Cardinal Dolan on Boredom at Mass

We have all heard people say: “Mass is so boring!” But what does that really mean? How do we address this problem? Who or what is to blame?

Cardinal Dolan on his blog wrote a recent post addressing this problem. While I disagree with some of what he says, or at least the way he says it, I think he draws our attention to a significant problem facing the Church today.

Cardinal Dolan writes:

“Mass is so boring!”

How often have you parents heard that from your kids on Sunday morning?  How often have our teachers and catechists heard it as they prepare our children for Mass?  And, let’s admit it, how often have we said it to ourselves?

What do we say to that unfortunate and almost sacrilegious statement?

Well, for one, we simply reply, No, it’s not!  You may find the Mass boring, but, that’s more your problem than the fault of the Mass.

Calling the declaration “Mass is so boring!” a “sacrilegious statement” is a bit extreme, and so is the charge that it is our problem that Mass is boring. I do not think it is entirely our fault that the Mass is boring. I also do not think it is entirely the fault of the Mass either. Rather, I think it is our inattentiveness to the celebration of the Mass that leads to this damning statement.

There is a need today for greater attentiveness to the ars celebrandi Missam (the art of celebrating the Mass). More creativity in the celebration of the Mass is needed today. This does not require the bending of liturgical rubrics or dramatic changes in celebration, but a willingness to try new things, risk failure, and rethink our approach to liturgical celebration.

However, Cardinal Dolan is right when he says: “Boredom is our problem, and social commentators tell us we today, so used to thirty-second sound bites, or flipping the channel when we yawn at a program, are susceptible to it.” We do have a problem being attentive to anything in today’s world. However, it is our very propensity to boredom that the Mass itself must overcome.

If boredom is our modern problem, the Mass must meet us where we are at and bear some responsibility for our inattentiveness during its celebration. Why is this the case? Because Christ always met people where they were at and then called them to transformation. The Mass as the chief moment in which Christ is present to his people must do the same.

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19 comments

  1. Emily Dickinson’s rejoinder:
    Who goes to dine must take his Feast
    Or find the Banquet mean –
    The Table is not laid without
    Till it is laid within

  2. If more priests put grandma’s love and care for hospitality and good cooking into their preparation for Mass, fewer people would chant, “Boring!” But he’s unfortunately right when he tells people, “It’s your problem.”

    Good liturgy is not a real problem for people seeking relief from the quick pace of modern life.

    His column last month on the Sunday Mass was even more illustrative. He goes through a long list of lay people involved at Mass, but then adds the disclaimer, “where called for and allowed by liturgical law.” Cardinal Dolan wants to be a good pastor. I really believe that. But his handicap is being a bishop formed in the hermeneutic of retrenchment. If he could only distance himself from the Magic Cookbook Model of doing liturgy & ministry …

  3. What is the opposite of boring here–exciting? interesting? And what is the measure used for comparison (i.e., mass is boring compared to what? A movie, a play, a lecture, hanging with my friends?). The mass should not attempt to compete with a TV sitcom or a live folk-music concert. If it does, it will always lose (even if well-celebrated). And it will always be less “interesting” than a good seminar or TedTalk—a good deal of the words and gestures are the same, week after week. It seems to me, a big problem is what kind of event the mass is.

    1. @Michael O’Connor – comment #3:
      The opposite of boring is engaging, relational, and meaningful. I agree that Mass shouldn’t be competing with secular forms. It should be leaving them in the dust.

      The words and gestures are somewhat the same, at least in genre. But the people who come have different perspectives, dealing with life and death, illness, joy, sorrows, and such in their own lives.

    2. @Michael O’Connor – comment #3:
      Your points are excellent, and I’d like to extend it a bit further.

      If we compare Mass to a movie, a play, a lecture, or even as some said, a sports event, we are taking the Mass out of its proper context and re-contextualizing its content. While there is a “earthly and mundane” component to Mass, the secular is not the central focus of this form of liturgical worship. By the very nature of worshipping God, we are transcending the earthly and mundane, so we probably shouldn’t try to compare Mass to a TV show–it’s apples and oranges.

