Relevant and Relative

Whenever I meet another convert to the Catholic faith from Anglicanism. I listen as they express extreme dismay and disappointment at the liturgical wasteland that is the American Catholic Church. He criticized the celebrant’s game show style–all chatty and ‘relevant’ and full of jokes. He loathed most priest’s lame attempts to make the words of the liturgy ‘meaningful.’ The Lord be with YOU!  with a huge smile and almost a hug. Next under fire was the sentimental, saccharine music with the heretical lyrics, and the rec room atmosphere of the church–all soft lights and carpet and comfort. Why no cup holders in the pews?

“Why oh why” he lamented “is the Catholic Church in America so awful?”
I think it comes down to this: the historical and liturgical development of the Anglican and Catholic Churches, since the Reformation has been very different. The Anglicans got used to liturgy in the vernacular and they eventually had their own ‘reform of the reform’ in which they learned to celebrate the liturgy with beauty, reverence and care while using the vernacular.
Catholics, in the meantime, continued to use Latin. Then when the floodgates opened at the second Vatican Council the Catholics (many of whom felt that the Latin was totally inaccessible and arcane) went whole hog on making the liturgy ‘understandable’ ‘relevant’ and ‘accessible’. Everything from the old days was considered to be inaccessible, elevated, cut off from the people and all the old traditions and customs were deemed out of touch, out of date and so out the window.
I honestly believe that many Catholics had no idea what most of the stuff they had in church and did in church meant. This includes the priests and bishops. I don’t think they understood the rich history of vestments and architecture and liturgy and incense and sacred music and sacred art and candles and bells and crucifixes and confession and pilgrimages and processions and relics and saints days and the whole vast treasure house of Catholic tradition.
Nobody had explained it to them, and nobody had explained it because nobody could. Nobody could remember what all that ornate clobber was for. Everybody had forgotten about reverence and solemnity and beauty and dignity and they even forgot what worship was for in the first place. They were just going through the motions.
None of it made sense to them. They didn’t know what they were doing or why. Consequently, they were longing for something more relevant, more real and more connected with the people’s lives. The good ones wanted the Lord to touch people. They wanted the people to know the faith and love the faith and to know and love the Lord. So they listened to the Protestant-minded progressives and saw all the traditions and customs as burdens and blockages so they chucked the whole lot. They were like people in an art gallery who don’t understand medieval paintings and so put them out for the garbage man and replace them with Andy Warhol and  Roy Lichtenstein–who are of course, ‘much more accessible.’
In swept the liturgical reforms and everything became ‘relevant’. I can understand what people wanted. They wanted the liturgy to relate to ordinary people and connect. That’s a laudable intention. The problem is, that when liturgy is relevant it is also relative. When you change the liturgy in an attempt to relate to a particular culture, a particular people, in a particular time and place you end up making the liturgy not only relevant, but relative. What you do might be fashionable and ‘cool’ but it soon goes out of date. You know the old saw, “He who marries the fashion of the age will soon be a widower.”
So we now go into the flying saucer churches with big sound systems and carpet on the floor polyester vestments, abstract artwork and an architecture that was clever or cool in the seventies and it all looks as hopelessly out of date as refrigerators in harvest gold or avocado green, bell bottoms, tie dyed T shirts and Scoobydoo cartoons. Then we see the people who are doing music “that will attract the young” but the only people who like it are old. We see priests and religious trying hard to “be relevant” and they are as embarrassing as Uncle Mack with his comb over, suntan, open neck shirt and gold jewelry.
The Anglicans (at least some of them) understood, in the meantime, that the liturgy was timeless and that it should be celebrated thus. Of course I’m aware that I’m painting with broad strokes. There are plenty of Anglicans who were just as wacky and ‘relevant’ as the Catholics. You only have to check out Madame Schori and her gang to confirm that one. Likewise there were Catholics who saw what was happening and tried to stem the tide.
Last thing is this: how do you change it? A better liturgy will change some things, but what really needs to happen is for there to be a fundamental change in what people believe about the faith. We must see the faith as timeless and at once irrelevant in whatever age or culture it finds itself and at the same time the most relevant and necessary thing for the people of any age to hear.

Those who want to make the church ‘relevant’ should realize that the faith, when it is radically lived out will always be both “relevant” and “irrelevant” at the same time. It will be relevant if it is radical and critical of the age in which it exists. In other words, it will be relevant exactly at the point that it seems to be irrelevant and ‘out of touch.’

Likewise, and just as paradoxically, when Christians try to make the church ‘relevant’ that is when it is least relevant, for that is when it has lost it’s chutzpah–in trying to please the children of this age–it will lose all its salt and all its oomph.
And if a dish has lost its salt and a church has lost it’s oomph it’s lost everything. It’s lukewarm and the Lord says he will spit it out.

