A Nineteen-Year-Old College Freshman’s Thoughts on Liturgy, Theology, and the Church

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is David J. Wesson, and I am an aspiring theology major at Saint John’s University.

I was born into a devout, conservative evangelical nondenominational Christian household in Alabama. When I was fourteen, in eighth grade, I read myself into the Roman Catholic Church. Though many people, especially those from the south and from similarly conservative backgrounds, first fall in love with Roman Catholicism through a certain unnamed “global Catholic network” or from the writings of similar-thinking writers and “apologists,” I followed a different route.

I was attracted to the Roman Catholic Church firstly by the fact that it was a great church of history, a church of the arts, visually (Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, etc.), architecturally (St. Peter’s, Notre Dame, Chartres, St. Mark’s in Venice, Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, [yes they are now Anglican, but still…]), and musically (Tallis, Palestrina, Gesualdo, Sheppard, Byrd, etc.).

The writings of theologians such as Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, von Balthasar, Küng, McBrien, Boff, Gutiérrez, the liturgical scholarship of people such as Virgil Michel, Godfrey Diekmann, Jungmann, and the scriptural scholarship of greats such as Brown, Fitzmyer, Boadt, as well as the fact that it was the Church which sustained such greats as Oscar Romero, the El Salvadorian Jesuits, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and Joseph Bernadin, sealed the deal for me that I should enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

I knew from the time I entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church that it was not any more the church that these people were part of. Rather, today liturgical renewal at the official level is by and large dead. Concerted efforts have been made to kill moral theology and liberation theology. Saint John’s is a place where this is not so. Rather, Collegeville still stands out as a center of liturgical scholarship, and is a place that does not believe that the “grand age” of liturgy ended with the Missale of 1962, yet the Liturgy is still celebrated with reverence and has not devolved into “Guitar Masses.” Also, this is a place where theology, not catechism at a university level, but true theology, takes place, where people dare to ask the hard questions, and not fear the potential answers. This is why I chose Collegeville.

This scholarship, this quest for truth, and a desire to articulate it in ways that are relevant to the modern world, rather than rehashing sixteenth century dogmas in thirteenth century terms, is why the so-called liberal Catholicism of the sixties and seventies is not dead, will not die, but lives and will remain the true driving force in the Church.

Disheartened progressives and all people who lament the unfortunate condition the Roman Catholic Church is in today: do not lose hope. Do not lose faith in the Church. The hierarchy may be corrupt, the liturgy may be in decline, and Christians of all traditions may be forsaking the ecumenical dreams of years past, but God will make a way. The Spirit will prevail. We may be in the winter now, but a new springtime will come. This truth is why I am Roman Catholic. This truth sustains me when, joining another communion seems so enticing.

I close with a loose paraphrasing of the NIV translation of 2 Corinthians 4.16-18:

“Do not lose heart. Though outwardly the Church may be decaying, inwardly the Church is being renewed day by day. These light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

23 comments

  1. I would love to hear a panel of young Catholics such as this fine young man, David Wesson, and others who’ve made their voices known here and elsewhere such as Benjamin Yanke, Marc Barnes and MaryRose Garych, and many others that PTB/CMAA/NPM are aware of, share their thoughts of the past, current and future states of ecclesiology, liturgy and theology so vital to our Church. I think we’d find in such a presentation a great reservoir of nascent wisdom and hope for us all.

  2. Bravissimo, David, and welcome to Pray Tell!

    Truly an inspiring post. I look forward to more of your thoughts here.

  3. “Disheartened progressives and all people who lament the unfortunate condition the Roman Catholic Church is in today: do not lose hope. Do not lose faith in the Church. The hierarchy may be corrupt, the liturgy may be in decline, and Christians of all traditions may be forsaking the ecumenical dreams of years past, but God will make a way. The Spirit will prevail. We may be in the winter now, but a new springtime will come. This truth is why I am Roman Catholic. This truth sustains me when, joining another communion seems so enticing.”

    David, you are obviously thoughtful and erudite, and God brought you home to the Church through that intellect, but your words belie your age and experience. A nostalgia almost, for what one thinks things were like in a golden past. There is a greater truth that brought you and keeps you in the Church, than just a new springtime to come. Keep your heart open to Him and your eyes on Him. God bless you.