      Secondly, we need to be very careful in defining the opposite of “boring” in this case. In particular, we need to be wary of using “novel” as the antidote to “boring”, as novelty can be a very addictive drug for some parishes. Once you start using novelty to counteract boredom, you can easily end up with a perpetually dissatisfied parish that floats on the winds of emotional intensity and constant newness. Further, Christ was never concerned with popularity–quite the opposite. I would submit that we should follow his lead and not be drawn into a liturgical popularity contest. With a populace that has no connection to ritual in modern society, short of the excellent sports analogy, attempts need to be made from the ambo and otherwise to provide context and explain to people the necessary distinction between Mass/Divine Liturgy and entertainment (worse, “worship-tainment”).

      Lastly, several people have compared the Mass to Christ’s teaching of the people as found in the Gospels. Yes, there is a connection, but let’s not forget the fact that the Mass, as such, had not been “invented” yet. Comparing Christ’s informal teaching with the Mass seems to be another apples-and-oranges-type comparison. With regards to format alone, Christ’s approach seems more akin to a parish mission. Comparing the Mass to the Last Supper makes more sense, at least to me.

      Before anything, we need to ask…

  4. When people say that “Mass is boring” I believe they’re responding to the fact that the same thing is done/said, week after week, day after day. In other words, they have a problem with ritual… even though they probably went through the exact same ritual that they follow every day to get themselves to church! While the ritual is obviously the same – and the words, to a certain extent – what is different each and every time a community gathers is each and every member of that community.
    They are 24 hours or 7 days older. They have gone through new, different, and often challenging experiences in whatever the span of time might be. In many cases, they have acted “admirably” and as they would like and hope. In other cases, we all know we make some lousy decisions.
    All of that is who and what we bring to the Eucharist, praying that by the grace of what we – I – do and receive THIS time, we will, in fact, leave that awesome and challenging gathering, and truly glorify the Lord with our lives… until we return to receive even more of God’s grace – and forgiveness – so that we can continue our life-long mission. As I told my students for years, “Only boring people can be bored.”

    1. @Dismas Bede – comment #5:
      ” I believe they’re responding to the fact that the same thing is done/said, week after week, day after day. In other words, they have a problem with ritual…”

      I don’t believe this. The great American religion, sports, has numerous rituals large scale and small, and many are tedious indeed, even to a sports fan like me. I celebrate or even tolerate them because of the community aspect, the celebration of athletic accomplishment, and such.

      We too often assume it is the people in the pews who are stupid, dense, uneducated, or lacking in some way. As priests, musicians, artists, liturgists, and such, we should be always, *always* prepared to improve our skills, and especially to look at ritual from the eyes of those in the pews.

      People are bored because their leadership is bored. Jack is spot on. People are bored because their leadership is disengaged.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #7:
        The ritual which I’m suggesting people have a “problem” with is liturgical ritual, with which, admittedly, they may have few/rare good experiences. Your reference to sports acknowledges that people both appreciate and even endure certain rituals… when they understand the whole context of the event.
        The note card on which I wrote this quote is now yellow with age. “People have a longing for the dramatic reenactment of ritual.” The reference was to professional wrestling!
        I’m grateful that I can share Jack’s experience and approach to presiding, and inviting the people – with whatever is going on in their lives at the moment – to share in the prayer. Of course, those to whom you referred must always be prepared to improve their/our skills. How else would we come to know the smell of the sheep and actually serve them? Sadly, I must also agree, that there is plenty of disengaged “leadership.” There must be another word for that!