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  • Andrew

    Well done Father. You have hit the nail on the head.

  • Augustine

    Fr. L.,I quite disagree. Though I was but a babe when the changes came about, I hear that they hurt the faithful quite a bit. It seems to me, 40 years later, that the majority of the faithful couldn't understand the changes at all, especially when the changes spilled over to the rest of parish life, like the cancellation of sodalities, devotions, celebrations, etc.For better or for worse, it seems to me that the faithful did relate to the liturgy and to the faith in a way. And though this way fell short of the ideal, they were offered none in exchange. After all, they already knew of Joan Baez and that her songs were not good ones.Bottom line, don't blame pre-VII folks for the ills of the VII American church. That responsibility lies with those who implemented the changes, starting in Rome, I'm afraid, which should oversee them.

  • shadowlands

    'Nobody could remember what all that ornate clobber was for.'Sometimes Father, you just turn a not very nice Sunday into a joyful day.My take, on your post? In a nutshell?'Seek ye first, the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.'You get it, and try to give it away.Thankyou and thankyou for helping us who don't quite get it, stumble along trying to.You're a teacher, you know. A proper one. Lovely jubbly, as Del boy would say!

  • Elizabeth of Hungary

    And that picture is, I'm fairly certain, not even of a Catholic or Anglican. No, if I'm not mistaken, it looks like ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. My Presiding Bishop. Lord, have mercy.

  • Peter Brown

    Fr. Dwight–I think there might be a selection bias underlying your experience. Anglicans who convert to Catholicism do tend to be dismayed at Catholic liturgy in the USA, yes (speaking as one myself here :-))—but these are the Anglicans who were actually willing to convert, which generally means that these are people for whom the liturgy meant something to start with. Such folks are likely to have sought out Anglican parishes with decent liturgy. So what the dismay you're seeing really means is that the liturgy at an average Catholic parish is worse than the liturgy at an Anglican parish that's been selected (in part) for its liturgical sensitivity. Which is still problematic—with so much richer a sacramental theology to draw on, Catholics really ought to be quite substantially better at liturgy than our Anglican brothers and sisters—but I'm not convinced that things are really as bad as you seem to be making out.Personally, I've found it counterproductive to continue to focus on the liturgical shortcomings of my parish. I don't want to play Bad Church Bingo during Mass. I have enough to do focusing on the presence of the Lord Jesus, remembering that the very folks who are (in my not-entirely-humble opinion) fouling up the liturgy are my brothers and sisters—oh, and incidentally trying to teach my kids to be both non-disruptive and reverent :-). The liturgical problems make my job harder, surely; there's no real excuse for them, certainly; but I also have to admit that my own sins are causing me a whole lot more trouble in properly assisting at Mass than the liturgical foolishnesses that I might use as excuses for distraction.Which is probably beside the point you wanted to make, but I hope it may be a useful thought nonetheless :-).Peace,–Peter

  • Kristen

    I am also a convert from Anglicanism. I do miss the vestments and music and the beautiful building of the cathedral in which I grew up (St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, which has unfortunately gone the way of the Episcopal church in general since I was a child). My family and I now are part of a university Catholic student center — complete with an ugly building, carpeted floors, polyester vestments, and bad music from the Gather Hymnal put on by an ever-changing group of students (though we have an excellent and orthodox priest). For me, however, this trade off is more than made up for by the Real Presence and the fact that I am teaching my three children something that actually means something and will stand the test of time (which wouldn't be possible were we still Episcopalians). When I was Episcopalian I used to occasionally cry over the beauty of the building or the music or the beautiful candle-lit Christmas Eve services. Now, each and every time I attend Mass (Sundays and most days of the week) I tremble with awe and cry with joy over the privilege of receiving the body, spirit, soul and divinity of Christ. I can live with this trade off with joy and thanksgiving. (Although I do have to say that I await with impatience the new missal this Advent.)

  • Anneg

    Yes, Yes, Yes! But, by little steps, brick by brick (as somebody says) we can actually find ways to influence our local parishes. Doesn't it start with prayer? Thanks, Father, AnneG in NC

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Re: not understanding the meaningActually, given the excellent US Catholic educational system, you can bet your boots that every single one of those "throw it out" priests knew all about what the vestments and the traditions meant. Sister and Father had taught them every single bit of it. By heart. With quotes from the Fathers and the Doctors.Some of them may not have taken it to heart. But again and again in memoirs, they fondly remember doing so. It's just that, later, Dr. Brightnew Theory and his friends taught them that all that stuff they'd learned was meaningless in the face of modern life, the atom bomb, the Age of Aquarius, the oncoming de Chardin singularity , and so forth. Since they were scared and confused by modern life and their professors, it seemed like a good point. In their simple faith and their wish to serve God and all people, they listened and obeyed. They never understood why it hasn't panned out.Now, the generation after that never was taught all that, I admit, because learning all that hidebound stuff in old books is useless, unless it supports a feminist point. This generation has often had to scrabble to learn anything, yes, and sometimes are honestly unaware. But that's very much the post Vatican II generation.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Anyway, this is why you get the odd situation today where the "throw it out" priests know Latin and the EF better than the young priests desperately scrabbling to learn these things, and despise the young priests for not knowing what they were never taught.Of course, you sometimes get the reverse, where a "throw it out" priest does dig into his memory and skills from long ago, and helps the young ones or an EF community. They are treasures of info if you can get them to give.

