Some of the worst liturgical abuses in the last decades have taken place in the name of appealing to the youth. Liturgists set up this category called the “youth” to be an archetype within a dialectical drama that pit tradition against innovation. The youth were supposedly uninspired by solemnity and preferred laxity, pop music, casual celebrant demeanor, and practices such as liturgical dance and liturgical puppeteering that had no precedent in the entire history of the Roman Rite. The music in particular is my concern here, and in this area we heard the use of music that was not only incompatible with true spirit of the Mass but utterly contrary to it. The idea was that the Catholic Church had better embrace this stuff else it risks losing an entire generation.
So many parishes complied, first with set-aside youth Masses in which all heck broke loose, and any savvy Catholic in America knows exactly what I mean by that. Then the next step took place: the culture of these Masses began to flow into the other Masses at the parish. The reductio ad absurdum was the phenomenon known at Life Teen, at which garage bands were encouraged to unleash their talents and celebrants were encouraged to use any and every method to entertain people rather than draw people’s attention toward the transcendent. One must also observe that previous World Youth Days—with their exhibitions of pop stars and over-the-top displays of emotional unleashings—have not been a help in this regard.
Well, there is a slight problem with hinging an entire liturgical project around a dogmatic demographic claim. Time moves forward. The present is infinitely vanishing, as Kierkegaard said. Demographics change. The youth get old, and the vanguard of the movement eventually gets trampled by the sheer passage of time. Thus do we observe the absurdity of obviously aging old-timers attached to styles and approaches that are as dated as shag carpet and big-bell jeans telling the actual youth of today what they should and shouldn’t desire in liturgy. It comes across like 1970s kitsch, the stuff of low-budget comedy films about a time that today’s real youth only know in caricature.
Well, that was then and this is now. Observe the Masses at World Youth Day in Australia. The trappings of the “youth Mass” of yesteryear were gone, replaced by a new solemnity that included Gregorian chant, traditional vestments, beautiful altar arrangements, attention to the rubrics, and so much more. Far from being an example of what not to do, these Masses were, in many ways, models that today’s truly progressive parishes would do well to follow.
What were the youth doing during the event? Many of the most active were involved in Gregorian chant scholas, either with the main event or side projects such as the group Juventutem, which has a special attachment to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. The group brought in chant master Scott Turkington to train the new generation, which sang Mass ordinaries and hymns from the Parish Book of Chant published by the Church Music Association of America. They sang propers from the Liber Usualis, a book with a grand tradition that was being tossed out in the 1960s and 1970s but which is now experiencing a glorious resurgence.
But even in the ordinary form Masses celebrated during the main events, we heard Gregorian introits and communion antiphons. Here we see what was even a step forward from the best of the U.S. Papal Masses, which provided only selected seasonal communion antiphons in chant. It seems like the Vatican advance team, led by Papal MC Guido Marini, is getting ever more vigilant in encouraging a recovery of traditional practices and liturgical ideals. They have not been 100% successful (the final Mass in Australia included a few highly unfortunate moments), but they learn to be less naïve as time goes on. As Fr. Zulsdorf frequently says, progress in this area takes place brick by brick.
An example of an important step that represents an ongoing transition is the Benediction altar arrangement that we see in Papal Masses. The altar is not the high altar of the extaordinary form. It is the altar of the ordinary form, but with an important difference. The candle sticks are on the altar itself and there is a crucifix in front of the celebrant so that he can truly be turned toward the Lord rather than the people as if they are some kind of audience for his actions. The altar arrangement carries with it the important symbol that the purpose of liturgy is directed toward eternal things, glorifying God rather than the tastes of the congregation. This arrangement of course is not the final ideal but it is a step forward toward the historic Roman Rite practice of saying the Mass oriented toward the liturgical East, together with the people in procession toward the risen Lord. If the goal is to unseat the cult of personality and to get away from these entertainment-focused liturgical events, no step is more important.
As for the entrance and communion propers in chant, this is music that is deeply embedded as part of the Roman Rite. It is the music that is heard in its normative form, and the Popes have long taught that any music that substitutes for chant must in some sense grow out of its style and approach and unmistakable holiness. This realization is not a burden but a relief for musicians who struggle week to week to program music as part of Mass, using every manner of liturgical guide. When they turn to the very music of the Roman Rite, they are truly singing the Mass as it has been given to us by tradition. This is a musical form of liberation for musicians and for people of all ages. Newly discovering this truth is a new generation of young people who find in its both artistic challenge and profound spiritual energy.
Meanwhile, there is the persistent problem that many parishes that some Sunday Mass has been set aside as the Mass designed to appeal to the youth. Ironically, it is precisely these Masses that are most open to reform in the direction the Benedict XVI is calling for—much more so that the main Sunday Mass. These are the Masses where a dignified ordinary setting can be used, either in Latin or English. The new schola can sing propers, again in either Latin or English. They should be encouraged to sing all music without instruments, as a way of clearing the air, encouraging participation, and emphasizing a core truth that the primary liturgical instrument is not the guitar or piano or even organ but the human voice itself. The celebrant can do his part by singing the parts of the Mass that belong to him. The Mass can be said ad orientem and use incense and bells, all of which today’s youth find intriguing precisely because these symbols of holiness are not available in the secular world. Here we have the basis of a new Youth Mass, and perhaps the approach of this Mass will have a meritorious influence on the other Masses of the parish.
The goal of such a reform is not to appeal to a certain demographic but to use an opportunity presented by the existence of such Mass times to institute a new pattern of liturgical use that defers to the tradition and puts a premium on the idea of sacred space. What we find in such spaces is something completely unlike what the rest of the world offers: actions designed to reach outside the passage of time and into eternity. Here we should find a form of beauty for which the world itself offers no parallel. To attend Mass and be part of this mystical action is a privilege of the highest order. It can be offered to today’s youth so that they can be part of something much larger and infinitely greater than their own times and their own generation.