The Quest for Relevance

There is an unfortunate tendency in some liturgies to try to be relevant. The understanding that the Paschal Mystery is what is being celebrated is often lost and when this happens all too often the priest is left trying to be trendy or fashionable. While the Church must constantly try to reach out to those who do not believe or practice, we need to be aware of the trap of being evangelized by secular society and not evangelize it.

An example of this was seen in a recent Mass in Ireland, where the priest finished with the anthem of Liverpool FC, an English Premier League football team that has recently won the championship for the first time in thirty years. The video is available here:

Some secular media outlets were impressed by the priest’s use of a recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as what he called a “final hymn” of the Mass. The US based Irish-American news site lauded the priest saying how “during his mass on June 27, which was live-streamed due to coronavirus restrictions, Father Tobin seamlessly segued politics into sport, into religion – truly, a talented orator!” While the celebrant could comment on politics and sport as a prophetic ministry in the homily, it is absolutely wrong for him to do so at the end of Mass as  an act of entertainment. The liturgy has its own meaning – Jesus Christ. He is what we celebrate. His triumph over death is vastly more relevant and important than Liverpool winning the Premier League or the Irish Green party forming part of a new government.

When I watched the video of the end of the Mass that is available on YouTube, I’m afraid that I was not impressed. Unlike many priests in Ireland, I am not particularly interested in sport. While I think some sporting examples can easily be worked into the homily (and St. Paul has left us with some mentions of sport in the New Testament itself), I really don’t think it ought to have much other influence on our liturgies. I definitely don’t think that a priest telling supporters of rival teams to “suck that up” is in keeping with the dignity and decorum of a liturgical celebration.

The temptation to be popular or one of the lads and the desire to fit are real temptations. But if we lose sight of the fact that we have the most relevant message in the history of humanity, then we run the real risk of selling our birthright for a plate of lentils.


  1. As a football fan, I’m not sure this is “relevant” as much as it is “devotional” to the religion of sport.

    The way I would define relevance in its best meaning is a connection to the lives of the people who receive (or have to endure) the preaching and prayers at Mass. To me, relevance would be making a homiletic connection to the elation of the team’s supporters after a long absence from the top of the heap of English football. (Sixty-four other instances of silverware would seem to give little burnish to the latest triumph.) A consistent relevance would be homiletic examples from the lives of lay people: parents, students, furloughed workers, the elderly, immigrants, or perhaps occasionally even Rochdale supporters, who have celebrated exactly 65 fewer trophies than the aforementioned Merseyside side. Prayers for the concerns of parishioners rather than canned intentions provided by a service.

    I think there’s relevance. And there’s indulgence.

  2. It’s back to the 1960’s again!

    My Seminary years were plagued by people wanting to have ‘meaningful’ liturgies, which were usually turgid ‘Bible Services’ on Saturday evenings.

    However, the ‘folk’ music we used, much of which was written by the students, most of it was Scriptural and some of it very good, sort of made things more bearable.

    But the experience has given me a sort of PTSD about ‘relevance’ and ‘meaningfulness.’


  3. I know of a music director who taught his congregation “Come, Christians, Join to Sing” because it is set to the same tune as the Alma Mater of Ohio State University. And I know of a presider who allows/encourages the same tune to be used as a postlude at weddings for the same reason (using the sacred title in the program, of course). It seems to make a joke of the liturgy.

  4. Although I cannot remember all the specifics, a recent news report spoke about the lengths some researchers have had to go in order to obtain survey data. To reach a useful threshold of responses, one research team made their survey into a game. Once they did that, responses went up significantly and they were able to reach that threshold. This approach has been utilized frequently enough by organizations and businesses that the term “game-ification” (hyphenated for clarity) was coined. Loosely, this refers to the conversation of something seen as less palatable by a target group into a game or other entertainment for the purpose of increasing its allure or level of (ongoing) participation. In some circumstances, this process has been extended to the point of maximizing an item’s addictive potential.

    While I would not assert that the Mass (including the one mentioned by the OP) is being “game-ified” per se, I think this concept closely parallels the idea of “worship-tainment” whereby the liturgy is similarly evaluated on its allure, popularity and/or level of participation. Both seem to rely converting one type of activity and its associated context into another activity / context, often for utilitarian ends. Expeditions into this type of territory worry me, as attempts to increase attendance, giving, participation, etc. through allure and popularity could create a Frankenstein that cannot be readily countered. Once we’re there, how easy would it be to extricate ourselves?

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