The Mode in Which We Go To Mass

The mode in which a message is delivered has the power to negate the content of the message. I may express my undying fidelity for a particular woman with words true and well-phrased, but as long as I send these words in a text-message, I obscure my own meaning. I might post a beautiful image of God with a powerful excerpt from Holy Scripture on Facebook. My intent is zealous, my faith is real, the translation from the Hebrew is accurate — and it is all rendered meaningless by being viewed in the mode of the News Feed, namely, as an “item of interest,” selected from similar items by an algorithm, offering itself as a momentary distraction to be “liked” or ignored, surrounded by the possibility of moving past it to other, more interesting distractions.

What good is it if 10,000 people view God in this manner, if the very mode by which they view him reduces God and his Word to an item of interest? What good is it if people “view” the truth, “like” the truth, and “comment” on the truth if the mode they are engaged in actively works against their believing the truth? The mode in which a message is received may undo the message. If we think the Internet has made evangelization easier, we are fools. The very mode by which we exist on the Internet — as impersonal spectators — works against Christianity — which is not a spectacle, but an encounter with a person. The first goal of any one who wishes to evangelize on the Internet must be to overcome the Internet.

This possibility of undoing the message by the mode in which you yodel gains special importance with respect to the Divine Liturgy. Catholics have, for the past 60 years or so, tended towards presenting the Divine Liturgy in a mode of similarity. We want to “get people to come,” and so we strive to make our liturgies similar to other experiences, to provide that condition by which some one may enter comfortably into its presence, as I am comfortable to be in the presence of someone I already know, comfortable to engage a conversation with people who have similar interests, similar views.

The music of the Mass is made similar to the music of our culture. The demeanor of the Mass is made similar to the “Christian services” of our culture. The clothing we wear to Mass is made similar to our everyday clothing. The posture, structure, language, architecture, the position of priest to people — all this, and nearly anything that can be presented in a mode of similarity is thus presented. And, in a sense, it works. People come. But what does the mode of similarity do to the way in which people encounter the Mass? What does the mode do to the message?

To understand this, we need a deeper understanding of similarity and dissimilarity. Similarity may be a condition for comfort, but dissimilarity is the necessary condition for love. Because a boy and a girl have “something in common” they can meet, comfortably enter into each other’s presence, and strike up a conversation, but only because of the fact that they are not “in common” can they fall in love, can she — utterly dissimilar to him — and he — dissimilar to her — strive for personal communion — that difficult, wonderful embrace of two entirely unique and dissimilar lives.

Because I am used to something, I am not afraid to participate in it, and in this sense, a liturgy of similarity succeeds. But because I am not used to something, because it is utterly other, I am pulled into the heart of a mystery. Similarity may provide the occasion for a meeting and a grouping, but dissimilarity provides the occasion for a binding. Because I do not know her, I strive to understand. Because I cannot fathom her, I gaze all the longer. As velcro clings to what it is not, as opposite charges attract and as the opposition of dissimilar colors make wondrous relations in a far more obvious way than mixtures of, say, a pale yellow and a similar greenish-yellow — so dissimilarity is the binding force of relation.

What good is it if the mode of similarity brings every man in the world to the Divine Liturgy, if by the very mode that it brings them there, it undoes the entire point, which is not simply being there, but being in love? Similarity engenders comfort because it requires nothing of us. If a person is just like me in every respect, then there is no effort required of me to get to know them, to strive after them. There is no ecstasy, that is, no getting beyond myself. The fact that something is similar may just as well be an occasion for boredom as for unity — and hasn’t millennial boredom with the liturgy been an equally observable outcome of the mode of similarity as millennial presence at the liturgy?

To say something is similar is to say it is already known, but the point of the Divine Liturgy is that it is the Pascal Mystery, the Pascal Unknown, and precisely because it remains unknown, it remains something worth applying the passion of our entire lives towards, to strive towards knowing.

If the point of the Church is to make her children comfortable with God, a liturgy of similarity that “meets people where they are” make sense. If the point of the Church is to call her children to love God, to strive after him and to seek intimate communion with him, then a liturgy that opposes us makes sense, a liturgy drenched in a dissimilarity that accentuates the mysteries that we cannot understand — and thus must strive for, bow before, and commit our lives to surge towards. In short, what is needed is a liturgy that requires ecstasy of us. This reconciles itself in a series of paradoxes, that the unrelatable is the most relatable, the irrelevant is the most relevant, and the unfamiliar the greatest source of our desire for familiarity, for intimacy, and for union.

