“Make what is happening in our churches more relevant“ . . .

. . . is the title of a comment in The Irish Catholic for May 22, 2014 by the fine liturgist and educator, Martin Browne, OSB, a monk of Glenstal Abbey. He speaks of the growing popularity in Ireland of the Easter Dawn Mass, something like the American Easter Sunrise Service, I take it. His conclusion:

People don’t come to a Dawn Mass because it is quick, easy or convenient. A Dawn Mass isn’t any of those things. It involves effort, loss of sleep and braving our unreliable climate. They come because it means something to them. How can we bridge the gap between that meaningful experience and what we do inside the walls of our churches?

This is worth thinking about.


  1. Paul, what you’ve shared and described I’ve more or less culled into the concept I call “The intentional congregation.” The most obvious example in most parishes would be those who attend daily Mass.
    As far as Sunday and Festal Masses go, what I’ve experienced is that when liturgy is prepared and performed with apparent grace, dignity and solemnity on occasions such as Triduum, Thanksgiving Day, All Souls, as well as other parochial Masses or Vespers and such, there is a palpable sense of participatio actuoso eminating from all present. I wish I could make the same observation about Easter Sunday and Christmas Vigils (packed like sardines) and then the second Sundays after those as well as regular Sunday Masses, but the visceral awareness of intentionality dissipates into hodge-podge, que sara, sara atmospherics.
    I know that the axiom between what we need and what we want is fearful territory to explore, but if the dubious “selling” of the Sunday obligation was settled once and for all: it’s either “You’re obliged whether you like it or not, and hellfire keeps you on your toes” or “You need to want to come to the Lord’s table and sacrifice, make your will known and commit, one way or the other.”
    Sacrament factory/gas station participation is so one dimensional, but it seems that RC’s are quite resigned to status quo….
    Or I could be wrong.

  2. Reading that whole piece makes me think that Martin Browne didn’t write the headline with the words “more relevant”. Maybe it’s just me, but “relevant” is one of those words that conjures up all manner of things we try in the liturgy to draw folks in, often with less-than-happy results.

    Browne, on the other hand, is asking about something much deeper. What is it about the Dawn Mass that is meaningful to those who come, that distinguishes it from the official Easter Vigil the night before which these folks avoid? Off the top of my head, three things come to mind:

    1. Fire: As Browne describes it, the Vigil has but candles, while the Dawn Mass participants gather around a large bonfire. Bonfires are not nearly as common, and so perhaps engage us more powerfully when we encounter them.

    2. Sleep: At the Vigil, we have multiple readings, some of them a bit lengthy. If read well, they capture the imagination of the hearers; if not, something else happens. It’s the end of the day, folks are tired, the lights are low, and the lector drones and drones and drones . . . that’s a recipe for sleep. At the outdoor Dawn Mass, the light is growing, people are refreshed (though perhaps a bit groggy at the early hour), and a nip in the air and the sounds of the morning may serve to keep the hearers more alert to what God is up to.

    3. Outdoors v indoors: The indoor setting of the Vigil — a holy, sacred sanctuary, shielded from the elements — has a sense of a place apart from the world. The outdoor setting of the Dawn Mass, with its sounds, weather and dirt/mud, is part of the world. It reemphasizes incarnation. Hearing about the tomb and the garden while sitting in pews requires us to imagine the sounds and smells of such a place; hearing about the tomb and the garden while standing/sitting outdoors puts us in the midst of those very sounds and smells.

    “They come because it means something to them.” They have had not an explanation of God’s presence, but an experience of it. For these folks, the Vigil…

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #2:
      Peter is completely correct. I didn’t write the rather silly headline. Making Mass ‘relevant’ conjures up unpleasant memories of 1970s ‘theme Masses’ and so on.

      I’m more perplexed by the chasm between the ‘official’ and the intentional. Often the same priest will put huge preparation and energy into a Dawn Mass but plod through the Vigil laboriously. Does he not believe in the power of the words he proclaims at the ‘official’ Vigil?

  3. What is described at the Easter Dawn Mass is a highly-intentional-celebrational-community; in the US I’ve witnessed this most on Thanksgiving Day and Holy Thursday evening (both times when attendance is not obligated). I’d differentiate these two from Ash Wednesday, when attendance is not obligated, but the “getting” of ashes and/or a residual sense from earlier days is underlying the intentionality, not the desire to celebrate together.
    I’d wonder, though, if there were a Dawn Mass held every Sunday, would the crowds and the response be the same? I don’t know, but have my doubts. I suppose some of the phenomena described make the experience “relevant” but would that sense of relevancy be sustained week after week? Would the loss of sleep and braving of the climate happen Sunday by Sunday? Supposedly the “meaning” of that particular Mass is (or should be) the Resurrection of the Lord – the very “meaning” of every Sunday celebration. There is only so much we can do inside sanctuary walls (or at early Christian sites, or on beaches) week-by-week to communicate this meaning. At some point those who call themselves Christians have to take on the mature and responsible commitment to make and keep this a meaningful part of their lives.

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #3:
      Of course most people wouldn’t be willing to do the Dawn Mass thing every week. It is powerful because it is only once a year. But so is the Easter Vigil! Why are they not finding meaning in it too/instead?

      1. @Martin Browne – comment #7:
        Some options:
        1) more folks – RC and Protestant/even unchurched – know what a sunrise service is than know what the Vigil is;
        2) how long did the Dawn Mass last? 3 hrs.?; were there 8 scripture readings?
        3) Saturday night is taken with movies, a club or a pub, or perhaps even Easter dinner (as my Protestant and/or unchurched in-laws put it one year: “We’ll have Easter dinner on Saturday night because it’s easier for everybody.”)

