We Need Sacred Liturgy, Not “Better” Worship

These are sobering times in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As noted this week by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the total number of “active” Catholics within the diocese has plummeted from 914,000 in 1980 to just 632,000 in 2015. Since 2000, nearly 100,000 fewer Catholics are attending weekly Mass, a decline of 40 percent for the diocese.  

In discussing this ongoing collapse of the faith within his diocese, Bishop David Zubik told the Tribune-Review:  

“We need to make our worship better…better homilies, better music, and more people.”

While His Excellency no doubt means well and has good intentions, we should still be troubled by his choice of words. These words, of course, are all too commonly employed in diocese after diocese, suggesting that the nature of the problem at hand (and therefore the required solution) still eludes many of our shepherds.

The solution to declining Mass attendance and “active” Catholics today isn’t the need for “better worship.”  Such a vague and subjective term is frankly no real solution at all.  What is needed, possibly now more than ever, is for our sacred liturgy to once again be just that, sacred.

Forty percent fewer Catholics attend weekly Mass in the Diocese of Pittsburgh largely because a prior generation sought to give them their version of “better worship.”  A sanctuary full of laity, profane music void of any hint of the Church’s liturgical heritage, and architecture that celebrated minimalism over tradition…for many, this was “better worship.”

I have written before of the current push by many in the Church for the Rebuilt model to be employed by parishes.  From the Amazing Parish program to diocesan conferences, the drive to attract fallen away Catholics back to Holy Mass by employing the modern practices of Protestant mega churches is viewed as “better worship” by some.

Dimly lit sanctuaries that resemble stages, full on rock bands situated only yards from the altar, jumbo television screens, “relevant” homilies that address many topics (except Catholicism), coffee bars in the narthex, and armies of laity…always up and always moving.  

This is why we cannot simply settle for “better worship.”  There are those in positions of influence today who believe that trading authentic Catholicism, that which is timeless and universal, for a contemporary Evangelical praise and worship service is better.  

Words matter. As Catholics we should never simply settle for what’s good or better. Instead, we need to restore the sacred wherever it has been lost. 

Here’s the problem though.  Many are firmly invested in their brand of neo-Catholicism and apparently view a forty percent drop in Mass attendance as preferable to the restoration of Catholic tradition and orthodoxy.  

I’ve written about the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska before. They have provided a blueprint for an engaged laity and booming vocations for decades, and yet few other dioceses seek to rebuild using their model. But why is this? 

Is it because Lincoln’s Catholic schools are staffed primarily by orthodox female religious and diocesan priests who teach only the authentic faith. 

Or maybe it’s because Lincoln has resisted the modern innovation of the feminized sanctuary, never having abandoned the practice of male only altar servers and acolytes for Mass. 

Regardless of motivations, what we do know is that more parishes are looking to a Protestant playbook for rebuilding Catholicism.  Hopefully we can all agree that this is troubling. 

Father Michael White, pastor of Church of Nativity and co-author of Rebuilt, in discussing this very topic wrote:

“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.” (Rebuilt, p. 30)

Understanding that the idea of “better worship” is problematic at best, let’s look instead to just one example of how the more precise term of “sacred liturgy” demonstrates a commitment to the authentic rebuilding of the Church:  liturgical music. 

Where Bishop Zubik references “better music”, we need to remember that the liturgical movement of the twentieth century spoke specifically of Gregorian chant.

When Vatican II said that chant has pride of place in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116) the Council was simply reaffirming an already established and ongoing reform of music within the Roman Rite which had begun with Pope St. Pious X in his (1903) motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, all of which was reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his Post-Synodal Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis.

This is how Catholics authentically make worship “better”…by looking to the truths and traditions taught by Holy Mother Church…and not to evangelical mega churches that lack a tabernacle, a priest, or a tradition that dates back 2,000 years.

Pray that calls for reform in Pittsburgh and beyond seek not soft, subjective, language such as good or better.  Rather, may we instead see those in authority seek the sacred when looking to address liturgical failings.   Catholicism has a blueprint that works…and it isn’t Protestantism.

Photo Credit:  Brent Hohman, The Momentum Studio

Posted on August 20, 2016, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. In order to successfully challenge the “Rebuilt” model to those invested therein, you can argue the point of orthodoxy in worship as a mirror of the same quality in belief, but it won’t convince those who see the appearances of success in this model, and Nativity is, by that measure, a success. No, you have to go beyond the present, into both the past, and into the future, and remind the skeptic that the need to reinvent oneself every so often has its disadvantages in the long run. We’ve been down this road before, in the 1960s and 1970s. That we package it more effectively, or that evangelical Protestants succeed with it, doesn’t change anything.