All this being said, similarity is not bad. Similarity provides the occasion for dissimilarity to bind. Consider Jesus Christ. We draw close with the little children because he is a man — our friend and our brother, something similar. But in this similarity we recognize the undeniable dissimilarity — that he is God, infinite, almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing — and thus we strive after him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Should this not be the case with the Divine Liturgy? Should we not have the similar — the music, perhaps, the homily, the clothes, and the modern architecture — become the occasion for an encounter with the dissimilar — the Eucharist?

In a word, no, for then the Divine Liturgy becomes two things, when it is in reality one thing. No part of the Mass should be an advertisement for the Mass. No “type” of Mass — a “contemporary Mass” or a “youth Mass” — should be reduced to a stepping stone to a more “mature Mass.” I take this as self-evident, that the Mass is either a re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice, or it is not, and if it is, then it is one thing, complete in itself, sufficient, final, eternally this – and that our participation in this one thing should reflect its unity instead of pulling against it.

The good news is that we are not caught between the choice of attracting people to Mass and letting the Mass be precisely what it is, in all its incens-y, ringing, silent, dark, unbearably bright and grotesque mystery, its complex simplicity and its simple complexity. For precisely by letting the Mass be what it is, and indeed, working hard to reveal the Mass as the Paschal Mystery in accordance with the rubrics and teachings of the Church, we attract, for dissimilarity is always a more attractive and binding force than similarity. An intentionally dissimilar liturgy may be more uncomfortable, but we were not made for comfort. We were made for love, that wonderful, uncomfortable ecstasy towards that which we are not.

Here then, have my unauthoritative, probably-hyperbolic, unspecific but nevertheless believed and possible answer to the question of how to attract young people to the Mass: Stop trying. Stop using the Mass as an advertisement for itself. Do not let the mode by which you bring people undo the very reason you are bringing them. Let our lives bring people to the Liturgy, let our lives contain that similarity, that natural and virtuous relatability that provides the necessary condition of comfort for drawing people near to a mystery — but let the mystery remain a mystery! In short, let us be honest, not altering the Mass in order to get people to come to it, or hushing up the traditions and the mysterious flourishes of the Mass out of fear that it won’t be “relatable.” The truth about people is strange, that we most want what we cannot have, that we are most intrigued by what we cannot understand, and that we are most fulfilled by an encounter with that which is utterly beyond us than with that which fits neatly and known into the fabric of our lives. Accentuate the mystery with that accentuation present in the very rubrics of the liturgy, do it for no reason other for love of the mystery, and love your neighbor, that you might give him a reason, a provocation and a courage to plunge into the very source of your love — the Divine Liturgy.

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  • katieokeefe

    Marc, I just wanted to CHEER OUT LOUD when I read this!! I have been thinking about this very same thing (and writing about it, too!). But you said it so much better than I have. Nicely put and absolutely true!

  • BillyT92679

    I think, ultimately, what you are revealing is you might be a closet Byzantine Catholic. And not just the constant usage of Divine Liturgy, but also because you’re (coincidentally in a pretty didactic presentation) deemphasizing western liturgical didacticism for eastern embrace of the mysterium fidei.

    At bottom, I have the same sensibility as you.

    • Divvy2012

      I think he’s just ultimately being a Catholic.

      • BillyT92679

        No, I think he’s actually being more of an Eastern Catholic, even if he doesn’t realize.

        • Divvy2012

          So if I agree entirely with him, then I’m ‘closet Eastern’ too? :O

          • BillyT92679

            There’s a great chance you are, and that’s a very good thing!

            Go to a Ukrainian Catholic Church if you get a chance. Especially now, they need all the support we can give them, both domestically and with what’s happening in Ukraine.

          • Guest

            I am Roman Catholic and always will be; and bless you, the Church in Britain needs all the support I can give too. Fortunately I can do both at the same time. Hooray for the communion of saints.

          • BillyT92679

            I’m Latin Catholic as well. But, I absolutely, with every fiber of my being (or fibre in your case) recommend attending at least one Divine Liturgy in your lifetime. If you already have, you are ahead of the game.