  • Stephanie A. Mann

    "I don't think they understood the rich history of vestments and architecture and liturgy and incense and sacred music and sacred art and candles and bells and crucifixes and confession and pilgrimages and processions and relics and saints days and the whole vast treasure house of Catholic tradition."I don't know about that thesis, Father. If it's true, they certainly should have–and they had guides: Romano Guardini wrote "Sacred Signs" around the time of WWI and it was published in English in the 1950s describing the significance of many of those things! EWTN provides the entire text in their on-line library at to mention Dom Prosper Gueranger's "Liturgical Year" and Pius Parsch's "The Church's Year of Grace".

  • shadowlands

    However offended,our particular peculiarities get, I reckon Father is trying to tell us, to focus on the Cross, the Passion, the Cross alive, as He bled and died for us. Then, when we go to Mass, or meet with any other two or three and invite Him, to be there in the midst ( becoz He has said He is(Matt 18:20), we can close our eyes and embrace the living presence of Jesus and Our Lady. They're both there, at Mass you know. Well if you don't, ask them to reveal themselves to you, at Mass. You won't regret it, honest.

  • paixx12

    Interesting chasauble there. Whatever liturgical season could it be for?

  • dixerit

    Interesting chasauble there. Whatever liturgical season could it be used for?

  • Steve

    Very good post, Father.A large measure of what "went wrong" with the liturgical reforms in making them time-bound was the inculturation of the Liturgy – i.e. WAY too much focus upon the people.Even the Vatican II Fathers advocated inculturation in Sancrosanctum Concilium, which I have concluded was a BIG prudential error on their part.I have more commentary wrt inculturation over at one of Fr. L's Priest-friend's blog site: BPlano, TX

  • ancillamaria

    "Nobody could remember what all that ornate clobber was for. Everybody had forgotten about reverence and solemnity and beauty and dignity and they even forgot what worship was for in the first place."The Institute of Christ the King remembers!

  • ancillamaria

    Oops! Forgot to add: Great post, Father!God bless+JMJ+

  • Paul Rodden

    In our parish, our Monsignor (who must only be called Monsignor + Surname) gives the men who go forward to have their feet washed a memento of the event (a newly published Catholic book or DVD). When asked why he did it, he replied, 'The old Bishop used to do it'. Maybe 'the old Bishop' had a reason, but our priest doesn't.Whatever, we get the impression that when our priest passed through the doors of his seminary, time stopped, and it's very instructive as to what the Church was like back in the 50s. His view is that if the Bishop says it, I do it (and he does!). It's like the 'Mottramism' Mark Shea talks about in his excellent article on 'Docility'.Likewise, our 'RCIA' is half an hour of him, sitting behind a desk, reading his (pre-Vatican II) copy of the Penny Catechism to the Candidates (although he mentions any changes in regulations since his copy was printed), then the relevant section from a yellowing first revised edition of of Canon Cafferata's, The Catechism Simply Explained, 1932.The thing is, he can't explain any of it when asked, and I'm sure this was the pre-Vatican II problem of catechesis. People 'knew' the faith and the rubrics, but didn't understand it or know Christ (Frank Sheed's books tend to support this view – 'Sheed's Disease' as people came to call it.)From his homilies, especially yesterday's where we were told we needed to be 'shriven', one can understand Jansenism and it's influence and power (especially in Ireland) if you meet our priest.He's a good man, but scrupulous and dour, and one can understand why people were desperately wanting to come up for air in the 60s if he's typical.That said, I've known him for 6 years, and this year, he's asked for people to assist in 'adult instruction' for the first time. So, who knows…!

