Sixty years ago, the Second Vatican Council opened with an ambitious program of renewal for the Church. The first document it promulgated was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy or “Sacrosanctum Concilium.”
The document itself presents a beautiful vision of liturgical reform. It certainly doesn’t condone all the odd liturgical experimentation that followed. It even seems to assume that there would still be some Latin in the Mass and that the priest and the congregation would still face in the same direction!
Yet after Vatican II, many clergy took their itching for novelty too far and created banal liturgies devoid of beauty and feelings of sacrality. They tried too hard to make the Mass “modern and relevant.”
But has it worked? Well, many parishes certainly aren’t as full as they once were. And young people are hardly to be seen.
This forces us to reconsider what real liturgical reform should look like. Here are a few points to ponder.
People are starving for the sacred and the beautiful.
Honestly, how can you expect people to take an hour out of their Sunday to go to Mass if it feels too much like everyday life? Are people more likely to attend if the music, art, or homily seem like something they’d experience at home or out in the world?
If there’s a rock band at Mass, it probably won’t be as good as their favorite secular band. The priest’s jokes will likely be subpar compared to their favorite comedians. Reducing the Mass to a social meal reminds people of the far more exciting brunch they’ll have afterward.
Basically, Mass will feel like a watered-down version of their everyday lives.
On the other hand, if you make the Sunday liturgy radically unlike daily secular life — if you emphasize the divine mysteries taking place at each Mass — you’re offering people a compelling reason to join in.
Modern life is exhausting. Consumerism has made us shallow. We long for the true, good, and beautiful. If we don’t get it at Mass, where else will we go?
Young people who do attend church are flocking to more traditional Masses.
Whether it’s a more reverent New Mass, the Traditional Latin Mass, or one of the sublime Eastern rites, young people seem to be showing up at “old-fashioned” Masses far more than the so-called “relevant” modern liturgies.
Why is this happening? Many clergies guaranteed that the new experiments in the liturgy (again, often not called for by Vatican II) would rejuvenate the Church. Young people would flood into the pews.
That didn’t happen. Many young Catholics are demanding a return to tradition. If the Church really wants to read the signs of the times, it should take note of this.
There’s a difference between participation and performance.
Many voices of liturgical reform claim that modern liturgies help people participate more authentically at Mass. That may be true for some people. Yet when you go to many of these parishes, you don’t usually see people more focused on the altar than in other Masses.
Yes, they may throw peace signs to each other at the Sign of Peace. But that’s a performance, not the deep interior and prayerful participation called for by Vatican II. Mass is not about doing more — it’s about entering more deeply into the Eucharistic sacrifice. The more reverent setting of, say, a Traditional Latin Mass makes it much easier to focus on Christ on the altar.
Beauty in the liturgy matters. It helps us raise our minds above the frustrations and cares of this world and get a foretaste of our heavenly home. If the Church wants to bring more people back to Mass, it needs to make beauty and reverence a major part of the program.