  5. My ars celebrandi includes engagement with God and his priestly people so I’ve never heard any complaints of boredom. I don’t approach the altar, chair, and ambo as if I am about to perform a sacred ritual whose validity rests on strict adherence to the script and rubrical directives. Rather I am standing before God and his people to engage in a celebration that is both human and divine. I believe that Jesus had an engaging personality by which he drew those with eyes to see and ears to hear into the presence of God. Why would it be any different with the celebration of Mass? Are we gathered simply to say some prayers and sing some songs? Only to sit, kneel, stand and process? Am I not leading this worship in persona Christi? When I address God in prayer I can’t help but be aware that the people are listening and will be invited to affirm it with their Amen. When I’m preaching I do so with the expectation that the assembly is invited to engaged listening. This may involve smiles, nods, some laughter, shakes of the head, maybe even a verbal response to a well worded question…..and always, at the end, an invitation to say “Amen!” The Mass is punctuated with periods of silence so that one part doesn’t just quickly follow on another, time to take a few breaths and maybe listen for the the still, small voice of God. From time to time I read comments here objecting to priests interjecting their personalities. Whatever could it mean to lead prayer and worship without one? Should we leave it on a hangar in the sacristy? The people don’t leave theirs at home. Boredom, I submit, results from disengagement.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #6:
      Yes. Everything you said. I have never been to a Mass where people were engaged with the celebrant/presider in a manner that supports communal worship and thought it was boring.

  6. Peoples’ engagement with the liturgy is one aspect of their engagement with the life of that parish. A “good” parish where all aspects are encouraged and nurtured by the leaders, tends to celebrate the liturgy in a way that reflects that engagement. Sunday Mass can be a pretty good indicator of the life of a community.

  7. I recently reread “Ten Signs of a Vibrant Parish,” an article by Denise Simeone in the National Catholic Reporter (2009) that reflected some of the comments here. Here’s sign #2:
    Liturgy inspires active participation and offers an experience of God. Many components create good liturgy and almost everyone has an opinion on them. But some values help all liturgies. Liturgical ministers who are well formed in their roles invite all community members to celebrate together. Music responsive to the liturgical seasons as well as the cultures and languages that make up different assemblies moves the hearts and spirits of those who play, listen and sing. Relevant preaching connected to the lives of the community touches hearts and sends all forth nourished and challenged. Preachers who take the time to break open the Word during the week are well prepared to preach and pray with power. Vibrant parishes offer liturgies that invite people to linger with God yet propel them into the world and the needs found there. Come to be nourished and then sent forth to act. A young parishioner made a drawing of his new church with two differently colored doors, one marked IN and one marked OUT. That is liturgy’s role.

  8. As a kid, I loathed liturgy. Sit, stand, kneel? Pffft. At that point, a raucus Evangelical service with a band was the thing for me.

    The turning point happened in college — not because someone in church explained to me why I was doing all of those things, but because a college course, of all things, did. I took a course on “Religious Studies,” which explained the building blocks of religion. Suddenly ritual, ritual time, and ritual space made sense. I was also studying the early and medieval church, and so suddenly the theology behind the liturgy made sense.

    The few times I am able to just sit in the pews, I’m incredibly busy, engaging in sacramental, devotional acts, listening to the Propers, adoring the Eucharist. I was poster child of the “Blah, Liturgy” attitude in church. It’s a pity the solution had to come from a secular source rather than from someone in the church. The change came from good instruction that treated me like an adult and actually explained what was going on and why it was important. The liturgy didn’t change, nor did it really need to change. My understanding of it needed changing.

    If someone is sitting like a bump on a log bored at mass, it seems to me they’re either choosing to disengage or haven’t been trained well enough to understand what is going on. In the early church, adult converts were intentionally driven catechumens very often for three years; it seems to me a poorer choice to hope people will just pick up well done mass via osmosis or water it down to the point where it’s just insipid when we might teach them instead.

  9. It’s worth remembering the quote from MCW: “Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations weaken and destroy faith.” This was offered as an antidote to the “ex opere operato” approach where the sacraments were considered valid (and good enough was good enough) as long as you had the correct matter and form.

    Tired music, mumbled readings and pointless homilies are tolerated far and wide, just so long as you get out in under an hour. Attending Mass is often like getting your teeth cleaned–no one wants to do it, so let’s just get it over with.

