Making Mass “Relevant” is Irrelevant to Evangelization

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Which of these things is not like the others?

Many Catholics have witnessed or read about Masses gone wild: polka Masses, life-size scary puppet Masses, and probably worst of all, Los Angeles Religious Education Congress closing Masses. In these extreme cases, it is clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with how the organizers understand the Mass. Yet even some sincere, faithful Catholics wish to change the Mass in order to make it more “relevant.” We see this in many youth-oriented Masses, as well as the typical suburban parish’s regular attempts to alter the liturgy to accommodate the perceived tastes of the congregation. The intention behind these changes may be noble: the hope is that if the Mass is more relatable then more people will come and “get more out of it.” So it would seem these folks wish to evangelize. But two questions must be asked: Is the purpose of the Mass evangelization? And, are these attempts to be “relevant” an effective evangelization tool?

To answer these questions, we need to look back to the days of the first Christians who lived in the Roman Empire as a small, often-persecuted sect. What we find might startle many modern Catholics: attendance at Mass was strictly controlled, and only those who’d been baptized were even allowed to participate in the Eucharistic celebration. Granted, the dangerous nature of being Catholic certainly had something to do with this rule. At any time a persecution might flare up, and if it did, you didn’t want your enemies witnessing your participation in an outlawed religious ceremony. But this was not the only reason for this prohibition; the sacraments of the Church were called “the mysteries,” and the celebration of them was considered the most sacred act in which a person could engage. To allow the entrance of outsiders – the non-baptized – would be to desecrate in some way the liturgical act. Even after Christianity became legal, the non-baptized were still required to leave the Church after the Mass of the Catechumens (comparable to what the Missal of Paul VI refers to as the “Liturgy of the Word”) out of respect for the mystery and sacredness of the Eucharist. We see remnants of that practice in the Eastern Liturgy’s cry, “The doors! The doors” that precedes the Eucharistic prayer: it is a call to the guardians of the doors to ensure that the unbaptized do not witness the Eucharistic sacrifice.

We can learn two lessons from the early Church practice: (1) the celebration of Mass itself was not considered a tool for attracting people to the Christian Faith – since non-Christians weren’t even allowed to attend Mass, it could not be used to evangelize them; and (2) this apparent restriction did not negatively impact the early Church’s evangelization efforts, which were wildly successful. Christians were able to attract others to the faith, not by bringing them to a liturgy that they could identify with, but by living and preaching the power of the Gospel. It is true that over the centuries the Church added much pageantry to her liturgies; however, the focus of those additions was not attracting converts but giving greater glory to God.

Also, practically speaking, trying to make the Mass “relevant” is clearly a project doomed to failure. These attempts aim to make the Mass more like the surrounding culture, but the fact remains that we simply cannot beat the culture at its own game. The most creative minds in the world spend billions of dollars each year producing entertainment for the masses. Catholic parishes believe they can imitate the culture and thereby attract the disaffected, but they are sadly mistaken. Witness the cringe-worthy efforts by aging baby boomers to copy the latest cultural fad in their desire to “reach out” to estranged Catholics: sad stabs at “hip” music, priests turning Mass into comedy central, and even light shows more appropriate to Chuck E. Cheese’s than St. Charles Catholic Church. If the choice is between Hollywood’s polished product and the poor imitation found at the local Catholic parish, most will choose the real thing.

Does that mean the Church is doomed to be unattractive to the surrounding culture? Not at all. The secret to true relevance isn’t trying to beat the culture at its own game. Rather, let’s play our game – one at which we already excel. For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has celebrated magnificent liturgies that reverently glorify God. These liturgies have produced some of the most sublime – and attractive – celebrations known to man. The paradox is that by putting the focus on God, not man, many men and women will be attracted to the transcendent grandeur of a life of faith. Meanwhile, a banal focus on pleasing people quickly leaves them unsatisfied and looking to quench their thirst for the transcendent elsewhere.

Traditionally, the ends of the Mass are described as four-fold: adoration, atonement, thanksgiving, and petition. “Evangelization” is not included in these ends. This does not mean that the Mass does not have a role in evangelization efforts; after all, the Mass is the source and summit of the Christian Faith, so it has a role in everything a Christian does. So if evangelization is not an end of the Mass, what is the relationship between the two? Though not the Mass’s purpose, evangelization is a fruit of the Mass. Participating in the Mass, sacramentally uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of Calvary, each Catholic receives the strength to go out and make disciples of all nations.

By confusing fruit with purpose, many Catholics denigrate, unwittingly or no, the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Efforts to make the Mass “relevant” to our times in the end make it irrelevant to true evangelization. By focusing on the horizontal – being directed towards man – rather than the vertical – being directed towards God – our priorities become inverted and the result neither gives glory to God nor attracts those who are lost. If we aspire first to give glory to the Almighty, however, we also receive what is needed to bring people to Him. Or, as our Lord said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Originally Published on Nov 20, 2014.

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