It’s the kind of devil’s advocate question that Roman Catholic priests discuss when no one else is listening.
How short do you have to make a Mass to appeal to parishioners who don’t want to get out of bed to go to Sunday Mass in the first place? Would more people attend if Mass was 40 minutes instead of 50?
“There are priests who can do a weekday Mass in about 22 minutes and the people know that father has left his car running out back and his golf clubs are in the trunk,” said Father John A. Valencheck of the Diocese of Cleveland.
“Sunday Mass is supposed to be different. I have trouble getting it done — I hate those words ‘getting it done’ — in less than 50 or 55 minutes. I don’t know how to do everything we’re supposed to do in less than that. ? But all of this should lead us back to a crucial question: What are we doing at Mass in the first place?”
The people who really have to watch the clock are the priests and lay leaders in the giant suburban parishes that surround America’s largest cities.
This is especially true in the Bible Belt, where the children of northern Catholics kneel next to increasing numbers of Hispanics and many Protestants who have converted to the ancient faith. Thus, the pews and parking lots are crowded, while a declining number of priests struggle to offer services that please the old and welcome the new.
But there’s another reason that many American Catholics want to edit and tweak their ancient rites. They know that Protestant megachurches offer rock-concert-quality mass media, ample parking, free babysitting, health clubs and every conceivable form of special programs for people of all ages, but especially the young.
Valencheck’s parish office recently received a postcard — addressed “Occupant” — from a megachurch promoting its free Starbucks coffee and Krispy Kreme Donuts.
It’s hard for Catholics to compete in this marketplace, he noted, in an essay entitled “Mass Marketing Mass” in the Adoremus Bulletin. The ultimate temptation is for priests to embrace the “bedrock assumption that the Mass is a painful event” and that they need to make major changes in order to survive.
“One solution is to make the Mass pass as quickly as possible, apparently on the assumption that the people who are there do not want to be there, so the object is to get them in and out before they can register the full measure of their boredom,” wrote Valencheck. “The focus of the Mass is now placed on those who do not want to be there.”
Then there are Catholics who are determined to make the Mass more entertaining. This can lead to sappy pop music, pseudo-megachurch media and priests who offer chatty sermonettes while presiding over liturgies that have been truncated until almost all of the ancient mysteries and traditions are gone.
The problem, Valencheck noted, is that an “entertaining innovation can too quickly become grating and we are right back to the problem of being boring.” And then there are efforts at popularization that veer close heresy, like the popular YouTube video of the Halloween costume Mass in a California parish that ended with the priest recessing out of the church — dressed as Barney the purple dinosaur.
It’s crucial, said Valencheck, that priests continue to have faith that parishioners and visitors will respond to an “old school” Mass that is offered with dignity, grace and, yes, a sense of quality. The details of the rite must be beautiful, so that they point to the mysteries that are beneath the surface.
“There is a way to carry a chalice that says, ‘This is just a cup and it really doesn’t matter if you pay attention or not,’ ” he said. “Then there is a way to carry it that says, ‘This is a chalice. Get down on your knees and meditate on that.’ …
“It’s like when you tell someone that you love them. You can just say the words. But there’s also a way to pause and look right in their eyes and tell them that you love them in a way that let’s them know you really mean it. There’s a way to give our words and our actions weight and gravitas. Priests have to remember that.”