Last week I wrote about the newly founded “Amazing Parish” movement which, according to their website, “seeks to provide resources to pastors and parish leaders so they can create a thriving parish life.” The group recently held its first ever conference in Denver, featuring a cadre of Catholic speakers and workshops focused on such topics as parish leadership teams, formation programs and evangelization. According to the Denver Catholic Register, the founders of Amazing Parish believe that theirs is a “Holy Spirit-inspired movement that began on the day Pope Francis was selected pontiff in March 2013.”
As I noted in my last post, what is troubling about this movement and its conference is the decision to highlight the book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter and author Father Michael White’s “weekend experience” approach to the Sunday liturgy. Father White is the long time pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. If you have yet to watch the video explaining the weekend experience you will be stunned by the total absence of Catholic identity in the approach presented.
Put simply, those behind this effort are promoting a business consultant/evangelical megachurch strategy for rebuilding Catholic parishes. As more and more megachurches seek to grow and make money in an ever more crowded religious market place, “success” is measured by continuous growth in attendance and contributions. This is the modern, consumer driven, focus upon “intentional church growth.” And this is the “Rebuilt” vision that many are foisting upon the Catholic faithful.
Most disturbing, however, are the growing number of parishes and even dioceses that are buying into the “Rebuilt” model. Even though the book only came out last year, it has been immediately and unquestioningly accepted by much of the Catholic establishment as the method to fix declining Church attendance.
Dioceses as geographically diverse as Worcester (Massachusetts), Atlanta (Georgia), and Joliet (Illinois) have held day-long workshops for pastors and parishes solely to focus on the implementation of this megachurch mentality. Over 200 representatives from 26 different parishes of the Diocese of Atlanta attended a Rebuilt workshop back in February. From their diocesan paper:
To compete against other Sunday activities, Nativity had to develop its second strategy—prioritizing the weekend experience. They focused on the liturgy—the music, the message and the ministers.
“People are coming to church for an experience,” Corcoran said. “If they have a boring and bad experience on Sunday, why would we expect them to come to anything else we offer? That’s where we have to give our very best efforts.”
Corcoran and Father White started with the music, which Corcoran called “the water on which the experience sails.”
At Nativity, they learned that what was needed was not a music program but music that was worship and musicians who were worship leaders…
Of course, this perspective of liturgical music disregards a major component of the twentieth century liturgical reform, namely the renewed focus on Gregorian chant within the Mass. The century began with Pope St. Pius X reminding the Church:
“On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.” (Tra le Sollecitudini, 1903)
This belief was once again reaffirmed by Holy Mother Church in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (SC 116)
This megachurch vision for Catholicism is unapologetic in its near exclusive turn toward evangelical Protestantism as the solution for declining attendance at Mass:
“Without apology, and eventually without embarrassment, we became students of successful, growing churches. Most all that we have studied are evangelical Protestants, who have more or less cornered the market when it comes to intentional church growth across the American religious landscape. Seventy-five percent of Catholics who left the Catholic Church to become Protestant have chosen evangelical churches, so it looked like a good place to start…” (Rebuilt, p. 30)
Sadly, the authors never seem to make the connection between the desacralization of the Mass and the ensuing mass exodus from the Church. The identity of Catholicism has been lost and the proponents of Rebuilt don’t even recognize it. There is no acknowledgement made that the Mass has gone from something sacred and beautiful, to often times something profane and banal. A beautiful liturgy handed down for centuries has become a laboratory for the innovators who force their creativity into the Mass. The humility required of us as we approach God when entering into the Mass is foreign to those who only see themselves as the solution, failing to realize that they are actually the problem.
We know from Gallup polling that 65% of Catholics were weekly Mass attendees in 1965. By 2013 the number had dropped to just over 20% attending weekly. Shouldn’t we be asking what has driven so many Catholics away from the Mass? Or put another way, why do so many Catholics view the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — the highest prayer of the Church and that moment each week when we encounter Our Lord at Holy Communion — as irrelevant to their lives and unnecessary for their very salvation? That question cannot be answered by studying evangelical megachurches who reject the Holy Mass as a true sacrifice and fail to acknowledge the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.