  4. “The hierarchy may be corrupt, the liturgy may be in decline, and Christians of all traditions may be forsaking the (Tradition) … but God will make a way. The Spirit will prevail. We may be in the winter now, but a new springtime will come. This truth is why I am Roman Catholic. This truth sustains me ….”
    With the slight modification made above these words could have been written by ICEL’s Fr. Sommerville, the lay members of Catholics United for the Faith, or even (the late) Michael Davies when decentralization led to the break down of so much liturgical and juridical discipline in the Church after 1970.

    As to this young man’s comment above that “today liturgical renewal at the official level is by and large dead” I’d say (with Dororthy Sayers) 1) define your terms (how do you define “renewal” and 2) – where is your evidence of this “death”?

    The truth is that we are living in a time of dynamic liturgical renewal (Deo gratias). The fact that some at St. John’s & elsewhere do not appreciate the contemporary liturgical renewal does not mean that this renewal is not takng place.

  5. Words like “corrupt” and “decline” can be attributed to the youthful tendency to overstate or misinterpret present reality, but the spirit of the young man’s approach portends hope for the continuing reform of the Church if others of his generation share his commitment.

  6. Thanks for posting – found this to be refreshing. Especially noted his careful study and list of church thinkers & social justice activists that he reflected on – would suggest that very few catholics have this breath and depth of theological investigation; inquistiveness; or desire to explore their faith journey or social justice.

    “……The writings of theologians such as Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, von Balthasar, Küng, McBrien, Boff, Gutiérrez, the liturgical scholarship of people such as Virgil Michel, Godfrey Diekmann, Jungmann, and the scriptural scholarship of greats such as Brown, Fitzmyer, Boadt, as well as the fact that it was the Church which sustained such greats as Oscar Romero, the El Salvadorian Jesuits, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and Joseph Bernadin, sealed the deal for me that I should enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.” (if only some of my former students could claim this. Hope someday you get a chance to meet those still alive or visit some of their places of residence, work, action.

    To the above three commenters – why again do you have to focus and label folks? The picking and choosing e.g. *corrupt* *deconstruct*…keep in mind that the use of *corrupt* or *deconstruct* by Allan only a few posted articles ago in a wholly inaccurate context – he chose to use corrupt to label, characterize, and judge a group of truly dedicated and honest catholic thinkers, liturgists, and musicians. And when asked by Fr. Ruff to clarify – he either doubled down or gave a backhanded response.

    So, guess trying to say that *corrupt* is only used by young – *youthful tendencies* or *chronic snobbery*, etc. Kind of dismissive, huh?

    “…those who wanted to “deconstruct” the Mass even after the 1969 Order of Mass came about…” (Allan)
    or
    “….living in a time of dynamic liturgical renewal (Deo gratias)” (Mr. Maher) Really? Based upon whose opinion? This sounds awfully like *youthful tendencies*? or even *chronic snobbery*?

  7. Thank you for posting. Thank you for sharing your faith.

    Its unfortunate that the tone-deaf church is evidenced by certain responses on this page. If this church is to have any success in a “new evangelization” its going to have to learn to listen to the topic and believer at hand rather than respond immediately with critique. Thank God for youth – it only makes the late Marini’s point all the more obvious – the “stanceza” of the church. Not only is the perpetual habit and content of the critique tired – it is tiring to listen to!

  8. David: Do not lose faith in the Church. The hierarchy may be corrupt, the liturgy may be in decline, and Christians of all traditions may be forsaking the ecumenical dreams of years past, but God will make a way.

    I have not lost faith in Christ and his sacraments. However I particularly distrust the new orthopraxis which some mistakenly call a new orthodoxy. For not a few Catholics, being faith-filled variously implies voting for a particular political party, scrupulously following the Church’s endorsed methods of family planning, deceiving the self or others about one’s sexual identity, or proclaiming only one liturgy as the sole and sure path to grace and spiritual growth. I am certain that PTB contributors could name plenty of other examples. At the root of this new orthopraxis is the false notion that God is only satisfied with us if we feign perfection.

    Maybe for not a few Catholics rigid orthopraxis indeed begets enlightenment. I have walked the aforementioned path only to find anger and profound disappointment. Yes, I believe that God will provide healing for a confused and dispirited Church. Certainly God will not take away our tendency to sin. Our brokenness, our alienation from one another, is the precise reason to form a church community and worship. Indeed, I would say that it is more selfish to believe that one can perfect his or her own frailties rather than work with brothers and sisters in Christ to help one another heal and learn forgiveness.

