Asking too much? Promising too little?

Over at Crux Margery Eagan has a piece on why many of those who identify as Catholic attend Mass so irregularly. The usual suspects for why this is the case are mentioned: music that “turns what’s supposed to be a sacred time into a cringing endurance test” and “the sometimes-poor quality, unwelcome tone, and irrelevance of too many homilies.” But there is also this, from a young mother who struggles in the pews with her children at Mass:

Yet at the end of Mass, even given “the uplift from Communion,” Mackinnon says, the experience moves her and deepens her faith only about half the time. And when she thinks of the “spiritually uplifting moments” she’s enjoyed of late, most are not in the pews but in nature, with her husband and kids or when she simply feels gratitude for all she’s received.

This sounds very familiar to me, from my own experience when I was a young(er) parent and from talking to families in my parish.

I have long though that there is a dual problem with our attitude toward liturgy today: we ask too much of people and promise them too little. Let me explain.

The reformed liturgy asks a lot from people. The simple fact of the vernacular makes a demand that people try to pay attention and understand what is being said to them, even though much of it is actually quite foreign. We read Scriptures that speak of Midianites and Samaritans, of holocausts and Pharisaic washing rituals; we offer prayers that speak of “oblations” and the “Paschal Mystery.” And the main thought that occurs to many people upon hearing this is, “Gosh, am I supposed to know this stuff?” The language is clearly English, but they still feel like outsiders in the conversation.

Of course, some may say, “well, these things can be explained in the homily.” But a homily can only do so much, and do we really want to take homily time to explain who the Midianites were? And even if we did, we would simply be putting a further demand on the members of the assembly: that they listen to a mini-lecture on theology or Bronze Age history. This is particularly difficult for those parents struggling with squirming kids in the pew, trying to buy them off with Cheerios, but it is also demanding for others who spend the week coping with an onslaught of data and haven’t come to church looking for more input, but for a ritual respite from information overload. The reformed liturgy, by design it seems, asks for a focused attention that many find difficult to summon.

The reformed liturgy is demanding as well precisely because it demands active participation. We are expected not only to listen and absorb the readings and prayers, but to make responses, to sing songs, to make gestures. Someone who is caught up in a deep spiritual crisis is expected to say “Thanks be to God” or to offer Christ’s peace to those around them, when they may feel that they have no peace to offer. Of course, no one is required to say or do anything in the liturgy, but the liturgy itself does seem to make this demand.

At the same time, the way we often have of talking about the liturgy promises too little. Does receiving communion provide nothing more than “spiritual uplift”? I recently spoke with a parishioner who was  worried that her very bright ten-year-old was very resistant to going to church. She said that she told him that church was important 1) because it gave you a place to be confronted by the big questions of life, 2) it offered community, and 3) it was an outlet for being of service to people. I was struck by the fact that while these were all worthy and noble things, they in no way required participation in the liturgy or the life of the Church. Moreover, they were kind of boring. They were the reasons an adult might have for going to church, particularly if that adult had been raised in the Church and was looking for a reason to hang on. This was confirmed for me when she then told me that her son had been studying Norse mythology in school and had announced that he thought he was going to start worshipping Odin. I responded that she had to find some way of making Jesus more interesting than Odin.

Some might object that we can hardly take whatever would interest a ten-year-old boy as our standard for how we speak about what the liturgy offers. But I’m not so sure. Perhaps we need to drop some of our theological subtleties and be a bit bolder in speaking about what the Mass offers to people. Perhaps we need to get over our fears of speaking in too “magical” a way about the Eucharist and simply say, yes, bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ and we take that into our bodies in communion and Christ now lives within us, and, yes, it’s kind of like magic. Perhaps the ten-year-old boy or girl who still lives inside of us wants that magic and recognizes that while lots of places can confront you with big questions and provide community and an outlet for service, only the Church can offer you magic. Time spent in nature or with family might offer “spiritual uplift,” but only the liturgy offers you Jesus Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity. Such language might seem crude to those of us trained in theological subtleties, but the liturgy should not be the sole preserve of the theologically subtle (for those who want a subtle defense for such an approach, I would recommend the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe’s well know essay on transubstantiation).

In saying that the reformed liturgy tends to ask too much and promise too little, I am not suggesting that it is irreparably flawed, nor (as some might suspect) that the “Extraordinary Form” is the answer. Certainly the older form of Mass provided a ritual respite from information overload and communicated through gesture that something momentous was taking place, but I still think we can do better. The liturgy may not be a didactic exercise, but it is a place where the kerygma should be proclaimed. The liturgy is the place where Christ comes like magic into our midst under the forms of bread and wine, but it is also a place where we become the living body of Christ as a community. In many places prior to the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy asked too little and promised too much, fostering the idea that if you simply showed up and endured the 35 minutes of boredom that it took for Father to rattle through a Low Mass, then you were good with God. So I don’t think the “back to the future” option of the Extraordinary Form is the solution.

