Recently I attended the early Mass at a nearby Catholic church for a holy day of obligation. We normally go to another parish, but it is a quite a distance to drive to. As I sat in the former choir loft looking down, it was very apparent that the vast majority of people attending had various shades of gray hair, or dyed to pretend that it wasn’t gray. I may be a grandma, but they made me look young and vibrant.
Lest you assume that the congregation was mostly gray because it was a weekday, I have been to Sunday Mass here and I have rarely seen more than a handful of children of any age or young adults. Babies are almost nonexistent, an endangered species. What I will never understand is how a school Mass is filled with children, but suddenly on Sunday they have disappeared. Poof! Maybe that mythical monster that lurks under the bed, eats them on Sundays and regurgitates them on Monday, just in time for school. Nonetheless, that is not the case at the parish we regularly attend, where all ages are present, including squirmy, little children and babbling, cooing babies.
Having a “gray” congregation is not the problem. The problem is that those who contribute to the liturgy of these “gray” parishes don’t seem to understand why young people do not attend and refuse to change their ways to make the Mass a place where young people, and everyone else, would feel welcome.
At this point, you’re probably assuming I’m talking about a liturgical rock band to liven things up! Not so.
Since older people will often lament, “Why don’t more young people come to Mass?” I will offer a few observations, particularly since that is not the case at our parish.
Without a doubt there are many contributing factors. However I think the crux of the matter is catechesis. What is the beauty and the richness of the Mass all about? To understand the glory and mystery of the Mass is key. When those who contribute to the liturgy fully understand the magnitude of the Mass, then and only then, will they be able to pass on their enthusiasm to the next generation.
It begins when I enter the church. Does the architect who designed the church understand why I am here? Does the architecture fill me with awe and wonder? The Ark of the Covenant was covered with precious gold. Our Lord is far greater than the Ark that was the “house” of the Ten Commandments. Our Catholic churches house our Lord! Because Jesus is our Lord and God, he chose a sinless woman to be his “home” for nine months. As Mary replied to the angel, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:46). Is the church a place of great beauty offering homage to our Lord? Maybe we need to read up about the Ark of the Covenant.
I don’t know about you, but I do not attend church to look at my neighbor(s) across the aisle. Churches in the “round” are often distracting, especially if there are young families. Sadly, there are some well-intentioned (but clearly misguided) parishioners who will tell young mothers not to bring their children to church (Hmm. I wonder why young people don’t go to church?).
The not-always-quiet, nose-picking kids are not the problem, either — besides the fact that ALL people are distracting. Children will be children. But if they are in front or behind me and everything around me focuses on the great mystery of the Eucharist, then I won’t be as easily distracted by them. Churches in the “round” do not draw the human eye upward to God, to give him glory. And there are plenty of churches that were built architecturally correct but in the name of liturgical reform and “renovation,” gutted and destroyed, including cathedrals.
And if “round” churches aren’t distracting enough, then they put the choir in the front. I thought the Eucharist was the source and the summit (CCC: 1324), not the choir (And for all of those people who complain that children shouldn’t be in church — let’s shoo them out for their own children’s liturgy — I see plenty of squirmy distracting adults in choir). There is a reason the choir belongs in the loft. They shuffle the music in their folders, talk to the organist, drink water, walk back and forth, etc.
But in our archdiocese Cathedral, seeing parishioners across the way and looking at the choir in front of you is not distracting enough; in the name of renovation the focal point is not the altar, but the pipes from the organ. Just a breathtaking sight! Unless you are in the front chairs (pews are soooo old school), people in the congregation can’t even see the altar.
Then there are those who think that if the mega nondenominational Protestant church is doing it, we much do it also! Walla! Twin Jumbo-Tron screens, not one but two! Maybe not as big as the ones in a football stadium, but definitely larger than your largest home TV screen. Yes! Above both side altars (Who wants to look at statues or even the altar?) — I kid you not.
When I recently entered the nearby church, my first impression was the numerous plain blue Advent banners, hanging everywhere, and the humongous Advent wreathe bedecked with blue ribbons and blue and white candles. Blue is not a liturgical color. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, joyful Sunday — we are almost to the “finish line,” symbolized by the priest’s rose-colored vestments and rose-colored (pink) candle in the Advent wreathe. It is not white.
Then there is the question of Jesus. Where is he? Too many churches tuck him into another room. If the congregation is not fully attuned to the presence of Jesus, then of course they are going to chit-chat with their neighbor about the latest trivial gossip. Out of sight; out of mind.
At least this church has a beautiful tabernacle in the correct place. I was happy to see the priest, who, although he is difficult to understand, is devout and prayerful. Then the cantor attempted to sing. I say “attempted” for a reason.
It wasn’t just the person singing the music. Often liturgical music is anything but liturgical. It sounds like it belongs in a Broadway show. Just change the words a little bit to make them sound a little more holy. If the music is meant to be sung by the congregation, then the music needs to be a real hymn. If the music is better as a meditation, then don’t pretend the rest of us can sing it. If the music is to give glory to God, then why does it talk about “me,” “me,” “me.” Hebrews 12:28 says “Let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
Naturally we don’t go to Mass to hear torturous music, insipid or boring homilies, or see the latest innovations or tacky decorations. And when we are subjected to such human frailties, all we can do is offer it up, experiencing our purgatory on earth! And keep on praying. But if those who contribute to the liturgy wish young people to come to their parishes, they need to observe those parishes that have families with children.
John Chrysostom has said, “When Mass is being celebrated, the Sanctuary is filled with countless Angels who adore the Divine Victim immolated on the altar.”
If we truly believed that, then we would drastically change our music, art, architecture and more or should I say return to the former glory of previous times, which many parishes have done with the result of full churches. Fulton Sheen has said, “People are turning away from Christianity today not because it is too hard but because it is too soft.”
image: By Bestbudbrian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons