Liturgy & Today's Youth
"...An event that links into this deepest level of unsayable experiences can have the force of a bolt of lightning, and is memorable even when far less intense. It is a moment when faith tunnels all the way through to experience and breaks out into one's real life - the place where one lives. In that moment, God is the 'really Real', Christ shines in glory, and the disciples want to put up tents and stay there..."
To my astonishment, when I read the evaluation sheets that the students had filled in at the end of camps, the Saturday evening Mass was the activity most students chose as the one they "got the most out of" - not just on one occasion, but after nearly every weekend, during the ten years or so that I was involved in 'Stranger Camps'. Occasionally, in the space for free-form comments, one of them wrote something like: 'At the Mass, I felt close to God', or 'I've been attending Catholic schools for twelve years, but this was like the first time I felt involved in the Mass'.
This was very touching, but extremely puzzling.
They were Year 12 students, boys and girls from a mix of Catholic schools (never from just one school), but we knew that very few were regular attenders at Sunday Mass. Some others had been, back in primary school, but not since. The retreats were voluntary, and the advertising made it clear that the weekend was a religious retreat, but it would not surprise me if most of the boys came to meet girls, and, vice-versa. Nonetheless, our style of invitation attracted young people, some of whom were clearly believers; and the rest, with few exceptions, were at least open to the possibility.
What was there about the Mass that provoked such a response? The way Mass was celebrated on these weekends was nothing spectacular. It was not 'charismatic' in style. Neither the students nor the retreat team were active in the charismatic movement. There were no faith-filled 'testimonies' full of enthusiasm and feeling, no praying in tongues.
Of course we involved them as much as possible in preparing the room, the altar, the readings and prayers, the music, but they must have experienced that dozens of times in well-conducted school liturgies. Nor was the atmosphere particularly 'intense'; we were at pains to avoid the artificially hyped emotionalism that had characterised some kinds of youth retreats in the past.
The only way I can think of to describe those celebrations is that they were simple and serious.
Simple in the sense that there were no add-ons or distractions which changed the shape of the Mass. For example, as everyone who has done youth retreats knows, the Sign of Peace on such occasions usually takes the form of five minutes or more of enthusiastic hugging and greeting, making it hard to return the focus to Communion which fo11ows. So we simply moved it to the end, after the final song. My idea throughout was to 'get out of the way and let the symbols work' - the
powerful liturgical symbols of the Mass itself.
Serious - I do not know if that is the best word; it risks being misunderstood as ponderous or glum. I mean the approach was not light-hearted or chatty; we used the somewhat 'formal' language of the Mass, not 'adapting' it to suit some imagined teenage style. I think it had some solemnity without being heavy. We tried to convey: 'We're doing something important here. This is special, different; we're touching into a deeper level of life where God is.' The aim was to allow a sense of the sacred to permeate everything. It is not much good trying to talk about the sacred, or sacredness, directly; it is a kind of 'tone': people intuit it through the symbols of the setting and style.
But again, all that seems to me pretty ordinary, and part of any well-done liturgy, which they surely would have experienced elsewhere. Why was the effect apparently so different, so much more powerful?
Looking at the retreat/camp weekend experience as a whole, I came to see that there were some significant preceding events which served as 'remote preparation' for that evening celebration of the Eucharist. Only a small group was present from each school, and those from the same school were not in the same small group. So they could leave aside their peer-imposed identities and roles, and try being someone more like the person they wanted to be.
Earlier the same day, they had done an activity in which they shared something of their life-story. For many, this would have been the first time they had reflected on it, and they were listened to with respect and gentleness, but without any rush of inauthentic emotional response, or haste to 'band-aid' their wounds, some of which were deep and painful. It was not uncommon even for boys to feel safe enough in this setting to show some feeling, even to shed a tear when talking about, say, the death of a parent, brother, sister or loved grandparent.
This seems relevant to the later celebration of the Eucharist in the sense that it was a celebration within a community - however temporary and fragile - a group among whom they felt they belonged and were yalued. This is precisely what the Catholic anthropologist Victor Turner meant by his use of the word communitas. It is a kind of experience of community that occurs between companions who are in transition: passing through an in-between phase, with stretches of ordinary, everyday life before and after. Pilgrims experience it on their journey, novices during their initiation.
Eucharist, of its nature, is meant to be celebrated in a community of faith - whether of this temporary and passing kind, or something more permanent. It is not the private devotion of an individual; its structure is are not part a group bonded by faith and charity ( the term 'charity' no longer conveys what it used to: a relationship characterised by mutual trust and care).