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    Nice, as the 'young ones' say (geddit?… BBC Young Ones meet the 'Alternative Rocky horror Service Book' a la that wonderfully 'orthodox' periodical: Private Eye)Rant on…clear the aisles…'when repentance (sic) like a river attendeth my soul… it is well, it is well with my soul…''Last thing:' ye saiddunno, but best thing would be for all the looney liberals of all stripes to join hands and hearts in one big kumbayah fest and the rest of us get on with historic Christianity aka 'one holy Catholic and apostolic faith''Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly'- that little known 'authour' St Athanasius in his less-well-known 'Creed' pg. 59 trad 1662 BCPHere's the deal: We make a card of each and every 'cleric' in the three trad 'branches' [you know 'the branch theory' ED] then we have a big trading session like back at school with our baseball cards or Pokeman or whatever. Libertine sinecurists and lovers of 'theoria' to the left and the right to the right.[dontcha know ED]yo, cowabunga t'will work!!!then the novus ordo nitwits of all stripes [this is a general term of phillipic rather than a specific 'dis' of any rite btw ED]can go hug in the gallery and use their 'Book of Common Worship' ['common' being the operative word here ED]and the rest of us: Rite of ST James, Rite of St John Chrysostom, Rite of St Mark, kinda quick but snappy Tridentine Rite can get on with worshipping the Triune God.*d'accord?sounds something like Pax et Bonum to me alright… thirty plus years of mindless wangle… WHY? WHY? WHY? … but then there is a reason … to distract from the real work and concurrent ORTHOPRAXIS that MUST attend ORTHODOX CATHOLIC belief or it is neither of the above. FACT. *[can we have extra crispy in the parish hall afters...? ED]

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    StephanieRead Prof Eamon Duffy's'Striping the Altars' and especially'Voices from Morebath'to understand, how improbable and incredible such absence of historic faith seems to Americans, that the Padre is really absolutely correct- especially today in Britain but also in the past.Under the Henrician Reforms of the 'Church'- remember he had been given the honorific 'Defender of the Faith' Title by the Pope of Rome, so his 'reforms' were for all the Church one might say not just England- so many Bishops were deposed or killed by the time of Elizabeth I it was and still is highly doubtful that there were three left in all of Britain that were originally Apostolically consecrated in line from Rome. Takes three to make a new bishop.Faith was to BE what the King and the State said it was, and the Vicar of the parish was the 'vicar of Christ' not the Pope- hence one slip up in the 'paranoia of the provinces' could lose anyone their head. Who would want to speculate on anything the Vicar said then?Nobody. That is who.

  • Sal


  • Bill Meyer

    Allow me to disagree with one specific: The floodgates didn't actually open at Vatican II, nor were they opened by Vatican II. Rather, they were opened during implementation post Vatican II, bu use of some very questionable loopholes. (See 37-40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which, read in context, are quite clearly intended to open possibilities in mission lands.)Being old enough that the Latin was taken from us (a fact disputed by catechists in my parish who insist that the Latin was never taken away) when I was in college, I know that for me, even without benefit of schooling in Latin, there was no mystery in learning the meanings, as my Missal was in Latin and English, on facing pages. All that was needed was the motivation to learn.I grant that many did not learn, nor particularly desire to learn. It's much the same with the spirit of Vatican II folks, most of whom, I would contend, have yet to read the documents of Vatican II, or if they have read them, must have exercised a selective blindness.As to the music, in my parish it would make you weep. Except at Christmas, we hear nothing from earlier than 1985, except on those odd occasions when we are treated to Amazing Grace. And with the incredible riches of liturgical music in the Church, why must we so often hear songs from Marty Haugen, a Protestant? Methinks this is ecumenism run rampant.Still, your point about the Anglicans having learned earlier to adapt to the vernacular may be on the mark. I note that, without fail, in attending a Mass in Latin, or in a parish where the church is of traditional architecture (and with statues of Mary and Joseph, at least), the atmosphere before worship is reverential. In my own parish, where the architecture is decidedly modern (carpet, no communion rail, until two years ago, no crucifix above the altar), the atmosphere before Mass is much more what one might expect to find in the parish hall.In my parish, the loudest complaints about the new translation are to be heard from the members of the Religious Education department. They also threatened to quit over the installation of the crucifix (magnificent, life size) over the altar. And no doubt, they would also raise a furor were we to stop singing Rain Down, or Gather Us In, or any of the myriad other exercises in banality so beloved by the spirit of Vatican II folks.

  • Gail F

    Great points, all, but how do we change what people believe when what they are presented teaches them precisely the wrong things???

  • Paul Rodden

    @Bill Meyer.At least you didn't mention 'Go, the Mass is ended' – which is sung to the other members of the congregation. :)

  • Stephanie A. Mann

    Anthony Brett Davis, I have read Duffy, thanks so much.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    Stephaniemea culpalooked at your profileFr. Les Bundy, now Emeritis of Regius, Denver has written some really brilliant articles on the emerging field of western church art decoration.Since we are all Antiochian's they probably have his underpublished articles over at St George's Cathedral in your town.You may know Fr. Schneirla of same is the Dean of the Western Rite of the Antiochians and also a gold mine of info re trad orthodoxy in the West.Fr Les' email is at St Columba Orthodox Lafayette Colohooray for historythe truth that sets us free!!!