Evangelization is essential. It’s not a choice. But when we talk about how to approach evangelization, in terms of strategy, what (after prayer and personal sanctity of course) is the best starting point? This is an area that is often problematic. Many Catholics, motivated no doubt with the best of intentions, take an “evangelize from behind” approach. What is evangelizing from behind? It says that we should gauge popular culture to determine what is “in,” and then apply a Catholic gloss to it. The revamped Catholic message, with its sleek, new packaging, will be more palatable to modern sensibilities. If we come across like them, and less, well, Catholic (the thinking goes) we can show everyone just how normal and “with it” we are. Ergo, we will be accepted as well, and our message will stick. That is the starting point for so many of the youth and young adult evangelization movements out there, and I think it misses the mark in a major way.
Among the more conspicuous examples of the evangelization from behind approach are the so-called “Youth Masses” and prayer services that are common today. Many of these liturgies are saturated with pop/rock music and have the feel of an Evangelical service instead of a Catholic liturgy. I remember being in an adoration chapel some time ago, while a “Youth Mass” was taking place in the church about fifty feet away from the chapel. The music was so loud, with guitars, drums and singing, that it was difficult to concentrate.
Another friend told me about her recent experience at a local Eucharistic adoration service that was geared toward young adults in Milwaukee (Arise). She was standing in line for confession and the drums and music were so intense and loud that she couldn’t even hear herself confess, much less the priest to whom she was confessing! This music was playing during Eucharistic Adoration, by the way. (Should resounding, booming music be played during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the first place? Let all mortal flesh keep silence…) Large screens were set up for projecting song lyrics. She recalls that it had the distinct feel of a mega-church Protestant service.
The logic goes something like this: Young people clearly like (loud) pop music, so if we flood the liturgy or adoration with the same kind of cacophonous beat, albeit with a Christian gloss, we will appeal to and attract young people. Bingo!
Again, I think this approach is a big mistake, since its starting point is to look to fads and trends, instead of what is timeless. It also tends to place too much of an emphasis on the role of catharsis and feeling in the spiritual life. Creativity is also sorely lacking in terms of how we harmonize tradition with today in a healthy, organic way. Things come across as contrived and forced. Some fear being perceived as strange or foreign to modern eyes and ears, so they ape what is trendy to appeal to fickle popular demands. (And did you ever notice how the Catholic version of hipster-indie music is never as good as what you’ll hear on 88.9? It just isn’t. And that’s because it’s trying to be something it is not. It’s astroturf.)
At one level, I understand why many young leaders in the Church, while doctrinally orthodox, have defaulted to evangelization from behind as a modus operandi. Our own Catholic identity, with its distinct customs and vocabulary, has been buried and abandoned in Catholic parishes, schools and seminaries for half a century. Many devout, younger priests and parish youth “ministers” are completely unaware of our roots and history, and therefore glom onto whatever is floating around in popular culture. They need something to serve as a springboard for outreach to the mainstream culture and so, never formed in the Church’s rich traditions in the seminary, the “only” option is to transpose a Catholic film onto popular fads. A friend who has taught at two seminaries in the U.S. has frequently lamented to me how little emphasis is given to the Church’s liturgical traditions in our seminaries. Orthodoxy is not the problem with many of the young men, but formation and interest in the beautiful traditions of the Church remain a significant challenge.
Instead of being yanked, pulled around and determined by fickle trends or Protestant influences, the alternative to evangelization from behind is to recognize some important facts. First, as Catholics, we have our own traditions, culture and vocabulary that provide us with a distinct identity that should always appear somewhat shocking to a world that places a premium on constant noise, emotional release, the latest fads and instant gratification. As Cardinal Newman said, “Day by day, he [the true Christian] unlearns the love of this world, and the desire of its praise; he can bear to belong to the nameless family of God, and to seem to the world strange in it and out of place, for so he is.”
This identity is not bound to, or in any way determined by, what is popular or “in” today. Second, while we are called to be in the world, we should recognize that, when it comes down to it, we are in fact radically counter-cultural, a “sign of contradiction,” and that we will never be fully accepted by the world. Finally, we should not confuse evangelization with forms of populism, pandering and condescension.
How often do you encounter a liturgy like that offered at Old Saint Anthony in the ordinary form, or at Saint Stanislaus in the extraordinary form? Sadly, not enough. Both forms of the Roman rite are executed so reverently and solemnly at these two parishes. Gregorian chant and Latin are familiar sounds to the parishioners, as well as beautiful modern hymns that are consistent with the musical patrimony of the Church. One doesn’t get the sense at either parish that squaring Catholic worship with modern trends or Protestant customs is the goal. You actually feel like you’re entering into something timeless and stable, not fleeting and shaky. And that is the point.
The rich symbolism of the liturgy reminds us, among other things, that we are part of something greater than just the present, passing moment. It also keeps us humble. It’s not all about satisfying my demands or personal tastes. And that knowledge delivers real security to the soul in an uncertain, changing world.