    • “That we package it more effectively, or that evangelical Protestants succeed with it, doesn’t change anything.” And invariably – at least in my experience – the evangelicals do a better job at this sort of worship, and this sort of music.

      Which isn’t to say that Catholics who try it don’t suffer from the same weaknesses, and more. It’s typically very dependent on the personality of the pastor, and its emotional highs are not sustainable in the long run – always a risk when you’re selling something that is at risk for veering closer to entertainment than adoration. Church of the Nativity produces some nice sized crowds at Mass, and they do a good job at making newcomers welcome; but I really do wonder how CotN will fair once Fr. White moves on to a new assignment. And most priests don’t have his unique gifts or personality.

  2. Many of our new families are mixed in religion, and they do not feel welcome into the Church. There are no groups for them. There are no groups for young adults either. Sadly, my extend family’s 20-38 year olds only has one couple married in the Church. That couple does not practice for there is no community to support their mixed marriage. Catholic schools are only for the rich or the poor. At 7,000 per child, most middle class families cannot afford it. Another community lost.
    Change the liturgy, don’t change it. If there is no community, there is not a Church.

  3. I, for one, don’t fault His Excellency for his choice of words. Who am I to say that his diocese isn’t in need of “better worship”? The real issue is in what this “better worship” consists. Surely it will necessarily involve tapping into the Church’s treasury of sacred music, to include chant and Renaissance polyphony. It will also help to offer at least one Mass on the Sunday schedule wherein priest and people face the same direction during the Eucharistic Prayer.

    A coffee bar in the narthex or vestibule? What harm is there in that so long as the space itself can accommodate the “holy commotion” which might flow therefrom? A coffee bar doesn’t necessarily mean the end of orthodoxy.

    As for looking to Evangelical mega-churches for ideas, hey, if it brings more people to confession, then let’s do it!

    The fact is we’re living in 2016, not 1516, and even as we draw from the incredible riches of our heritage, we must also be able to present, live and celebrate the Gospel in an insecure milieu which seems to have embraced the notion that God is dead.

  4. What we’re talking about here is goals and objectives. The objective is better worship, which is God-centered. Better liturgy is people-centered and is a goal along the way. Liturgy gets us there. It brings us to the Table. God receives our worship and we leave with Him in our lives. Thanks for listening.

  5. Catholicism is a sacramental religion, God-oriented, not people-oriented. The blessed Sacrament, grace, communion with God (the working of the Holy Spirit), reverence, inner peace, listening quietly, adoration, thanksgiving, praise, supplication, prayer — all formerly key components of the Mass — have been downplayed or entirely removed from our liturgy.

    Protestantism is a “preaching” religion. It’s about communion with other people! It is not sacramental. The minister is front and center with a microphone, talking, persuading, hyping, encouraging, shouting and clarifying — with words, words, words — not THE Word (Son of God made flesh and dwelling among us, not in some vague spiritual way, but physically).

    It is about people having a jolly good time so they can go out and be good (and perhaps prosperous) for the coming week. To make sure they return, there is pumping music, fancy lighting, shouting and clapping, fair trade coffee and artisan pastry, and plenty of the latest technology.

    Preaching and music are essential to protestant worship, it would collapse without them! They are both IRRELEVANT to Catholic liturgy. Nice, but not the reason people fill the pews. Some of the most inspiring and beautiful masses are not High Tridentine, but a simple novus low-mass with a devout priest and a handful of devout faithful on a quiet weekday morning.

    Here’s the rub: if people want the hoopla and fun of protestant churches, hey, they simply go to a protestant church. If Catholics want a preaching religion, they go to a protestant church. If Catholics want intimacy with God, and the Catholic liturgy is no longer a sacramental and sure road to loving God, they LEAVE the Catholic faith, Usually by degrees of discouragement and finally sorrow.

    The way to “up the numbers” is to stop focusing on the numbers!!! Focus on the Mass and the faith, and the numbers will go up, with both return Catholics and converts. Focus on making the Mass a poor imitation of a megachurch, and all you do is retain a bit longer a few borderline Catholics. GOD is what causes people to stay at mass, grace is what brings them back, not homilies or music.

