Modern, secular, and progressive advocates have spent generations trying to hammer home the idea that the past is inferior to the present as well as what we can expect from the future and since tradition is backwards oriented, surely, it too is inferior.
And it’s something like that logic that seems to have dominated the Church for generations now especially in how we attempt to relate the faith to the youth. We take a superficial look at what interests kids and then we say, let’s include more of that in Church culture and this will help make the faith relevant for the kids.
And after doing this for 60 some odd years, the only trend we’ve seen is population decline which only seems to be compounded with each successive generation.
But, there seems to be a renewal going on in Traditional parishes. I attend a parish where only the extraordinary form of the mass, also known as the Traditional Latin Mass, is offered and when people find out about that, their immediate reaction is almost always a show of sympathy for my kids.
They assume that I’m dragging my kids to it and they’re always surprised when I tell them this story. Probably about a month after we started attending the Latin mass, I asked my kids, who were at the time 10 years old and younger, if they’d like to go back to our old parish where the ordinary form is offered or keep going to the Latin mass.
And I reluctantly asked them this, because I didn’t want to go back and I assumed that, at least, some of them would want to go back to our old parish. To my surprise, they unanimously and enthusiastically voted to keep going to the Latin mass. If I recall, they cheered as they exclaimed their preference with triumphant fists in air.
When I tell people that story, they usually react in strange ways – they seem to either think I’m lying or they just have a kind of bad disk moment where you can see something’s glitching in their brain before they retreat away to some other corner of the world where things make sense to them.
Modern life seems to be fairly cleanly divided between work and leisure or work and play might be a more familiar way of describing it. Work is what we have to do even though we don’t want to – it’s our obligations and commitments – a necessary evil. Leisure or play is what we do because we want to do it.
And for the most part, this dimension of life can be summarized by what amuses and entertains us and we have more access to what amuses us than ever before.
It seems that virtually everyone has their own curated library of music, their own algorithmically recommended list of video on demand, their own favourite restaurants, their own curated list of apps specific to their digital lifestyle, and so on.
And for everything that we haven’t discovered yet, we find that it’s already rated for us so that we can be sure that we don’t waste time with apps, games, music, or movies that won’t maximize our amusement.
And nobody is more dialed into the vanguard of popular culture than the youth. For one, the majority of promotional media is aimed directly at them because they have buying potential and are less likely to scrutinize what is being sold to them. They’re seen as an easy target.
And popular culture is an industrial business and in the interests of maximizing profits, they’ve drawn from the wisdom of industrial manufacturers who were able to ensure that consumers would buy their products even though they don’t need to through the concept of planned obsolescence.
This was a concept devised by General Motors where they would unnecessarily redesign their cars every year so that consumers would want the latest one even though the one they had was perfectly fine and should last several more years.
Trends in pop culture are designed to do the same thing. Just when we get caught up with the latest musical genre and fashion trends, they get pulled out from under us in order to compel us to return to the store to keep up with the latest arbitrarily defined trends.
This should be our first indication that popular culture isn’t real culture and why we shouldn’t be drawing inspiration from it when we develop our liturgical worship.
But concern for the youth is often present in rationales for shifting away from a faith that is reverent and traditional to one that is expressed in more entertaining terms.
Back in the 60’s, liturgical activists like the now disgraced Archbishop Weakland were sitting on musical advisory boards and councils promoting the idea that the youth should be targeted with “the choice of music which is meaningful to persons of this age level.”
Dioceses drafted policies which virtually outlawed Latin chant and in the rush to have music at mass to accommodate the requirements that the ordinary and propers be sung in the vernacular, the four hymn sandwich took its place. And since we were turning to hymns, we might as well make them fun, especially in the interests of the youth.
And so, liturgy and Sunday worship started to shift towards a desire to be more amusing and relevant and it isn’t hard to grasp the apparent wisdom in this. People only work because they have to. What people really want is to be entertained and amused, so why don’t we try to make the liturgy more amusing and entertaining.
But the first problem with this instinct is that no local church will ever be able to muster the resources and abilities it would need to compete with the kinds of sources of entertainment that we are used to in our leisure time.
Why would we listen to Fr. Relatable give a sermon when we could listen to our favourite podcast featuring our favorite contemporary intellectual? Why would we sit through Mrs. Piano Teacher and her husband, Mr. Tambourine’s musical interludes when we could watch our favorite artist performances on YouTube?
And if entertainment is the priority, why should we give any priority to a Church which will only distract us from the much more polished and better produced forms we can find elsewhere?
In establishing the precedent that the Church should be more relevant, we discover that it simply isn’t and will never be able to compete with what is relevant so all we end up accomplishing by chasing this carrot is taking a centuries old culture and tradition and contorting it into a third rate counterfeit of popular culture.
And the effect is that for those who want to be entertained, they will find that they are not and since we’ve signalled to them that they should expect to be entertained, they will feel less regret for simply not showing up anymore.
The second effect is that for those who do no want to be entertained on Sunday, they too will find the whole thing distracting, patronizing, and embarrassing to sit through.
So to return to our initial question, why are traditional parishes growing and why are younger generations especially attracted to them? The first obvious response is, because everything I’ve been describing is easy to reject.
People who want to truly encounter God don’t want to be distracted by vain attempts to keep us amused and people who want to be amused don’t want to wake up early on Sunday to hear the musical repertoire of the local parish folk band.
So what will those who are sincere in their attempts to know God do? They will turn to opportunities that seem to take that challenge seriously. And that’s what traditional parishes do.
If we look back at this spectrum of work and fun, it’s obvious that fun is more attractive but is fun what produces holy men and women? Even if we had succeeded in making the liturgy fun, which I don’t concede, should we expect that through the spectacle of entertainment, people will be helped in their pursuit of sainthood?
If I make a resolution to get in shape and get shredded, I’m going to want to go to a Gym of find a program that will truly challenge me in that. Going to a Gym where the emphasis is on having fun at the expense of transformation will be seen as a waste of time by someone who is serious about making changes.
The word liturgy, literally, means the work of the people – not the amusement of the people and not the entertainment of the people. Prayer is a work that we are supposed to labor in and when we do so, we discover that we are transformed.
And even if it isn’t explicitly obvious, I think people who want to take their faith seriously instinctively know this and they instinctively perceive it in traditional communities.
Young people have a million reasons to avoid religiosity – it’s eccentric, it won’t help them fit in with their peers, they’ll face ridicule at school and work, and it means standing against the currents of thought and fashion in society. And a Church preoccupied with relevancy won’t alleviate any of those challenges.
A person who can look at those prospects and resolve to push forward isn’t in it to be amused so our attempts to amuse them will only come off as pandering. What they want is authenticity. If it takes hard work, let’s not pretend otherwise.
It’s a high and noble calling that people crave in a world that promotes comfort and the appeasement of our base appetites. That is an opportunity for the Church to be a unique voice crying out in the wilderness of the modern age and that is the only kind of appeal the Church will ever have.
The true Church can’t compete on a scale of amusement or relevancy. It breaks that scale and creates its own category – one of transcendence.