What is the Way? What is the Truth? What is the Life?
What does it look like, smell like, sound like? These are the questions to which the heart seeks a definitive answer.
Where is the witness to the Mystery that once freed nations from bondage? Where is the Cornerstone that built a Church to withstand the sagacity of time? My, how far we have come! How far have we fallen from the foundation that built a Church on betrayal and fear, transformed into Love, Beauty, Truth, and Life. By the will of God, Jesus chose the lesser, the downtrodden, the shamed, to be witness to His Truth and to build His Church.
The Catholic Church, and much of Christianity, is experiencing Lent once again. Lent, a period of conversion fulfilled through prayer, fasting, and alms giving, ought to bring a believer closer to God, to deepen the relationship one has with Christ, whose one and only purpose was to bring about salvation for a broken and sinful mankind. Christ is the New Covenant. Man no longer needs to sacrifice his own; God sacrificed His Only Begotten Son so we didn’t have to.
In a recent article from the Milwaukee Catholic Herald published on February 11, 2016, we are subjected to a breakdown of ideas that were offered up from the recent Archdiocesan Synod which, in part, was called to determine the causes of and solutions for low Mass attendance across the Archdiocese.
The article, entitled, “It’s All About Sunday Mass“, by Brian T. Olszewski begins with this: “Direct our primary attention and strategic efforts to the weekend so that the music, message, and ministries form a high-impact, integrated evangelizing message of Good News, especially to the lost and seekers.” –Third key initiative on liturgy, 2014 Archdiocesan Synod
Direct, strategic efforts, high-impact, integrated. . . message.
Sounds like textbook words right out of Marketing 101. If a marketing director wanted to capture more “market share” of a given target audience, these are the words that would be used. But, these are the words used to guide a group of people charged with the task of “fixing” the identified problem of low attendance at Mass in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
In the article, Mr. Olszewski references data extracted from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) which notes that fewer than 30 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly. That is an astounding statistic. If you were capturing only 30 percent of your target audience you would receive a very low mark on your performance review, wouldn’t you? More astonishing is that this target audience is supposed to be on your side. The target audience is already Catholic!
The article states that “Relationships [sic] essential.” Susan McNeil, director of the archdiocese’s Nazareth Project states that, “One of the things we talked extensively about is that we don’t live in a culture or world where people understand a sense of obligation.” Ms. McNeil goes on to say, “I’m not sure how compelling that is to people if you say to somebody who doesn’t really have a relationship with the Lord that they’re obligated to go.”
In my ever so humble opinion, Ms. McNeil completely misses the mark. She speaks of obligation as if obligation was the compelling reason Catholics attend Mass. Is she drudging up an old notion of “Catholic guilt”? Perhaps. But, more so it seems that she’s given up on the most fundamental of ideas before she’s even out of the gate. It appears that Ms. McNeil has surrendered the very essence of what compels Catholics to attend Mass in the first place.
So, in true “marketing” strategy, the adherents of fixing problems have identified the problem areas and laid out a strategy to make it all better. McNeil states that, “If we want people to come, then it has to be attractive; we have to have good quality preaching.” She continues, “When we say good quality music, we’re not talking about a specific genre; we’re saying it needs to be well done. And (we need) good ministries that help people participate.” Note that in this initiative, they’ve identified that the problem of low Mass attendance is condensed to three main areas: music, message, and ministry.
Doesn’t it trouble you that an article about Mass has overlooked the most compelling reason any Catholic attends Mass? Where is the Eucharist in all of this discussion? The Eucharist is not mentioned even once in the article about Mass. Not once.
Let me address each of the areas:
Where is the sense of mystery? Where is the Liturgy? It seems to have been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator from the sometimes schmaltzy music, to the pop-culture message in a homily, and the (lack of) true ministry. But, music is one of the first and foremost things people experience in the Liturgy. So what went wrong? One must again revisit the “reforms” that occurred after Vatican II and understand the steady progression of movement farther and farther away from the liturgical traditions that withstood the tests of time.
Sacred music that once filled the faithful with the sound of angels singing made for great praise. Recall that Gregorian Chant and Latin both were thrown out at the same time. Much of today’s liturgical music has been replaced with “genres” that are more modern, upbeat, and coated with sugar. The choir and musicians, with instruments ranging from guitar to trumpet, are now placed just off-center stage and in many cases, they write their own music and lyrics to serve an audience that may well get caught up in the moment and burst out with clapping and sing-a-longs. In the book, Benedict XVI’s Reform, The Liturgy between Innovation and Tradition, Father Nicola Bux writes, “Song should be sacred, joyous and jubilant, without unseemliness, poetic and noble, without artifice, sweet and mellifluous, without affectation or sentimentalism.” Perhaps the bridge from the traditional to the modern didn’t have to be so long or multi-directional so as to be unrecognizable. As Joseph Ratzinger once said on the rejection of Gregorian Chant, “. . .the retreat into utility has not made the liturgy more open; it has impoverished it.”
Based on the rising statistic of more young people attending the traditional Latin Rite Masses, when and where they are allowed, with its full use of Gregorian Chant and Latin as its language, it seems that more of the music they listen to in their earbuds is not what draws them to Mass. If Gregorian Chant has no place in our liturgy, or no contemporary meaning or importance to the Mass, why is it one of the more emergent “genres” in the marketplace?
If the Synod’s initiatives on music are trying to create an “experience” that will keep people in the pews, perhaps one ought to recognize that tradition is not something to be dismissed, but, instead be used as a backdrop for understanding beauty, reverence, and meaning that can be applied to the Ordinary Form of the Mass just as easily as to the Extraordinary Form. If relationships are essential, as Ms. McNeil supposes, than ought not the relationship one has with Jesus Christ be the driving initiative for forming our interior life? In any of the initiatives, where is reverence, interior participation, and the avoidance of the abuses that have permeated our liturgies over the last 50 years addressed?
The article states another statistic from CARA that says that 71 percent of Catholics that have left to go to Protestant churches have done so because their “spiritual needs were not being met.” Supposedly their survey revealed that respondents often say that the quality of preaching did not meet their needs. Father Phillip Bogacki, of Christ King and St. Bernard parishes in Wauwatosa, is a member of the implementation team. He states, “What preachers need is the true, concrete support of their parishes and of the church. In particular, time.” Fr. Bogacki says that priests need more time to prepare their homilies. Nothing was said about ongoing formation of the priest, or proper reverence for the Eucharist, a deeper understanding of the Word, or reaching out to attend to the poverty of the souls that sit in the pews. Once again, no one made mention of the Eucharist. Not once is the Eucharist cited as being a part of the message; nor is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Tell me again, why are we here?
Much of the article, and the initiatives, use language that would lead you to think these well-meaning people were conducting a business transaction. Even the comments about the priests needing more time seemed like a quid pro quo deal. To paraphrase, “parishioners need to lighten up on the priests about their taking a day off once a week and then the priests will be able to deliver a better ‘message’.” If there are parishioners giving their priests a hard time for taking a day off as a respite, there are bigger issues to deal with than better homilies. As for messages, Fr. Bogacki refers to the Archdiocesan Mission Statement as being a boilerplate mission statement for all parishes to adopt. It reads, “To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ through his saving death and resurrection by calling, forming and sending disciples to go and make new disciples. As a people, we are called to encounter Jesus and grow as disciples through the sacramental life of the Church.” If we are called to be disciples and to become what we receive, do we not need to have our interior dispositions be reflective of the exterior rituals we experience? If we are to encounter Jesus and grow as disciples, ought not the Liturgy remind us of our fallen nature, and the possibility of salvation through atonement, reconciliation, and receiving of the Eucharist?
Ministry is the third pillar of the initiative on the liturgy. Yet, it is never addressed clearly in the article. If what the article said about the “cultural Catholics” or those many who only attend at Christmas and/or Easter is their target demographic, or those Catholics who only reach out to a parish when they are in need of such Sacraments as Baptism, Anointing of the Sick, or for a funeral Mass, I’m not sure that the idea of being welcoming and hospitable covers ministry. It tells me that there is not much for these “seekers” to find during the regular times of their lives and perhaps they find that the Liturgy has been impoverished beyond their spiritual needs. Perhaps with better formation of all concerned, from the priest on down to the poor soul in the pew and out of the pew, if the people of God realized Who they had in the Eucharist, they would crawl on their knees to be at Mass and begging to be in Holy Communion with Jesus Christ.
The Role of Tradition:
In reading Benedict XVI’s Reform, The Liturgy between Innovation and Tradition, by Father Nicola Bux, one will find a guidepost to the bridge between tradition and the contemporary. The preface, written by Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist, ought to give the folks in the Synod pause before implementing some of their already tried and failed solutions. After all, we all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Perhaps these well-intended people have not read this or any other text, including Church documents on liturgy, that urge people in decision making positions to read up on the traditional considerations of the Liturgy. In the preface, Messori mentions his own entrance into the Church coincided with Vatican II. To emphasize his point, he writes, “Everything was done by clerics, who were incessantly talking about ‘democracy in the Church’, affirming that this was reclaimed by a ‘People of God’, whom no one, however, had bothered to consult.” (emphasis added) Messori is referring to the immediate effect of the changes that were enacted in the “Spirit of Vatican II” fever, such as changing out the traditional altars for those of lesser dignity, having the priest face the people, replacing sacred music once played on magnificent pipe organs with guitars and tambourines played by folks clad in jeans and t-shirts. At the time, holy water, kneelers, relics, and even candles were abolished from the once sacred space of worship. Some of these changes live on today 50 years later, in great detriment to the Church.
If the Synod believes that the “experience” of attending Mass should keep people coming back, with such tremendous emphasis on “feeling welcome”, from the priest to the janitor being reduced to “ambassadors of hospitality”, this tired trope of ideas will fail once again. To ignore history and tradition, and to pretend that “looking at things differently” will solve the problems as they see them, is to deny the very essence of why Catholics attend Mass. The main inspiration for the entire Archdiocesan Synod was supposed to be, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” In light of this point, in all of these initiatives, strategies, and efforts, where do we find the Blessed Sacrament? The Liturgy is to be an encounter with the living God, not a show to make religion interesting, nor an intellectual experiment, let alone an “experience.” In this world of virtual realities, the people of God are hungry for the authentic, the beautiful, and the richness of the Liturgy centered on the Eucharist which imbues the senses and feeds the soul. To quote Pope Saint John Paul II:
We cannot stop short at experience alone; even if experience does reveal the human being’s interiority and spirituality, speculative thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the ground from which it arises.
As Fr. Bux tells us in Benedict XVI’s Reform, by turning to Sacred Scripture we can find a perspective brought by three different Gospels. In Mark we find, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.” (Mark 2:22). We find a similar message in Matthew 9:17. When we look to Luke 5, we find the same saying, but, at the end he adds: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39).
~Observations of an Accidental Catholic