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Friday, October 22, 2010

Youth and the Mass

From what I understand, this coming weekend, dioceses around the United States will be observing World Youth Day.  One of the recommendations is that the Masses (or at least, one weekend Mass) be geared towards the youth.  Suggestions for this include encouraging young people to serve as lectors, ushers, cantors and choir members and gearing the homily and the music towards the youth.

While these are all suggested with the best of intentions, I think that they might lose sight of one thing.  The focus of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is no less than God, Himself.  The Mass is not about us; it's about Him.  When we become the focus of the action of the liturgy, when we start turning it towards ourselves, then, we have completely missed the point as to why we come to Mass in the first place.

There seems to be a well-meaning, but misguided perception of what the Second Vatican Council meant by "actuosa participatio", "active participation.  According to Archbishop Malcolm Ranjinth (soon to be His Eminence, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjinth), Pope Benedict XVI, offers an interpretation of "active participation" that does not necessarily mean that everyone is doing everything.    In his address at the 2008 Gateway Liturgical Conference, Archbishop Ranjinth said that:

The pope, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, defines actuosa participatio as a call to a total assimilation in the very action of Christ the High Priest. It is in no way a call to activism, a misunderstanding that spread widely in the aftermath of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Stated Cardinal Ratzinger: “what does it [active participation] mean...? Unfortunately the word was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p. 171).

We know that in many places this led to the amalgamation of the sanctuary with the assembly, the clericalization of the laity and the filling up of the sanctuary with the noisy and distracting presence of a large number of people. One could say that virtually Wall Street moved into the sanctuary. But was that really what the Council Fathers advocated? Cardinal Ratzinger does not think so. For him, “the real ‘action’ in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God Himself. This is what is new and distinctive about Christian liturgy: God Himself acts and does what is essential” (ibid, p. 173).

This kind of participation in the very action of Christ, the High Priest, requires from us nothing less than an attitude of being totally absorbed in Him. Says the cardinal “the point is that, ultimately, the difference between the actio Christi and our own action is done away with. There is only one action, which is at the same time His and ours — ours because we have become ‘one body and one spirit ‘with Him” (ibid p. 174).

Active participation, thus, is not a giving way to any activism but an integral and total assimilation into the person of Christ who is truly the High Priest of that eternal and uninterrupted celebration of the heavenly liturgy.
Now, this is not to say that young people, or, anyone else for that matter, should not want to exercise some sort of ministry during the Mass, whether it is to be a reader, an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (although there is an age limit), an altar server, an usher, a cantor or a member of the choir.  These are liturgical roles that are important.  However, I am reminded of a quote from the movie Shadow of the Vampire, where John Malkovich's character, F.W. Murnau, is bombarded with questions from his camera man about using peasants for Nosferatu.  "But, Herr Doctor, these people do not know how to act", the camera man bemoans.  "They do not have to know how to act," Murnau replies.  "They have to be."

And so it is with us at Mass.  As Archbishop Ranjinth observes, we need to assimilate into Christ's person so as to penetrate the mysteries unfolding before us during the Church's highest prayer.  This is an important lesson that, I fear, has been lost to not a few of us, including the youth. 

When Pope John Paul II reached out to the young people (and I was a member of that first generation), he did so not by amending and adapting the Mass, but, by showing us the liturgy's true beauty.  Inasmuch as there were instances of "contemporary music" seeping into the Mass during World Youth Day, that was not necessarily the direction the Holy Father wanted to take, as evidenced in his 2003 Chirograph on Sacred Music.  He wanted the youth to begin to assume their rightful role in the Church because the torch of Faith needs to be passed on to the next generation.

However, part and parcel of that torch involves the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, its rituals, its music, its transcendent nature.  Unfortunately, this has been lost on quite a few people to the point that, insofar as the music used at these Masses is concerned, the Fathers of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist found this to be problematic.  The big problem with using the Praise and Worship genre is that it is incompatible with the sacred mysteries, the sacred nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It works for Protestant ecclesial communities becasue they only have the Word.  We have the Word and the Sacrifice.   During the Mass, the veil between time and space, and heaven and earth is lifted.  We enter into the very presence of God, Himself, in union with the angels and the saints.  Just listen to any one of the prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayer that the celebrant uses.  What we do at the Mass is something completely out of the ordinary.  We are getting a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.  Thus, what we do at the Mass needs to be something apart from our everyday experiences.  For this reason, what we listen to on the secular radio stations really is incompatible with what goes on at the Mass.  Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, makes a strong case against this type of music:'

"On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock", on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments."
Now, some can make the case that the lyrics of many of these contemporary songs are based in Scripture, mostly coming from the Psalms.  However, lyrics make up only half of a song; style also plays a key role as well.  One could have the Magnificat as the text, but, if it has a rap beat, then it is not necessarily compatible with the liturgy (whether it's the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours or Benediction). 

I believe that we do the youth a great disservice by not exposing them to the Church's treasury of Sacred Music, especially simple chants.  These hymns, based in Scripture, deeply rooted in the Church's liturgical and sacramental theology, are also great tools for teaching the youth, and everyone else, for that matter, the basic Truths of our Faith.  It also provides a living link to the present. 

If we worry about making the Mass more "interesting" for our youth, then we have lost sight as to what actuallly happens during the Holy Sacrifice.  At every Mass, we are just as present at the Paschal Mysteries as were the Blessed Mother, Sts. John and Mary Magdalene and the Apostles.  This is because God lives in the eternal present.  We participate in something sacred, whether as lectors, servers, ushers or the faithful in the pews.  Because what we pray is sacred, everything, especially the music, needs to take on a sacral nature.  This is what we need to expose the youth to, since they will be the ones who will carry on the Traditions, passing on the torch of Fatih to the next generation.

For the complete text of Archbishop Ranjinth's speech, please visit the Adoremus website:

Although I was at the conference, heard him speak and took copious notes, it helps to verify what I took down.

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