    Thank you, David, for your reflections. God will find a way to repair his Church only after the People of God realize that they, and not an abstraction such as “the institutional Church”, are indeed the most in need of restoration.

  9. David, bravo! Your reflection is a confirmation on my continued recommendation to high school students to explore enrolling at St. Johns University/St. Benedict college. Thanks for sharing, keeping on reading and using your critical thinking skills.

  10. In another perspective on many young people who remain in the pews embracing the leadership of the Holy Father and are not becoming “nones”, Damian Thompson of the London Telegraph writes:

    “Here’s the question that intrigues me. Once the old, routine churchgoers have died off, and now that “None” is the default position for liberal-minded young people, what will the churches of the future look like?

    We’re beginning to find out. More to the point, the clapped-out Anglican and Catholic bishops of the English-speaking world are finding out, too – and it’s giving them nightmares.

    Those youngsters who once went to church out of obligation are now spending Sunday mornings in the supermarket or the gym (body worship is a flourishing faith). That means that the only young people in the pews are true believers who really want to be there.”

    If you’re a “go-ahead” bishop, vicar or diocesan bureaucrat, [or liberal, academic theologian] this is a scary development. You’ve spent your career reducing the hard truths of Christ’s teaching – such as the inevitability of the Last Judgment – to carbon-neutral platitudes. Suddenly, the 20-year-olds in your flock are saying: no thanks, we’ll take the hard truths. Eek!”

    He concludes:

    “None of this should surprise us. When religions come under attack, they attract believers who invest in their more dogmatic, countercultural teachings – and who deliberately raise the degree of tension between themselves and society. There are few things more countercultural today than Bible-based evangelicalism or strictly orthodox Catholicism. For decades, Liberal bishops have droned on about how they wanted to draw young people back to church. But I don’t think this is what they had in mind.”

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #14:
      Yawn.

      Orthodox ideology has nothing to do with one’s religious commitment, one’s morality, or even one’s idols. You are right that many believers seek and embrace the demands of Christ. But that is true regardless of ideology.

      “You’ve spent your career reducing the hard truths of Christ’s teaching – such as the inevitability of the Last Judgment – to carbon-neutral platitudes.”

      Sounds like the Catechism to me.

      “body worship is a flourishing faith …”

      Once one gets to the finery of Archbishop Burke, perhaps there is no stronger example, perhaps.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #15:
        The question remains, and here we need sociological data, in the USA Protestant “nones” are at all all time high making the USA no longer a Protestant majority country. That’s historic. And certainly we are at an all time high with former Catholics who are “nones” meaning they haven’t become anything else.

        So, who is staying, what is the faithful remant majority either old or rich? That’s the question Damian Thompson is asking and making some conclusions and of course I tend to agree:

        “…When religions come under attack, they attract believers who invest in their more dogmatic, countercultural teachings – and who deliberately raise the degree of tension between themselves and society. There are few things more countercultural today than Bible-based evangelicalism or strictly orthodox Catholicism. For decades, Liberal bishops have droned on about how they wanted to draw young people back to church. But I don’t think this is what they had in mind.”

  11. Damian Thompson – yes, a very objective viewpoint?? Is the *question* really about who is staying and who is leaving? (wrong question) Is *strict orthodoxy* really counter-cultural or an attempt to raise the walls, build a cult, and play defense?

    His focus (along w/Allan) is almost completely on identity – an identity he defines which is predominantly institutional and hierarchical.

    Another perspective: http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2012/10/troublesome-priests-martin-prendergast/

    Money quotes: (interested in Jack R’s view of this?)
    – “Clergy are frustrated with what they see as false obedience to unjust ecclesiastical regulations, forcing them to say one thing, yet do another. Awakening from this imposed pathology, they affirm that now is the time to speak pastoral truth to hierarchical power.”
    – “The model of Church sometimes appears to rely on old paradigms, where the higher and lower clergy are providers to a dependent laity”
    – “The absence of dialogue is, in some instances a form of violence, and brings our Church into disrepute.”
    – “The contemporary culture of networking, about which the sociologist, Paul Hawken, writes (Blessed Unrest, Penguin, 2007), is a new consciousness, luring many people of faith into a post-ecclesiastical space. Some retain tentative links with a local Church; some attend for feast-days or for baptisms, marriages, and funerals, but otherwise they drift rather vaguely seeking an alternative community that embraces today’s bigger personal and planetary issues.”
    – “A lot of stereotyping goes on in this process and this may be used to reinforce beliefs that one group is superior to another. This tends to provide the basis for justifying behaviour in relation to the out-group. This identity, and the power it brings, has been threatened by the different understanding of Church which emerged from Vatican 2. Their personal values are so tied up in who they are that opposition threatens their identity and their meaning. This is all about the emotional significance of the threat; the higher one’s status in the in-group the more the emotional investment, and subsequent paralysis of action. Change in groups involves new insights, providing new patterns of motivation. Organisational change often fails because people hang on to self-belief about what the organisation is for and therefore how members should behave, rather than being open to the contrary evidence before them. In this environment, the Vatican could become increasingly oppressive. Relational power can transform people of faith into vibrant communities seeking justice and celebrating God’s grace in human history.”