I will reiterate what I said last time: if we as Catholics want to rebuild “amazing parishes,” we need to begin with the liturgy instead of simply turning to business models and evangelical play-books for direction. Contrast this with the role the Rebuilt team sees the liturgy playing in revitalizing a parish:
“The Church is formed and grows through the Eucharist, and mature Catholics understand what they are giving and what they are given in the Eucharist…But let’s be honest. Many of the people coming to church these days do not understand the Eucharist and are simply not engaged in it. And all the cultural Catholics in our community, who aren’t even showing up, have simply walked away from the Eucharist entirely. They have tuned the Church out, and no matter how beautifully or faithfully we celebrate the Eucharist…it’s not getting them back.” (Rebuilt, p. 92)
I take issue with these conclusions. The truth is that the authors of Rebuilt do not know whether or not beautiful and reverent liturgy will bring people back to Church because so few Catholics have ever truly experienced this in their parishes.
To be clear: I am not dismissing the idea of a book or program which seeks to improve parish structure, supporting ministries or outreach programs. There may indeed be great success in reaching fallen-away Catholics with some of these efforts. However, when the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass becomes the place for innovation and experimentation as a means of accomplishing this, then we must sound the alarm. Following decades of desacralized liturgies, to now look to Protestant megachurches as the solution is to fail to grasp just how much of this ecclesial wound is self-inflicted.
There is no better response to the confusion expressed in these current movements than the assessment made by the former prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. In reference to the impoverished and banal liturgies that have been the “weekend experience” for far too many Catholics, the Cardinal observed:
“The Orthodox churches and churches of the east still carry on their liturgy in that mystical fashion: there is chanting, there is use of different languages which are not spoken languages, then there is more incense…an aura of otherness happens and after the reforms of the Council, sometimes not because of the reformers but because individual persons decided to take matters into their hands and did things rather superfluously, the Church had gradually lost that mystical element, the element of the hidden. And that’s why our people are finding our liturgy…our prayer life…boring.”
Father White and those who endorse Rebuilt have decided, however, to ignore our liturgical patrimony, the restoration of which was a major focus of Benedict’s papacy, and instead to focus on megachurches such as Willow Creek, North Point and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Two thousand years of organically developed liturgy given to us by Holy Mother Church has been declared old school, only to be replaced with marketing strategies gleaned from evangelical churches that aren’t even as old as Star Wars. And like sheep, hundreds of parishes in dioceses such as Atlanta, Worcester, and Joliet are more than happy to follow.
Thankfully, there is a better way. One that draws upon our tradition and embraces a liturgy two thousand years in the making. However, the solution requires a level of humility that is as uncommon as it is virtuous.
To begin with, instead of this book:
Pastors and parish councils need to read this book:
When it comes to Catholic worship, we need more pastors who are willing to “learn at the feet” of Ratzinger, and not Rick Warren. If your parish council starts handing out copies of Rebuilt and begins talking about stadium seating, coffee bars and praise bands to reach the lost, quickly hit them with some holy water and then give them a copy of The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ignatius Press has finally released it in paperback and it sells for about the same price as Rebuilt. Become an advocate for an authentic understanding of the liturgy within your parish.
Lastly, share the video below with anyone who feels that we have to find “modern” solutions to the problems we ourselves created. As Father Damien Cook of St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha says in the video:
“I think sometimes we live as contemporary human beings and think we know more than our ancestors did…”
Restoring the sacred, restoring truth and beauty to our parishes, restoring authenticity to Catholic worship all serve to return the faithful. This video is a blueprint for authentically rebuilding a Catholic parish. Liturgically, this is the antithesis of the Rebuilt strategy for megachurching the Mass. Again, from Fr. Cook:
“The mass with all its glory, with all its tradition whether it be incense, or chant or the way we give communion or any of those things, they were all good and engendered and fostered vocations and saints…so they’re not bad, why throw them out when clearly they have been something beautiful and helpful in the Church these last few centuries…”
Indeed, why throw them out? This is the question that every bishop, priest and parish council who pushes megachurch protestantism on the faithful will need to answer.
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.