    • Just some thoughts on your interesting comments.
      Preaching and music are not essential in the Protestant world. In fact I have heard some the worst preaching and worst music in Protestant churches. What is absolutely indispensable for them is the word of God in Holy Scripture. I will confess right now that I am a Christian musician and I believe music in worship holds a very high place in both Catholic and Protestant worlds.
      You mention that if people want hoopla etc. they will leave, and leave they have. Forget the differences in worship between Protestant or Catholic for a moment. Bad worship experiences turn people off and away from God. A bad choir, bad preaching, fumbling through the liturgy can be devastating. A great choir, excellent preaching and carefully followed liturgy can bring us before the very throne room of God!
      Ideally we should not play the numbers game but unfortunately it is a numbers game where the rubber meets the road.
      The Catholic church should not pander to public taste however improving the worship experience would not go amiss.

      • The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not instituted by Christ in order for us to “improve the worship experience”. This perpetual sacrifice is the only thing we can offer that truly pleases God, not music, or good preaching in fact those things (in a lot of cases) detract from what is taking place, (thats why its silent at the Canon of the Mass). It is the only thing that pleases God because it was given to us by God Himself. That same church (the one God gave us), gave us the Bible as well, there wasn’t a single Protestant in the world until 100 years after the printing press was invented ~1400 (by a Catholic), and people started making their own interpretations (which is also condemned in the Bible several times). You might like my second post Where are the Elements for Salvatuon?

    • “a simple novus low-mass with a devout priest and a handful of devout faithful on a quiet weekday morning.”

      It’s true that music is not essential to the Mass in the way it is to Protestant worship; but that does not mean it is not important. There are centuries of papal documents, to say nothing of the exhortations of numerous saints and doctors, on the importance of singing the Mass (as in the propers, rather than merely slapping on hymns) – see for example St Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini: “It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”

      A Low Mass is a fine, prayerful and wonderful thing – certainly on weekdays – but it was never supposed to be normative, certainly never on Sundays or other holy days of obligation. Indeed, the Low Mass Culture (a legacy mainly of Irish pietism) which prevailed in America before the Council, and which too often prevails in many TLM communities, has been a hindrance to its growth in many respects, and part of why it became vulnerable to liturgical wreckovaters on by mid-century.

  6. The Blessed Trinity does not need anything that human beings can offer. Jesus, God Almighty is the Savior of men and women. The Sacraments do nothing for the Blessed Trinity. The Church, Sacraments, and every good thing on earth are for human beings. Love centers Itself on human beings. Human beings, from the vantage point of the Deity, are special and of the utmost importance. (Cf. sentence two, above). Why the Blessed Trinity created everything, especially human beings, is simply put in the Catholic Catechism, but the thought is bewildering.

  7. Go, preach the Good News, baptize. If we aren’t making disciples, but instead, blaming the world for not wanting to be a disciple, it’s rather difficult to call ourselves Christians or Catholics. We have a mission given by Christ. The mission wasn’t to protect the church, the Holy Spirit will do that. Our mission is to be about “saving the lost, not serving the saved.” How arrogant we have become. God forgive us.

  8. Poor neos, they just don’t get it! Until they revert back to God’s true religion they will spin their wheels and they’re protestantized liturgies and halls will continue to empty…

    Not because they are using or not mega “church”, if it can be called that, approaches, because they have turned their back on God.

  9. This article is to be read slowly and rated highly. Thank you so much God Bless us as we worship with reverence and joy of Who Jesus is upon our altars!! We only have today. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide our silent prayer and heart prayers to be awakened. Lynn

  10. I can agree with much of the sentiment, however I do not believe that we need to abandon the sacred tradition while at the same time sincerely attempting to engage the faithful. I could read this article and think ghT the intention is to further divide the Christian faithful rather than find reasons to unite. There are many reasons not covered in this article as to why so many Catholic men and women have “fallen away”

  11. Bp. Zubik and his predecessors in Pittsburgh are personally responsible for the sad state of the Church in his diocese. They replaced the priestly Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with a semi-Protestant, glad-handing, Sunday-go-to-meeting, “gathering of the people,” in order to celebrate, not the Sacrifice of Calvary, but a mere “memorial meal,” presided over by a “presbyter.” But the problem for the Church is much more serious than low Mass attendance and bad preaching. Catholic priests don’t teach Catholicism anymore; instead, they teach a faith based on a catechism which seems to have only two basic tenets: God loves you, and Jesus was a nice guy. The result? Most Catholics believe abortion is allowed, divorce and remarriage is allowed, pre-marital sex is allowed, the sacraments are optional, and the Holy Eucharist is just a symbolic piece of bread.

