“Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another…” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 36)
This blog space is not unfamiliar with commentaries about the hard reality of Catholic churches and Catholic schools (including seminaries) emptying and finally closing, and of younger generations walking out of and away from the Church—or rejecting the Church and their families’ Catholic faith altogether. It does seem that many of the younger generations are indifferent to the particularities and peculiarities within the Church that the older “we” (especially those of us in the academy) energetically discuss and debate: the appropriate language and expression of the Mass, insights into Vatican and other ecclesial personalities or even the demarcations between “traditional” or “progressive” Catholicism. Such are concerns for individuals who, usually, have the long vantage point of history and/or are well-schooled in Catholicism, its rich theology and symbology. Yet such debates—as those of us teaching young people realize—have no compelling interest to most of the younger generation(s). They not only lack that historical perspective but, if class discussions are any indication, they do not even understand much of the core of Catholic Christianity, especially its basics: the Mass, the Eucharist, the sacred liturgy. The absence of a richly detailed and thorough theological formation, even in the basics, has resulted in generational apathy or dismissiveness about an entity and a system about which they know little and, as a result, care not at all.
The reality of that condition of generational unfamiliarity seems to have been the inspiration—at least partly—for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter “Desiderio desideravi,” released on June 29 of this year. In brief, it is a clarion call for the liturgical (re?) formation of contemporary Catholics, especially but not only the young, in the fond hope that a constructive education of the Catholic faith and its essential practices might persuade Catholic youth (but also the general Catholic diaspora) to find a way back to the Church. Some of the letter is, indeed, a valid reprimand to those who persist in their resistance to the liturgical decisions of Vatican II, but, again, that is for those who know the history of the debate and is not really an engagement with absent Catholic youth. I prefer to focus on what I perceive to be the Pope’s overarching message in the letter: that a more intentional restoration of the sacred liturgy to its central place in the life of Catholicism, and a serious recovery of informed instruction about so essential a dimension of Catholic religious life, might inspire in the lost generations reconsideration of their devotional/religious paths, perhaps leading them back to the Church.
In the letter, Pope Francis laments that the sacred liturgy has seemed to diminish increasingly in interest and significance for each successive generation since Vatican II, or has been manipulated by “ideological vision”:
I simply want to invite the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration. I want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to be spoiled by a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter what the hue... (Francis, Desiderio Desideravi,16).
Pope Francis beseeches us to move beyond the politicizing and weaponizing of the faith(ful) (the “ideological vision”) and recognize that, before anyone can “choose a side,” they must fully understand the matter at hand: it is not a matter of ideology, it is partially a function of education. How many of us have heard students (family members, friends) assert that there is no need to attend Mass, they can “experience God” in the safety and comfort of their personally designated space? Of course, private and individual devotion has always been a rich aspect of Catholic spirituality, yet the blithe dismissal of the Mass (a more communal, less subjective and more abstracted spiritual encounter) reveals a distressing lack of understanding about the liturgy and about sacramental praxis in the life of Catholicism. The liturgy creates a sacred space wherein the faithful can encounter in real time the Living Christ. It is universal and timeless and not hampered by specificity of people and place: as Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote, the liturgy
… is the worship of an open heaven. It is never just an event organized by a particular group or set of people or even by a particular local Church. Mankind’s movement toward Christ meets Christ’s movement toward men… [In the liturgy] everything … comes together: the horizontal and the vertical, the uniqueness of God and the unity of mankind… (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 63).
The Church cannot be “rebuilt” without an intentional redirection of generations toward the liturgy that (among other attainments) connects the sacred with the profane, the divine with the mortal, the substantial with the incorporeal. As Benedict XVI explains, the lack of particularity and subjectivity of the sacred liturgy raises it from a simple service of human devotion to the realm of mystical encounter.
Yet, there is a more troubling wrinkle to the need for theological formation and existential engagement, one that Pope Francis identifies that might be familiar to many of us:
…the challenge is extremely demanding because modern people—not in all cultures to the same degree—have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act… (27).
Pope Francis is addressing the pervasive cynicism of post-modern thought that has resigned people to live with a “fragmentation” that makes it “impossible” for them to appreciate symbolic action, the broad and deep “horizon of meaning” inherent in the human condition. While his claims might be somewhat controversial, I think Pope Francis has a point. There does seem an inability to experience awe and wonder (so overwhelmed are we by dread and anxiety) and a desire to resist layers of meaning and depth of interpretation. Thus, the matter of liturgical formation is not simply a matter of language or stylization but of how to share meaningfully so metaphysical and unequivocal a concept so that it may be experienced. What is necessary, then, is a new approach to theological formation for a new generation, that they might be able to understand and then enter into the timeless encounter of mystical sacredness. That must be one of the essential “building blocks” in the rebuilding of the Church.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.