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“Unlike Any Mass I’ve Ever Attended”

I intend this post as a further contribution to June-Ann Greeley’s discussion last week about many young Catholics’ disengagement from Mass. I agree with Greeley’s diagnosis of a generational lack of theological and liturgical formation that “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.”

In dialogue with Popes Benedict and Francis, Greeley calls for “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.”

My reflections go in a different but complementary direction. Sure, young people can find depths to plumb in the rich sacramentalism of the Catholic liturgy with the help of effective formation. But young Catholics are also looking for something else. They are looking for the same things most people are looking for if they visit a church, decide to join a church, or are simply going to feel motivated enough to get up on Sunday morning:

Welcome and acceptance. Connection to community. Emotional engagement. Social relevance. Support in facing the problems of everyday life.

My list is backed up by Commonweal’s infographics about contemporary American parishes, which lists the top factors that attract people to a parish: its open, welcoming spirit (68%), the sense of feeling you belong there (64%) the quality of the preaching (62%) and liturgy (60%).

Like my colleague June-Ann, my list is also informed by teaching theology to undergraduates. I recently had an experience with my students that enriched my appreciation of why they feel disconnected from typical Catholic worship and what they are looking for instead.

For my course “Black Theology and Ethics,” I arranged for students to join me at Sunday worship at a Baptist church that is almost entirely African American in its membership. While several students in the class seemed interested, the “getting up on Sunday morning” thing was an obstacle for some. Three intrepid women took up my offer, and we had a terrific time, followed by brunch at a diner afterward (which is an undervalued element of church culture that could perhaps attract some young people!).

Black church services and other energetic Protestant services are no longer new experiences for me, although I didn’t have such experiences until after my college years. The Black Baptist service was a new experience for my three students, all of whom remarked—as captured in the title of this post—that they have never experienced anything like it in a Catholic church.

And that was a good thing: they all found the worship service energetic, engaging and “not boring,” even though it ran to an hour and a half in length, with the sermon lasting half an hour.

Yet it wasn’t merely the energy of the gospel band and the other upbeat elements of Black church worship that made them like the service. Certainly, these were among their reasons, but the things they really appreciated are deeper and more significant. To quote my students:

“It brought me so much joy to see how excited people were to welcome new people to their church.”

“It was very apparent that the pastor put a great deal of effort into preparing his sermon so that it would relate Bible teachings to problems in our society today; by doing so, his words resonate with people on a personal level.”

“The pastor was very interactive with the churchgoers, unlike the churches I normally go to, where they don’t really talk with you but more at you.”

The first quote refers to the tremendous welcoming spirit we received throughout our visit. Several ushers greeted us when we entered; the whole congregation sang to us at the start of the passing of the peace; many congregants came over to shake our hands and welcome us.

My students were impressed by the relatable sermon. The pastor connected the themes of Psalm 78 to the everyday struggles of people in the pews. He assured them that Jesus was walking with them in these struggles. He drew upon the historical struggles and the strong faith traditions of Black Christians and of the African diaspora. At one point, he chided the Christian community when it hypocritically fails to support single parents. My students appreciated this honesty and inclusiveness, for they each know people who have had children out of wedlock and see that these women need support, not ostracism.

These reactions are widely confirmed by conversations I’ve had with the rest of the students in this class and in others. But what these three students could see and articulate better—by having a concrete experience to compare to their attendance at Catholic Masses—is what they positively value in a church experience.

A Mass that would hook them doesn’t need to have gospel music. It does need to speak to their lives and daily challenges. It does need to genuinely, joyfully welcome them. It does need to speak to their hopes and dreams for a better world.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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Nachum Turetzky

Thanks for sharing this enlightening experience, Brian. I believe that you are onto something important. Keep doing this!

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