    You reap what you sow, Your Excellency.

  12. They’ve absolutely chosen the wrong model. They look to Protestants who only have preaching and “praise and worship” to offer to the people in their pews and do not have what Christ has given His Bride, the Church. And so with the couple of tools at their disposal, maybe they’ve done well with them, but at the cost of what?: REJECTING what Jesus taught; “If you do not drink of my blood and eat of my flesh, you have no life in you.” God love our separated brothers and sisters but they will say that this particular statement meant that…… we need to read the Bible, or something.

    The model that the vast majority of our pastors and Bishops can’t stand to consider is the possibility that societies like the FSSP, the ICKSP, IBP, and, YES, even (“say it ain’t so!”), the SSPX by offering Catholicism as its always been have hit upon the “right model”. In my native place, the FSSP chapel has run out of room and is building a completely new church, and the SSPX chapel is filled to overflowing at each of their Masses, and long waiting lists for their school. They’ve both sent highly qualified young men on to their respective seminaries who resided in a diocese whose seminary is no more than 15 miles away, and yet, the appeal of Tradition would not allow these particular young men to think for even a moment of turning their lives over to a diocesan seminary which would make them into liturgical “presiders”/MCs, presiding over a “gathering ’round the table” and who will offer homilies about the importance of being “nice”.

    Never-the-less, even though far-too-many of his brethren are still in “Crisis? What crisis?!” mode, at least Bishop Zubick is pondering the question of “Why?”. The tide is turning, Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart will triumph, and Our Lord will “make all things new.”

    • What good does this do if these societies still recognize a heretic for a “pope”? How are we to know if such ordinations of priests and consecrations of sacraments are even still valid? It is not a question of liturgy as you have stated but of dogma. Infiltrated by Protestants and ecumenism, modernised to fit the likings of men rather than fulfill the commandments of God. The problem is when you look at a situation like this and you say, “okay, they have the traditional mass everything is fine”. It sounds just as bad as a Protestant and the whole point is lost. Just because the traditional Mass is there doesn’t mean people have the Faith. True Catholics need to be back in the Vatican, not wolves in sheeps clothing.

  13. Another excellent article diagnosing the various liturgical psychopathies plaguing the Church. Sadly, many of the dioceses affected by various plagues are living in denial, unable to come to terms with the points you have rightly raised. Many patients are dying and do not want to admit to the fact that they themselves are hindering their recovery.

    Celebrating the Mass with a mind to the transcendentals—Truth, Goodness and Beauty—is a simple enough starting point that eludes ideologues bent on reshaping the Liturgy in their own tawdry image.

    Furthermore, entrenched indifference has reinforced a moral blindness among Catholics to the point they simply cannot appreciate authentic beauty, which is to say authentic worship and faithful living.

    So, while Rome burns, liturgical progressives fiddle, unable to admit that their unfounded bias is robbing Catholics of the opportunity to worship God as God intends and from receiving the blessings God gives when we live according to His designs. Where God is worshipped according to His design, the Faith blossoms, grace abounds and vocations thrive.

  14. The greatest need for the human heart is what it has always been — to experience the salvation of God by renouncing our sin and pride and accepting the unfathomable, saving love of Christ. Anything less is just more empty branding.

  15. I see this as a chicken and egg issue. Is this a faith crisis or a liturgy/worship crisis? Are people leaving the faith or no longer have faith because of the poor liturgy or lack lustre worship or is the liturgy poor and the worship lacklustre because so many in charge have lost faith. I think it is a fair question and not sure of the best path toward correction.

  16. Lex orandi lex credendi. It would improve catechesis if it looked like we actually believe what we teach.

  17. A contributor here, in the middle of an otherwise insightful comment, opined that preaching and music “are both IRRELEVANT to Catholic liturgy.” Rather than voice my own views on the matter, I should like to point the gentle contributor and other gentle readers to the following from the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council:

    “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even that that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (see more at para 112ff in Chap VI of Sacrosanctum Concilium). See also paragraph 5 in Musicam Sacram for a wonderfully penetrating discussion of song, liturgy and prayer.

