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Can Mass ever be Irreverent?

Dear Father Joe:

I have a friend who has listened to some podcasts and read some websites that are quite angry about how the Church has changed in the past few decades. She says everything was much more reverent before the 1960s and that we should go back to the way things used to be. This is making me question what happens at Mass on Sunday.

OK — you’ve hit the spot a lot of people do. As we explore our faith and try to grow into it, we will find passionate, articulate people who try to bring us to agreement with their viewpoint. Sometimes, it can be elevating and helpful, but other times, it can be a spiritual black hole where we end up drawn into their passion, instead of into the love of Christ.

Let’s walk through this a bit.

The first thing I urge you to do is consider the source. If a person’s primary source of income seems to be telling everyone what the Church is doing wrong, then you should ignore them. They have a vested interest in stirring up trouble.

If every time you read a website’s content, you get angry/indignant/scared, then you should ignore them. True faith leads to joy, not anger and fear.

If someone’s ministry/website rarely talks about Jesus, never seems to be joyful and/or spends an inordinate amount of time advocating for a political party, you should ignore them. We are called to follow Christ, not a political party.

One force at work right now in Catholicism urges us to reject the changes to the liturgy that began before the Second Vatican Council and continued after the council. Many of these folks are sincere in their belief that the liturgy today lacks the solemnity and mystery they believe was more visible in the past. Other people have simply hijacked this discussion as a pretext to criticize the Church and accuse it of doing everything wrong.

Some people point to plummeting Mass attendance in the U.S., as well as to lack of reverence and Catholic practice. They believe this has all occurred due to liturgical changes they associate with Vatican II, but they are seeing correlation as causation.

This simplistic approach ignores the issues Jesus focused on, and quite literally embraces the answers Jesus condemned. Allow me to explain.

Jesus condemned religiosity that defined “righteousness” as something humans can pull off by “doing it right.” He explicitly challenged people like the Pharisees, who seemed to revel in condemning those who didn’t follow the details of religious practice the same way they did. This is not arguable —  read the Gospels.

It’s simply too easy to pretend that the waning practice of Catholicism in the West is about how we pray Mass, because we can change that without any kind of interior conversion. It’s harder to face the truth: We modern Christians have moved God to the back burner. We are focused on what’s good for us more than what’s good for our whole community — and so we want things done our own way or we walk away.

Beyond all this, it is simply easier to pretend a Church we never saw was perfect. The reality we live in is always messier than the one we never experienced. Our bias will always be toward what we think might have been or what we believe could be. I can share multiple stories of elderly people who describe liturgies that felt rushed, mumbled and disconnected from the lay people in the pews.

I would suggest that holiness lies in living in the present.

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