I know I've been beating this topic like an old rug, but I simply will not stop talking about this until I see evidence that people are listening. In a previous article, I shared a video of a regular Ordinary Form mass in Macon Georgia, which serves as a good example of something going right in the Church today. It's also a good example of a place where the Catholic Church is thriving deep within the Protestant heartland of the Bible Belt. There is a growing number of such examples, and the formula is always the same. This involves a heavy emphasis on traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and liturgy! That's right, the more traditional and old fashioned the Church, the more young people flock to it.
Yes, the exact opposite of what the 1970s hippy generation told us has turned out to be true. The generation of the 1970s told the Catholic Church to "modernise" and "get with the times," so as to bring more young people into the Church. The Catholic Church did just that, modernising not only the liturgy itself, but the way the liturgy is celebrated, the music, the atmosphere, the preaching, and sometimes even the teaching. The result? Over the last four decades a flood of young people have poured out of (not into) the Church. The exact opposite of what the 1970s generation told us came true. The modernisation of the Catholic Church has obliterated the Church's appeal in the minds of many young people.
Even my younger sister, who is a lovely and devout Evangelical Protestant woman in her early 30s, can see right through it. When she visits a Catholic Church, she prefers a more traditional style of mass. The more incense, bells and chant the better, as far as she is concerned. Bring in the altar boys in black cassocks and white surplices. Let the priest face the altar instead of the people. Kneel for communion for heaven's sake! (If you believe it's God, why aren't you kneeling!?!) This is how she looks at it. She doesn't believe in Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, but she understands it, and she understands that if we believe it, a certain element of solemnity and reverence is to be expected. She gets quite bored at contemporary celebrations of the mass, and I can't help but wonder, as she's yawns and claps her hands to the latest Michael W. Smith song being performed by the parish choir, if she's thinking: "this sounds so much better at my Evangelical church." The truth is -- if she is thinking that -- she's right! It really does sound so much better at her Evangelical church. I know, I've been to those churches. In fact, I even trained for the ministry in one. Their contemporary worship music completely blows our contemporary music away. Catholic churches just aren't built for that kind of worship and they shouldn't be. My sister loves going to midnight mass with me on Christmas Eve, and when she does, she expects to experience a solemn high mass, where she sees reverence at the altar, hears the ringing of bells and the echoing of chant, along with the smell of incense in the flickering glow of candles. That's what she expects. She's a Protestant to the core, and she would expect no less. That's why she comes. It's the beauty that attracts her. It's the ethereal and other worldly experience that keeps drawing her back. She can't get that at her Evangelical church. It's just not built for that sort of thing. To her, this is what Catholicism is supposed to be. Guess what? She's right again.
You see there is only so much we apologist writers can do. We can explain the sacraments and traditions of Catholicism, support Catholic teaching with scripture and reason, and even knock down every Protestant objection imaginable. Sometimes we do a very good job at this, creating a watertight argument that is nearly impossible to refute. However, any convert to Catholicism, like myself, knows this isn't enough. It's never enough. We can make apologetic blogs, videos, recordings of all sorts, and even draw pictures and graphics. It doesn't matter. It's all a moot point when something is missing. What is that something? It's the one thing that we apologists just can't do anything about, because we have no control over it. It's the beauty and solemnity of Catholic liturgy. When that's not present, there is nothing we apologists can do about it. An opportunity toward evangelism has been missed, and all we apologists can do is shrug our shoulders and move on, hoping for better luck next time.
You see evangelism is really very simple. It only consists of three parts. Are you ready, because here they come...
- PREACHING -- this involves everything from the pastor's homilies, to reading the gospels, to writing books and articles, blogging, to apologetics, to ecumenism, to street witnessing. It's the spoken and written word that tells the story of Christ's redemptive love and sacrifice.
- CHARITY -- this is exactly what it sounds like. It's about works of mercy, and involves everything from making people feel welcome at mass, to making new friendships and keeping old ones, to helping our neighbours, to reaching out to the poor, sick and needy.
- LITURGY -- this is the beauty, dignity and solemnity of Catholic worship. It's about bringing heaven to earth, by putting humanity in touch with the Divine, while the Divine puts himself in touch with humanity.
So why are people leaving the Catholic Church? -- especially young people? We could point to a number of reasons, but I think the biggest one today is hampered evangelism in the form of poor liturgical celebrations of the mass.