  10. The late Bishop Victor Guazzelli, an auxiliary bishop in Westminster archdiocese, used to give a talk entitled “Isn’t Mass boring!”. In it he would recount his experiences of going into schools and talking to pupils about whether they went to church on Sundays. Almost all of them would say that they didn’t go because “It’s boring, innit? I don’t think Father really means it. Don’t think anyone really means it, actually.”

    That’s a terrible indictment not only of the presider’s ars celebrandi but of everyone’s ars celebrandi. If our young people don’t think we are sincere about what we are doing because of our ho-hum routine, introverted attitude to what is taking place, what hope is there for those whom we need to draw in? When working with lectors, I always try to persuade them to read the reading as if it was the first time that anyone had ever read or heard it. Make it new, fresh, even exciting. Tell the story. Bring the narrative, the characters, the poetry, whatever, to life. By this I don’t mean novelty but making things real.

    It’s the same with all other liturgical ministers, ordained and lay. If we get stuck in the ruts of routine, our liturgy will stagnate and die.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #15:
      I agree, but I would pose a couple of observations / questions:

      In the example you gave, the child stated a belief that nobody meant what they were doing. If that is how the child perceived things, then we have to take that perception at face value, as that is how he/she saw it. However, I am nagged by a follow-up question: how much was the child’s lack of maturity and imperfect understanding of the congregation’s worship coloring the perception? It is easy to misinterpret people’s actions when you do not understand the context. This child could be 100% correct in his/her observations. Still, I am not totally sanguine about where that example was left hanging.

      I think what everyone may be talking about here to some degree is the tension between ritual and spontaneity. We want liturgy and worship to be formed by our knowledge and deep understanding of the past, yet we long for the freshness that comes for seeing things in a new way. I feel that this dichotomy or spectrum is something that must be wrestled with as much in one’s own mind and heart as in corporate worship. In that sense, I think Cardinal Dolan has it right. We must take possession of our feelings and claim ownership of our individual response to the Mass. In the end, that is what builds our personal, intimate relationship with Christ.

  11. The “creative” celebrant, I would retort, is precisely the priest whose Mass will be most susceptible to charges of being “boring.” That same Mass will have the greatest potential to be “interesting,” but in both cases this possibility will be due to the fact that the worshiper in the pew is given the least access to the Mass itself, the eternal thank-offering of our great High Priest. There is a certain degree of flexibility built into the modern rites, so provided that priestly creativity stays within those bounds it may be possible to mask with the much-weakened-but-still-existent objectivity/given-ness of the rites, but the fact remains that the more personal choices determine the celebration of a liturgy, the more the assembly is given to encounter the patent action of Fr. X or Liturgical Commissioner Y rather than the latent action of Christ Himself. This holds true, by the way, of the priest who may seek to employ the same exact options each and every Mass in order to shore up the objectivity of the encounter, for even this noble attempt can be reproached as the imposition of the priest’s preference; anyone who has visited another parish will be able to spot the differences. If those differences are agreeable to that person’s pre-formed liturgical tastes or the celebrant is particularly charismatic, this variability will be judged to have kept the Mass “interesting” or “engaging,” but if running counter to those same individual tastes or enacted by a celebrant who is not a natural showman or crowd-pleaser, the reliance upon the celebrant’s personality that worked out “well” for someone else will result in an experience of that famously-phrased “banal, on-the-spot product.” The best ars celebrandi, then, will not be characterized by “creativity” but by the priest’s ability to “disappear” within the rite.

  12. During this last Holy Week, I realized that in my parish, liturgy has stagnated. It is most evident during Holy Week and around Christmas. For the past 15 years, while the decorations in the sanctuary have gone through some change, the music has remained the exact same. Holy Thursday are all the same hymns in the same order as the past 15+ years. Same for the other days of Triduum. While I expect some classics to repeat, many songs that used to be part of our parish repertoire have disappeared and rarely has anything new been added. The various RCIA rites have had the same movement and positioning of people and such for years as well. I know ritual involves repetition but it can go a bit too far when we’re not even exposed to new hymns.

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