Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
One of the patterns I have noticed among combox chatter when Latin, litanies and rich liturgy are discussed is the ever-present individual who chimes in with, “You just want to take the Church back to the 1950s.” This prevalent sentiment in the blogosphere and beyond (I assume it isn’t just one person repeating it over and over) seems to imply that Catholicism in the 1950s was bad and anything that came after it is good.
This “old is bad, new is good” idea is an odd response given the age of the Catholic Church – it’s pretty much older than dirt. The Church is the only organization still standing that witnessed the Roman Empire, the historic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the five decades from 1960 to the present are not much more than a flash on the timeline of 2000 years of Church history. Much of what exists within the Church, from the Mass to prayer to defining doctrine, happened before 1960.
But even if we ignore all of these facts, there is still another compelling reason to consider looking back to what the Church offered before the 1960s: simply the reality that the Church knows how to help people become holy. Those of us accused of wanting to dredge up the 1950s (personally, I prefer the 1350s – the Dawn of the Renaissance) aren’t simply looking for traditional trappings but to slake the very real thirst for true holiness and union with God.
Many of the changes that have come about since the 1960s have focused on making the Mass more accessible to parishioners – certainly a good thing. Pope John XXIII’s stated goal of the Second Vatican Council was to “throw open the windows of the Church so we can see out and the people can see in.” But there have been changes (that were not necessarily part of the Council) that offer a lot of conveniences to the Sunday Mass-goer: the relaxing of fasting requirements before Mass, on Fridays and during Lent; the almost exclusive use of the vernacular, freeing up those in the pew from learning any Latin; a general trend in homiletics to downplay moral theology; changes to the types of music played and the instruments used in to play it; and any sort of a dress code for the laity. Even the odd anomaly of “Ascension Thursday Sunday” and other nomadic feasts has more to do with not wanting to make it difficult for people to get to Mass.
There is another industry that has undergone similar cultural changes as the Church: the food industry (which is even older than the Church). For decades, convenience has been a significant driving factory in food production. People want tasty food that they can select and consume quickly without much regard for where it came from, who prepared it, how it was prepared, what it is prepared with – and they want to “have it their way” any time and in any attire.
Over the last few decades, resistance to fast eating has been gaining steam. Allergies, disease, obesity, broken communities, and the environment are some of reasons people are thinking more about what they eat and how. Trends are popping up all over such as farm-to-fork restaurants, homesteading, expanding farmers markets, the global Slow Food movement (founded in Rome as a protest to a McDonald's at the Spanish Steps), and the emphasis on organic food, with even Costco promising to be a leader in the market. People aren’t just interested in Soylent, that is, just filling bodies with the right nutrients, but something deeper and broader. These new trends involve every aspect of food preparation from food sourcing, farming techniques, fair trade, transport and so on. Most people involved in this cultural shift aren’t condemning the old or the new outright, but trying to figure what actually works to nourish bodies, enrich local communities and care for the environment. Of course, there are also inconveniences to a slower approach to feeding people – it isn’t cheap, it takes longer and requires forethought and planning, and it relies upon local resources and availability of products. Most people who are concerned about their health and beyond think the expense is worth it.
The parallels between nourishing food and nourishing faith go deeper. We have to ask ourselves, have we become McDonald's type consumers at Mass? Are we focused upon making Mass as painless as possible in order to check off the Sunday obligation box? If so, then perhaps we have forgotten what the real reason for the Mass is in the first place.
The Church has shown over and over that it isn’t opposed to innovation and new ideas, even if it happens at an elephant’s pace (the Church has time on its side). But so much of the culture in our parishes doesn’t truly lead the average Joe to a deeper holiness. This isn’t to say it can’t be found, but so many just go through the motions, unaware of the most basic moral tenets, such as the worth reception of the Eucharist. This is why the Church is hemorrhaging numbers – not because it isn’t trendy.
People are starved for true spiritual nourishment. There is a real hunger for something deeper, transforming, personal and real. They want God. As ever, the truth of the Church as the Body of Christ offers the best nourishment there is – we just have to be willing to serve it. It may not be “having it your way,” but hopefully it is God’s.