  12. Seems like a smart guy. I would only recommend that he be open to the EF and those who attend it, and not get caught up in the stereotyping and talking points that fly around places like PrayTell. Especially since not all such people are “conservative.”

  13. David, that was an excellent post. Thirty years ago I came into the Church, a young man about your age, from a conservative evangelical background. I, too, read myself into the church, but via classical and medieval studies, so my list of “heroes” is different from yours! I’ve remained in the Church all these years for a simple reason: it’s the best, the only way for me to stay close to Jesus. Why else would anyone want to come in and stay? Keep on trucking, dude, and may God keep filling your sails with the fairest of breezes. (Pardon the mixed metaphors.) Ignore the Church soap opera and keep your eyes on Jesus. Everything else will come out in the wash.

  14. As a musician, I was interested to note that only composers of the Tudor-Elizabethan-Renaissance era; I’d be interested to know what composers contemporaneous with the more recent scripture scholars and theologians he names (or church buildings) he finds similarly inspiring.

  15. Hello, all. Thank you for the many kind words of support.
    @Alan Hommerding: Architecturally, (let’s focus on American work here) I’d say I admire Le Corbusier’s work, (he is almost too brutalist though) the Bauhaus work here at Collegeville, Christ the Light in Oakland, Our Lady of the Angels in LA, Sacred Heart in Houston, the renovations in Rochester NY, and San Antonio, TX. Musically, I think one of the best composer/arrangers today is Philip Stopford, who is the director of music at St. Ann’s (Anglican) Cathedral in Belfast. Taizé is also not to be left out of the list. If one would like to float on down to Lowchurchland (sic) then Matt Maher, David Crowder, Aaron Shust, and many others are doing great “contemporary” work that retains traditional liturgical elements. I did not list these, as they are not (with the exception of Maher) Roman Catholic, but much of our contemporary musical tradition has become uninspiring bubblegum style music. Some contemporary is good, but at a parish level what is done is by no means inspiring.
    @ John Swencki: What do you mean?

  16. David,
    In their interviews for various positions in the church (catechist, director of-this-and-that, etc etc) lay people are asked all kind of (important) questions about competence, experience, methods, etc. Even priests, I suppose, interviewing for pastorates or other “official” positions in the church as similarly interviewed.
    But how often has any of them been asked: “Tell me about your relationship with Jesus Christ.”
    A friend in business tells me when he interviews prospective employees, competence for the position falls into 2nd or 3rd place. Competence/skills, he says, can be learned. WHat matters most to him is a person’s integrity. That can;t be learned. Either you got it or you don’t. Without it, all the competence in the world is b…er, baloney.
    The church needs bright people. There are many “things” about the Church I passionately love. I own plenty of chant CDs. Church architecture inspires me. The books of some theologians challenge me. John Paul II motivates me (along with John Bosco). But where does a living relationship with Jesus fit into a person’s schema? How does that relationship inform a person’s attitude towards everything else in the church? How could that relationship have informed our attitude during those ugly days of discovering the horrible abuse that took place… and the way the church responded to it? How does that relationship inform our plans for the future?

    Consider if, right now, you stopped believing in Jesus. You might believe in God in some way, but not in Jesus. Can you think of 5 concrete ways your life would be different? You wouldnt stop praying; Jews, Moslems do that. You wouldn’t all of a sudden start breaking the 10 COmmandments. We could still love our chant, architecture & theologians. How much of your parish life would be different? COuld your parish continue doing prett much what it always has? How would YOUR LIFE be different? Just what real difference does faith in Jesus make anyway?
    It’s a question for all of us.

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