As I have already admitted, probably only a minority of the camp participants had a strong or well-developed faith, but some others were clearly 'active seekers'; and pretty well all the rest, as I said, seemed open, willing to explore, had not said 'No'. Apparently that was enough. God is not too fussy. Your wedding garment may be in need a few patches, as well as a good wash-and iron, but in a pinch, it'll do - sort of Come as you are. When the major obstacles which make a community of faith impossible are removed, the powerful symbols of the liturgy are able to work unimpeded to produce their effect of establishing a relationship between the participant and the Risen Lord. That effect, of course, is
a work of grace, and it would be manipulative, blasphemous and fruitless to attempt somehow to 'produce' it. All we can do is help the participants to the right dispositions. Without our directly intending it, the selection of participants and the prior activities of the weekend supported the development of an elementary community of faith, helping the participants towards the kind of readiness which enabled the liturgy to achieve its effect.
But I think something more was also at work in those young folk.
A pedagogy which helps people to reflect on their primordial religious experience so as to become reflectively conscious of it, and to be able to relate it to the more developed forms of religion, seems to me what pre-evangelisation must be about in the contemporary situation, and should replace futile attempts to catechise the unevangelised.
Religious symbols, especially the great sacramental mysteries, are the gateways to powerful experiences of God. They are like bridges we cross to enter another world of consciousness, in which we can know even realities which completely transcend the familiar world of everyday life. But the gateways can only be found and entered by those who have grown to a certain level of faith.
I think this is the most fundamental reason why the liturgies on those retreat weekends seemed to touch many of the participants so deeply. They had sufficient faith to walk through that door and, for some at least, the liturgy was like the striking of a great gong, which reverberated through them and awakened answering vibrations in areas of their experience that had until then been out on the periphery of consciousness, like stars lurking at the edge of the universe - intuitions of God hitherto shrouded in 'dark consciousness', dim and unrealised, arising from unprocessed experiences in which God is present but unrecognised, such as the death of a loved one; the birth of a child, the beauty of nature, the entrancing power of music, the sense of an answer to prayer, the rebirth of hope, fleeting moments of inexplicable joy or peace of soul. (These are the things people most often mention in interviews and surveys as opening them to awareness of the Presence or Power which some call God.)
An event that links into this deepest level of unsayable experiences can have the force of a bolt of lightning, and is memorable even when far less intense. It is a moment when faith tunnels all the way through to experience and breaks out into one's real life - the place where one lives. In that moment, God is the 'really Real', Christ shines in glory, and the disciples want to put up tents and stay there.
Can today's youth come to experience the power of liturgy? It is quite a few years since the retreats of which I spoke. In a research project on the spirituality of today's teenagers and emerging adults (published by John Garratt, 2007: M Mason, A Singleton, R Webber, The Spirit of Generation y), we asked those attending denominational schools about worship and prayer services at school. They liked the ones which were 'interactive' and those in which students took significant roles; a small nucleus of religiously committed students found them highly beneficial. But a majority of the nominally Catholic students came from families who had left behind most of their Catholic beliefs and practices; these students were far from ready to enter into liturgy, Despite twelve years of religious education, they knew very little about their tradition, and were skeptical that it had anything 'relevant' to offer them. They would rather not have had to be there, and it is hard to resist the conclusion that it would have been better both for them and the religiously alive minority if they had not been, as their presence in large numbers deadens the tone of the whole celebration and inhibits the participation of those for whom it is potentially meaningful and life-giving.
The early Church's discipline of the catechumenate did not admit to the Liturgy of the Eucharist those who had not yet come to an appropriate level of faith development. That should still be our practice - not only for Eucharist, but for all the sacraments. PastoralIy, there is nothing to gain and much to lose by making sacraments routine public events open to all, and even more is lost 'when they are imposed as compulsory requirements. The theology underlying such a practice appears not to acknowledge sufficiently that faith is God's gift, that its growth cannot be forced, that the attempt to do so tends to close off the person to the action of grace.
In a final chapter of The Spirit of Generation Y, we explore the implications of our findings about Generation Y for ministry to youth, and for pastoral care in church schools. I do not have space for a summary here. Suffice it to say that we advocate an approach that accepts that the religious situation of youth has changed radically in the last fifty years, and those working with them need to go back to very basic levels - to the pre-evangelisation mentioned above, I cling to the conviction, based on what I consider sound evidence from research, that even among the large proportion of Gen Y who show little or no interest in religion, the still small voice of primordial religious experience is present, even if only as a deeply-buried intuition, waiting for the midwife who will help it to be born into consciousness.
Fr Michael Mason "Liturgy and Today's Youth" written for Liturgy News.
Note, some sections of the original article were omitted due to length. A full copy of the article is available from Liturgy Brisbane.