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.