In fact, I’m afraid I don’t have a ready solution. But I do have a sense that the liturgy can only ask as much as it promises. If we are going to expect people to come each week and spend an hour or more puzzling over strange words and ideas, struggling with unruly children in the pew, engaging in strange activities like communal singing, trying to discern the body of Christ in the people around them, then we have to speak more boldly, and perhaps without some of the subtlety we would like, about what the Mass offers: not simply an opportunity to grapple with big questions or “spiritual uplift,” but a living encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who shed his blood to save the world.


  1. “The reformed liturgy, by design it seems, asks for a focused attention that many find difficult to summon…. The reformed liturgy is demanding as well precisely because it demands active participation.”

    Interesting. I would say, in my experience, that the traditional form of the liturgy demands a focused attention that is hard for many distracted modern people to give it — and yet, if one gets over the initial discomfort, it pulls one in very deeply. This, too, is the secret to its greater active participation, active in the interior and spiritual sense, not the superficial external sense.

    I believe this last point, which some readers here might be tempted to laugh off, deserves to be taken quite seriously. I make a case in this article that the usus antiquior offers MORE opportunities for active participation than the new liturgy:

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      What Anthony said about your approach to Gregorian Chant also holds for your efforts on the Tridentine liturgy.

      Antiquior is a misnomer when the whole sweep of Christian tradition is taken into consideration.

  2. People in the pews need to educate themselves. Read the excellent “Welcome to the Feast: The Story of the Eucharist in Scripture” by Clifford Yeary (Liturgical Press). The Little Rock Scripture Study even offers a group discussion guide for parishes that wish to form a study group. Read the Old Testament. Not just passages, but entire books (with helpful commentary. I used The New Collegeville Bible Commentary). I have spent half a year doing this on my own. (I just finished Chronicles and have a ways to go yet). But this effort makes the liturgy and the readings come alive for me. I think people need to take some responsibility and LEARN. And pray. And develop a personal spiritual practice.

    1. @Jan O’Hara:
      At least in my case, this is exactly what I don’t want to say to people. I would never discourage anyone from wanting to learn more, but there are plenty of people who don’t have the time, money, or intellectual gifts to undertake in depth study of the liturgy, yet I’d like to think that the liturgy is for them too.

  3. Thank you for a fabulous post, Fritz! I could not agree more, both on a theological and on an experiential-liturgical level.

  4. The issue of managing distractions in the liturgy has a long history. One has only to think of the “dog whipper’s chapel” in European churches, or the ancient practice of dismissing “energumens” before the eucharistic liturgy began, to notice that maintaining even a basic level of order in a large assembly has always been something of a job.

  5. One solution: communicate the transcendence alongside the proclamation of the kerygma. In other words, celebrate the Usus Recentior according to a hermeneutic of reform in continuity. Make the Mass look as much like the way we always did Catholic Mass, at least as much as the rubrics of the missal will allow, on the one hand, and use the vernacular, the acclamations, and the homily to didactically show forth the splendor of the treasures of the Word of God as well.

    Make it beautiful, but also make it engaging. Active participation and transcendence in the same liturgy!

  6. “…And the main thought that occurs to many people upon hearing this is, “Gosh, am I supposed to know this stuff?” The language is clearly English, but they still feel like outsiders in the conversation.”

    Not that it hasn’t been discussed before, but is this something that could be fixed with a better translation? I know that there are a number of unresolved problems pointed out besides that, but it seems like such a simple common sense solution to at least part of the problem.

  7. Wonderful post – hits the nail on the head. In my experience, it can turn on the question of what contains what: is Sunday mass an hour of talk, with some ritual actions bolted on (and always “explained”)? Or an hour of ritual within which the word is proclaimed (not always in words)? The presider’s attitude is absolutely crucial – say less, prepare it better, take your time, turn down the mic.

  8. I was struck by the section about the parishioner and her son. The reasons she gave for going to church can be met, and probably better, by going to a good school and participating in a good social service program. The primary reason for going to mass should be to give thanks to the God who created us, redeemed us, and wishes us to share his life forever. It is little wonder that the son wishes to worship Odin. At least he is worshiping something.

  9. A second thought — Liturgy involves the same paradox as the Incarnation – the transcendent, eternal, omnipresent God becomes a man in a particular time, in a particular place, and as part of a particular community. Of course liturgy asks to much when it asks ordinary mortals to interact with the divine. Of course liturgy delivers too little when it is the ritual acts are performed by mere mortals. How could it be otherwise?

  10. Great post! I often think about this as a music director. Is congregational singing important? Absolutely. But it is as you say, a strange activity to most people – at the very least, an unusual and probably uncomfortable one. It really is expecting a lot from people that they should sing absolutely everything. Far too often I’ve seen both musicians and priests complain ad nauseam that their congregations aren’t singing enough. Well – is that an attitude that draws people into the liturgy? Is it hospitable? I even once had a priest make the congregation sing the opening hymn again, because they “hadn’t sung it loud enough.” I honestly don’t know why regular people would keep showing up to a communal ritual where they are shamed and complained about for not doing enough of something they are not comfortable doing. I don’t have a definitive answer, except that a lot of the time I want to tell priests, liturgists, and musicians: Relax! Stop creating tension by expecting so much of people. Maybe spend more time focusing on what you can offer spiritually hungry people, rather than on what people can do to show you that they are engaged…

    1. @Jared Ostermann:
      Agreed. I am amazed at how often presiders berate the assembly in this way. I suspect it is often because the clergy themselves don’t know what they are there for. It would be interesting to see the original post continued with reference to the ordained: does the liturgy–or many widespread assumptions about it–ask too much of them too, while promising them too little?