Now before you get your nose bent all out of shape, stop and consider what I just said. I didn't criticise the Church's preaching. Yes, sometimes there are problems with that, but with all the good preaching out there, I think it all comes out even in the wash. I didn't criticise the Church's charity, simply because there is nothing to criticise. I am not aware of any other organisation that does more for the sick, poor and needy. I think the Church has got that one pegged just fine. I suppose some of our parishes could work on making people feel more welcome at mass, but that's a minor thing which can be easily addressed. The only thing I criticised was the liturgy, which of all three is the last of Evangelistic components. Nevertheless, though it comes after the first two, it is still important. For many, this final component of evangelism is a "deal closer." This is what "seals the deal" and solidifies Catholic identity. It may be last in the evangelism chain but it is important nonetheless. How important? Well, I think the last 40 years tells us how important. During the last 40 years there has been an exodus from the Catholic Church unparallelled in half a millennium. Not since the Protestant Reformation have so many Catholics left the Church. So the question begs to be asked -- why? What has happened over the last 40 years that would cause this?
Many traditionalists point to the Second Vatican Council as the problem. I disagree. I go with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's explanation on that. Vatican II was not the problem. The erroneous interpretation of Vatican II, that followed the council, was the problem. Part of that erroneous interpretation was the way liturgy was reinterpreted, renovated and recreated. All across the Western world, the proverbial "baby was thrown out with the bath water." High altars were torn down. Communion rails were town down too. The faithful were encouraged to stand while receiving communion in the hand as opposed to in the mouth. Chanting was eliminated and replaced with contemporary pop music. The bells were eliminated, incense was eliminated, and in some places, even the kneelers in the pews were eliminated. The priest turned around and faced the people, turning "the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself." -- (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80) The former pontiff continues with even stronger language advocating the ad orientem (facing liturgical east) posture by saying: "a common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord." (ibid. p. 81) His Holiness pointed out many problems with the bad interpretations of Vatican II in his book Spirit of the Liturgy, and I highly recommend it. If anyone wants to dismiss my words here as having been influenced by "radical traditionalists," only our former pope is to blame for moulding my "impressionable mind." The list of bad interpretations of Vatican II goes on an on, but I'll stop here.
These changes began about 40 years ago. The mass exodus of youth from the Catholic Church began about 40 years ago. The crisis in priestly vocations began about 40 years ago. I don't know, maybe it's just a coincidence. Then again, maybe it's not. Maybe the two (liturgy and crisis) really are connected. Our former pope thinks so, and so do I. Does that put me in good company?
Remember the three components of evangelism above. For the last 40 years the Church has done a pretty good job with the first two. Oh sure, there have been examples of some significant problems, mainly with individuals, here and there. However, for the most part, the first two components have not really been very serious. Like I said, the good teachers have balanced out the bad teachers, and in spite of this, the official teachings of the Catholic Church have never changed. In addition, nobody is more charitable than the Catholic Church. It's mainly only the third and last component of evangelism that's been a really big problem. As a result it would appear the consequences have been pretty serious. One can only imagine how bad things would be if two or three components were having trouble.
So the solution, not only in my opinion, but also in the opinion of the former pontiff, is to go back to what we know works. Revive that third component of evangelism -- liturgy -- and bring back the mystical experience of the mass. I'm not talking about a total reversion back to the pre-conciliar period by dumping the new mass. Far from it. I'm talking about strictly interpreting Vatican II, and the new mass, in the context of the pre-conciliar period. In other words, I'm talking about a "hermeneutic of continuity" with the past, as opposed to a "hermeneutic of rupture" from the past. I'm talking about doing the new mass in an older more traditional way, making every attempt to emphasise the mystery of the sacrament. Not only is this suitable for the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, but it is something that is not duplicated in most Protestant churches. It forms a fully Catholic identity, and helps young Catholics appreciate what makes us unique and different from "other" (i.e. Protestant) expressions of Christianity.
There are those who insist that Vatican II itself plays another significant role. I would disagree with them on the surface, because the doctrine of the Church has not changed. As the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith recently said; it is "heresy" to suggest that Vatican II itself was a "rupture" with the pre-conciliar period. -- (source) However, on a deeper level, we could say that good liturgy helps us form a better understanding of Catholic doctrine. As the saying goes -- lex orandi lex credendi -- or "the law of prayer is the law of belief." The problem is not Vatican II itself. Rather, improve the liturgy, and you'll get an improvement in doctrinal teaching and understanding. One leads to the other.
So why are people leaving the Catholic Church? Well for the most part, it's because young people want a more disciplined Church with clear teaching. In other words; "less warm and fuzzy, with more clarity and discipline please." A lot of this has to do with liturgy, or at least, that's where it all starts. I think this is where it has to begin. Let's face it, if we go through another 40 years of "more of the same" there won't be much left of the Church to reform any more.
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