in the back. The seating is in a ring around a big wooden table in the center, and it’s a bit awkward sitting in silence while looking at all the people still seated across from him. The music is familiar, but not nearly as well done as it is at his parish. A few sentimental folk songs are played as well, and Scott tries not to judge the musicians and their lack of talent. The preaching isn’t challenging, or captivating for that matter, as evidenced by the congregation’s straying gazes throughout the service. Scott is perplexed during communion as half the church stands while half the church kneels, and feels uncomfortable doing either, especially with all the people across the circle of seating looking directly at him. Scott is happy to leave when it’s finally over, and it looks like most of the other participants are as well. As the congregation is rushing for the exit Scott takes a bulletin from the friendly usher. There is no mention of ministries or discussion oriented towards young adults, and Scott feels like an oddity since most of the attendees are elderly with a few young families. Scott is definitely going back to his nondenominational church, happy he has somewhere where he fits in.
Catholic churches cannot simply be watered down protestant services. It does not work! We must preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, in every way possible. This includes beautiful and reverent liturgy. We cannot count on those who are not already Catholic to attend bad liturgies just because “they know the only important thing is Christ in the Eucharist”. If most Catholics don’t know this and don’t go to church, how is a bad liturgy going to captivate non-Catholics who don’t know this? It’s absurd reasoning and an excuse to keep the status quo. The Gospel is offensive – people die for it. We need to stop worrying that changing our liturgy so that it doesn’t reflect modern innovations is offensive.
Grand ideas from the roman level won’t change the parish. Think back to changing the Catholic Church. Again, your mind probably defaults to Rome. It needs to default to the Parish. Stop thinking about St. Peter’s and the Pope and start thinking about St. Paul’s down the street from Walmart. Changing the parish is scary, but only because it is possible. All the theology and policy in the world won’t change the parish, but real local action will. Parishes cannot keep waiting for better times, they need to make the best of right now. This is uncomfortable for most priests, and for many parishioners. Yes, change. The thing that creates drama and controversy. Worst of all, it creates work. The status quo, even if bad, is irresistibly comfortable. But this is about more than comfort, it’s about the salvation of souls.
An easy first step along this difficult path would be a concrete plan that all parishes can follow and adapt to, regardless of their specific situation. There should be a plan for implementing ministry and missions on any scale. From small rural parishes to suburban parishes with 3,000 parishioners, ministry and strong community help with parish stability and growth. As important as extra ministry is, strong liturgy is even more essential and cannot be forgotten. In fact, strong liturgy can often strengthen all other aspects of parish life.
Parishes don’t need to be so dramatic as to turn back to the Tridentine Liturgy with all its smells and bells. Bringing out a few of the smells and dusting off the bells can’t hurt, though. Liturgies don’t need to be elaborate. They need to be reverent and speak to the heart. You’re thinking nothing speaks to the heart more than “Gather us in”, right? Of course not. “Gather us in” is popular not because it is beautiful or appropriate to be played at the foot of the Cross, but because it is easy and feels good. The cross isn’t easy, converting others isn’t easy, and neither should our liturgies be easy. What’s difficult is demanding that they are reverent. Learning and training others with real, sacred music. Removing banal modern accoutrements from the sanctuary and fixing its focus back on Christ. We can settle for nothing less. The tabernacle, Jesus Christ Himself, should be at the center of our parishes and our lives. If He is physically confined to a corner room what does that say about His spiritual presence? Or our communal belief in His Real Presence in the Eucharist? Fixing the broken liturgy of most parishes is a tall order. Most don’t have the willpower, money, or talent to implement sacred music programs or redecorate the sanctuary. Tradition will undoubtedly turn some people away. Preventing the few that might turn away from leaving over restored tradition is a dilemma that still remains.
I personally don’t know where to begin. I want the world to know Christ through His Church. We must demand change, but also offer to lead it. There is almost nothing more terrifying to a priest than complaints to his bishop and upset parishioners. The system that’s been built up since the 60s is opposed to the changes that must be implemented. Most new priests getting ordained share these views, but hide them in fear. It’s up to everyone moved by the Holy Spirit and in love with Christ and His Church to undertake this task. The evidence in our favor is overwhelming, but so is the opposition.
One simply has to attend a reverent Mass in a traditional looking church see the immense difference. Young men and women attending on their own. Worshippers have a look of contentment and peace during the service and an attitude of reverence and awe. People don’t rush out the doors, they reverently genuflect and silently leave in their own time after Mass. Opponents of traditional liturgy will chalk this difference up to coincidence, or local demographics. It is neither of these things! The truth cannot be ignored. The Truth cannot be ignored. Vibrant parishes are those that radiate sanctity. Christ is the center, Christ must be everything. Not in Rome, not in encyclicals, or documents, but in every parish and parishioner’s heart. Then, and only then, will the parish come back to life.
Liturgy is the first and most important tool for evangelization. We cannot afford to get this wrong. In attempting to appeal to everyone’s tastes, the liturgy has become tasteless. Let’s get back to reverence, sanctity, and soul. The cost of changing? People upset their personal preferences aren’t met may leave. The cost of not changing? People may never experience Christ in the liturgy. Isn’t experiencing Christ the point? We owe it to the world, and to God. Many do not understand or know the significance of the Mass. If only they knew! In a busy world and with restless hearts they don’t have time to listen to logic. The Mass must be known first through beauty and reverence. This is the best form of catechesis available. The Mass is otherworldly, this has to be shown through otherworldliness. As Catholics, we have a duty to fix this. Not in Rome, but in our parishes at home.
Also, if you didn’t catch it in the text, here’s another great article exploring the power of reverent liturgy:
Image Credit: Wikipedia, Nheyob