  11. Our parish school having celebrated Morning Prayer with the children in lieu of Mass, I tested my children’s attentiveness. Having established that there was only one (short) reading with the psalmody at Morning Prayer I asked how many readings there usually are at Mass, to which my 8-yr-old responded: “17?”

    Peter Jeffrey’s remarks on the reformed liturgy rang very true for me when he told my class that the OF was created by academics who deal with ancient texts and for whom, consequently, the overriding liturgical concern was textual. “Unnecessary” ritual was eliminated and we were left with a succession of people reading/reciting the newly-improved words.

    Push back against him with what symbol and ritual do remain to be exploited in providing the thicker liturgical experience, but for all that I think part of what makes this a hard problem to solve is that while we may be able to distinguish (didactic) information and kerygma in theory, our liturgy aims to accomplish its proclamation primarily in didactic terms. And when we do come to ritual elements that might sustain the “magic” for us, we find that the gestures canonized by our (and other Western) bishops’ conference(s) expect us to intend the sublime despite enacting the quotidian (e.g., how profound an expression of Christ’s peace can a handshake really be?). Much can, of course, be done without completely overhauling the OF or reverting to EF (giving the pax more romano would take care of my adduced example fairly easily), but we do need to make a concerted effort to enact – rather than describe – the transcendent nature of that in which we are engaged.

    1. @Aaron Sanders:
      Your comments remind me in part of Bishop Untener’s observations and attempts to renew liturgical experience in the Diocese of Saginaw in the 80’s and 90’s. I remember there was a period when he observed masses and timed the moments when the assembly was externally active — speaking, singing, moving, etc. If I recall correctly, he had great empathy for the “people in the pews” who are called to be engaged throughout MUCH of the mass as active listeners. He was often critical of the way liturgy was executed, yet it seems he still saw “promise” in the OF. I believe he was asking questions similar to Deacon Fritz’s decades ago. Was there anything in his attempts at renewal that is worth exploring again?

  12. Catholic rituals, preaching, and music are largely directed at insiders, that is, we presume that people are already evangelized and properly catechized before they show up on Sunday. While the cantor is trying to get people to sing some new piece of Latin chant, Father is preparing his highly philosophical homily, and the sacristans are fussing over which vestments to put out today, many people in the pews are not interested in such religious trivia. They are struggling with family and friend relationships, career decisions, financial stress, and wondering where is God with all that is wrong in the world. We could use less esoteric religiosity in our Sunday worship and more preaching of the Good News and teaching people how to follow Jesus in everyday life. Preach faith and life-change, not religion.

  13. I find myself pondering the connection between Mass and discipleship.

    My personal guide to discipleship is chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict. See

    Perhaps the 10-year-old would find more meaning if he could see how going to Mass leads to living a Christian life. Some of the comments above sound like the Mass should be or is divorced completely from everyday life. If that’s the case, then it seems like something you “should do” and like so many other “shoulds” (you should eat better, you should exercise more, you should get to bed earlier) it falls by the wayside.

  14. Part of the reason I and many folks I know are drawn to the EF is because it asks a lot of the congregation – and also because the “magic” component (perhaps mystical or numinous would be a better way to describe it?) is often freely embraced by those who favor it – it’s celebrated that we are there for the Eucharist, which is an unfathomable miracle that we share in as a community. Of course, I know high Masses and dialogue Masses are more common now, and I can see why the low Mass of old isn’t the answer. I also have a hard time picturing the Church going back to an all-Latin liturgy.

    Personally, I think an EF High Mass in the vernacular with an option for seasonal propers (but otherwise unchanged rubrically and textually) would be of great benefit, but I know that is unpopular in both OF and EF circles. Attending the EF for years now has shown me that perhaps the biggest problem with the OF is that it just isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. There is little sense of the liturgy having movement or direction – and I’ve heard others who attend the EF say that an hour+ EF High Mass feels like it is over in the blink of an eye while a 45 minute OF feels like it goes on forever. The EF may have flaws, but it works very well overall.

  15. I thought that what we do at Mass was to bring our ordinary daily life, crap and all, and offer it to God in Christ who is present in that every day life. If we were anxious to bring our lives to God there is plenty of opportunity in the liturgy. We have to put up with others, squirming kids, clueless priest homilists who seem separted from scripture and daily life. I remember one woman coming back to church who went to daily Mass in a hospital chapel…priest bored and looking out the window, street people there to get the AC or the heat, unruly patients wheeled in by staff. She said I looked at all those people and saw that I belonged there with them.

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