          • Divvy2012

            I’m Roman Catholic and always will be, although of course Ukraine has my prayers and that of many others.

        • Katrina Fernandez

          This Eastern Catholic agrees with you.

  • artificium_detrectare

    I wish I could get this across to people as a youth director, I find myself trying to invite people to a liturgy that I don’t want to attend myself. Still there are a lot of people who feel “feed” *shudder* by “relevant” *x2 shudder* liturgy. I don’t understand it and I disagree with it but as long as people keep liking it and supporting it, cloying, immanetized liturgy will perpetuate itself and keep people out of the Church, or bring in masses of teens only to vomited out once their pubescent emotions die out. My resolve is to try and invest myself in my parish as much as I can and try to transform it slowly from the inside, hopefully one day thing will become more transcendent but regardless, the call to evangelization is still the prerogative.- Anonymous bitter youth director

  • James Milliken

    Great post, Marc! This comes up for discussion in my family quite a lot. I often point out that the English word “holy”, and the Latin word from which we get “sacred”, both mean “set apart”. The Mass is a place “set apart” from our daily lives where we can meet God on HIS ground, not ours; it helps us to understand that when it looks and sounds different from our ordinary experiences.

  • Guest

    Coming from a teen point of view… YES. I am tired of the Mass being made “relevant” for my generation. I love Mass, and know that Jesus is present in the Eucharist in all (valid) Masses, but since when did a desire to be more inviting mean that the Mass had to change? I don’t like hearing the same songs at Mass that I hear on positive, encouraging Christian radio stations; I don’t appreciate it when the pastor takes time to acknowledge visitors or people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Mass should be something that looks, sounds, smells and feels more sacred than the everyday, not to make us “feel good,” but because the Mass is no ordinary experience. It should be engaging in that it forces us to look beyond ourselves.

  • Peter Liao

    Marc, you forgot to mention our liberal use of tried and true folksy hippie “hymns”. Don’t you just love Mass when the music can’t even transcend the last 30 years?

  • Elizabeth517

    Awesome, Marc. I believe my millennial husband and I would not be in the Church today if it weren’t for our experiences with the traditional Latin Mass, no exaggeration. We were self-satisfied sophisticated ultraliberals who saw church as little more than theater until we let that craving for authenticity in worship turn our whole lives upside down. Never underestimate the power of liturgy!

  • Matthew

    What a beautiful analogy of love and liturgy! Thank you for that. I might recommend Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy, but something tells me you’re very familiar with it. Yes, the liturgy has its own Spirit, its own culture, and it is our embrace of that Spirit that transforms us.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    Our Sunday Solemn Mass is about as dissimilar as it gets. The converts we attract are apparently ready for some dissimilarity.

  • oregon nurse

    I don’t understand this superiority about a more traditional liturgy just because it’s old and fancy and different. Yes, it’s beautiful but it’s really nothing more than an aesthetic that bears the stamp of a certain time in history. Nothing wrong with liking that until it becomes a value judgment against other valid forms of the Mass. The TLM does not resemble the first liturgies which would have been familiar to the apostles. That could be a valid judgment against the TLM aesthetic which in fact bears more similarity to Jewish Old Temple worship than the Eucharist celebrated by Jesus. All this superiority of one form over another is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    • Matthew Roth

      I recommend Fr. Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment. It’s a blog written by a priest who was ordained for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham after swimming the Tiber from the Church of England. He has good insight on what organic development of the liturgy is and is not.

  • Meredith

    As you said, “similarity provides the occasion for dissimilarity to bind.” Having similar music, clothes, etc. does not divide the Divine Liturgy into two separate things. The Paschal Mystery will always be mysterious in that Jesus becomes present (body, soul, and divinity) in a piece of bread. Having something contemporary vs. traditional or spoken in Latin vs. English doesn’t change Paschal Mystery that is the mass.

  • Meredith

    As you said, “similarity provides the occasion for dissimilarity to
    bind.” Having similar music, clothes, etc. does not divide the Divine
    Liturgy into two separate things. The Paschal Mystery will always be
    mysterious in that Jesus becomes present (body, soul, and divinity) in a
    piece of bread. Having something contemporary vs. traditional or spoken
    in Latin vs. English doesn’t change Paschal Mystery that is the mass.