      2. @Martin Browne – comment #7:
        There isn’t the sense that each Sunday Mass is a celebration of Easter whether the liturgy is celebrated at Dawn or not. Before the eucharist a short “Resurrection office” (a small vigil rite) celebrated prior to Saturday evening Mass or early Sunday morning containing a strong note of baptismal renewal (Asperges centered at the font, introduced with a rite of light piercing the darkness of the tomb with appropriate psalmody, hymns, and a reading of a Resurrection gospel could do much to set this tone.

        It will take thoughtful planning. If the music and liturgy appear make-shift or amateurish as is so often the case, nothing you do will help.

  4. It just seems to me that, if we’re proclaiming the Gospel and breaking the Bread, we’ve passed the relevancy litmus test. If people aren’t coming to partake of those things, then our issue may not be properly a liturgical problem, but rather a problem with our evangelizing and initiating.

  5. Dawn…lack of sleep…Las Mañanitas? Only once a year….

    The challenge is how to make liturgy vibrant and vital once a week. Dare I suggest that the customary liturgical auto-pilot is not the way?

    Fire? Now we’re getting closer. Good use of big symbols.

    Outdoors v. indoors? I don’t think this makes any difference. Perhaps outdoors has novelty value, and I confess that I like it when the weather is good, but an indoor acoustic where people can hear themselves and gel as a community is probably better.

  6. As far as Easter Vigil goes, the Missal rubrics say that:

    2. Of this night’s Vigil, which is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities, there is to be only one celebration in each church. It is arranged, moreover, in such a way that after the Lucernarium and Easter Proclamation (which constitutes the first part of this Vigil), Holy Church meditates on the wonders the Lord God has done for his people from the beginning, trusting in his word and promise (the second part, that is, the Liturgy of the Word) until, as day approaches, with new members reborn in Baptism (the third part), the Church is called to the table the Lord has prepared for his people, the memorial of his Death and Resurrection until he comes again (the fourth part).

    3.The entire celebration of the Easter Vigil must take place during the night, so that it begins after nightfall and ends before daybreak on the Sunday.

    Regarding the phenomenon of the “Dawn Mass”, there is certainly scope for the Vigil ceremonies to start at, say, around 3.00-4.00am (depending on the time of year) and finish at sunrise. Or, to start at (e.g.) midnight and extend the Vigil through the night with periods of silence after the readings and an involved homily that does justice to what “salvation history” really means and entails. Yet many parishes start their Vigil just after sunset on Saturday or (contrary to both the rubrics and intent of the Vigil) before sunset, so as not to inconvenience people. And, often, not all the readings and psalms are used either.

    It is less about “relevance”, and more about putting the effort into the major liturgical occasions of the year, particularly Triduum and Easter, coupled with evangelisation and inviting everyone to come to church. The parishes and communities that faithfully celebrate the liturgy with beauty, reverence and care on the big occasions, and who gladly invite everyone around them to “come and see” (Jn 1:39) are more likely to be able to do the same on a more regular basis, week in, week out.

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #8:
      The practice at the Society of St John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA, is to begin the Vigil at around 3 AM and to finish a bit after dawn. Having experienced that during a stay there a few years ago, it can work where enough resources are available.

  7. Jim Pauwels : It just seems to me that, if we’re proclaiming the Gospel and breaking the Bread, we’ve passed the relevancy litmus test. If people aren’t coming to partake of those things, then our issue may not be properly a liturgical problem, but rather a problem with our evangelizing and initiating.


  8. Agree with Alan’s comments and link to Paul’s thought – would or could this be duplicated every week? But, have found through a good pastor or liturgical leader, that a parish or intentional group in the parish can have this experience at the Easter Vigil, Christmas Midnite Mass, a parish special feast day.
    Have found some of this anticipation and excitement in small, rural parishes where the whole community attends – so, this may happen at a family wedding in which the whole community participates, prepares a meal, and hosts a dance or welcomes and baptizes a new born during a Sunday mass or a funeral which, like a wedding, the whole community attends, processes to the cemetery, and then shares a meal served by the parish.

  9. I completely agree with Jim P that this is more of an evangelization-type issue than a liturgical one. After all, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist/Word/Assembly is the ultimate in “relevant”.

    That being said, there are actions that can be taken to help those in attendance to enter into greater intentionality (and more active participation).

    To illustrate this with contrasting examples from my own parish’s Holy Week with one type of liturgical action: the solemn procession…

    Palm Sunday: We gathered outside the church. Our parishioners and guests walked right past us and into the church to get their seats. Ushers pleaded (somewhat weakly) with folks to begin outside with us. When they declined, the standard reply from the ushers seemed to be “I’m just doing my job.” Rather poor help to intentionality!

    Easter Vigil: Same thing seemed to be happening. Then, at sunset, the visiting priest addressed the assembly, explaining what was about to happen outside the church, and then asked politely that everyone get up, put one foot in front of the other, and make their way to what was about to be a roaring fire outside. The church emptied, all gathered ’round the fire, participation became palpable, and we had a beautiful Vigil!

    When ministers are intentional by example, it can invite greater intentionality from others. Maybe even on a “regular” Sunday in Ordinary Time!

  10. The dawn Easter service is a most dramatic, one which ordinary Sunday Masses simply cannot match for drama. Still less can ordinary Sunday Mass match the drama of the new “epic” movies whose sole purpose seems to be to hold the audiences’ attention and scare them witless.

    When the priests have to compete with Batman, what is a priest and his liturgical team to do? I’m serious. Entertainment has been grabbing the attention of serious people particularly since the 60’s when the lyrics of popular music started to displace poetry and theology as sources of wisdom. As I see it, the influence of “the media” has been one of the primary reasons for the demise of church-attendance. They’re extremely hard to compete with.

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