    Sacrosanctum Concilium does indeed affirm that “…the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty”; all the same, the liturgy “contains much instruction for the faithful” (para 33 in Chap I). “By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself…..” (para 52 in Chap II). The sermon is not THE liturgy, to be sure, but it is “part” of the liturgy.

    Lest I be accused of taking these passages out of context and cherry-picking them in order to justify a merely personal point-of-view, may I refer all those of good will, open mind and orthodox faith to the documents themselves……

  18. I can understand your frustrating with Bishop Zubik. The bishop in my home diocese recently decided that the best way for the diocese to survive the decrease in number of priests was to decrease the number of parishes. There are 108 parishes and he would like to close 40 of those parishes. In this plan he does not mention any programs to help bring about more vocations.

    I completely agree that a lack of traditional services is leading to decreased numbers of active parishioners in our dioceses. Over the last 50 years there have been small changes made that have made the Church unrecognizable in some cases. The difference did not become apparent to me until I went to a mass in the Diocese of Lincoln. The first time I went to mass in Lincoln I felt like I was stepping back in time. Initially I did not care for it because it was not what I was used to but after I reflected on it I realized that my way of thinking was wrong. I realized that the more the Catholic church tries to please what people want the more Protestant it becomes.

    I do not say this as an insult, the initial Protestant churches set out to reform the Church and I pray for the reunification of the Church but the Protestant churches have gotten out of hand. As soon as someone does not like something that is said at their church they break away and create their own church. This happens so often that the Christian message is diluted and loses it’s meaning. This is what I fear is happening to our Catholic churches when the priesthood is aging and are just going through the motions because the parishioners are not engaged.

    I agree that the Lincoln Diocese needs to be looked to as a guide to restore the Catholic Church back to its former glory. I just hope and pray that the church leaders such as the bishops can swallow their pride and become the leaders with the fire that they started out with when they were ordained.

  19. An older article but to the point. We rely on God and his grace , not flashing lights and/or novelty for the keeping of his sheep, and the pruning of his vinyard.

  20. No such thing as modern Catholics. Christ’s teachings and the 10 Commandments of God remains the same, and our duty as Faithful followers of Christ is simply to obey. We do not have the power nor the authority to alter the teachings of Christ nor the Commandments of God.

  21. I’m in Lincoln diocese. We have women readers and my former parish is using the mega church Rebuilt method to attract. Ad Orientem is rare and not used where i attend. There is just no substitute for an FSSP Parish with the TLM.

    • Yes, not all is ideal in Lincoln – it’s just better than (or less bad than) nearly every other diocese. I’m sorry to hear that REBUILT has penetrated there.

      Just a nitpick: I love the FSSP – they were my introduction to traditional liturgy – but they are not the only option, even for TLM-exclusive personal parishes (for example, there is no FSSP in my area in Maryland, but there is the priory of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem, an Ecclesia Dei order which has a charism as Augustinian canons). Which is not a bad thing, since there’s room for different approaches to tradition.

    • MarytheHeadCrusher

      Yes. I attended an Amazing Parish conference in Denver. It stressed the importance of a “Leadership Team” hand-selected by the priest. Then, when we returned home, the newly formed Leadership Team began propositioning our priests to disband the parish council since the Leadership Team was now in charge. They referred to themselves as the “Inner Circle” and we were privy to all kinds of confidential materials and sensitive issues relating to other parishioners. When I expressed my discomfort in knowing so much about people’s private lives, and after hearing our priests’ grievances with the volunteer musicians, volunteer ushers, volunteer acolytes, etc., etc., I was told that it was the Leadership Team/Inner Circle’s responsibility to listen to our priests vent about their frustrations since we were “like their wives”. There was so much wrong with this model: lay parishioners working behind the scenes without other parishioners’ awareness of their shadow government approach; the clash between the elected Parish council and the Leadership Team; the occasion for calumny and gossip; the idea that female parishioners on the Leadership Team were pseudo-wives (instead of the Church as Bride!). When I quit the Leadership Team, I was subsequently shunned by the “Inner Circle” and one of the priests. I knew too many private things about parishioners that I should never have known. There also was a sense that it was such an honor to have been included in this inner sanctum, and so my defection seemed unreasonable or even treasonous. I withdrew almost entirely from the Parish I love so as not to sow division or to dwell in my disappointment. I did not want to share my experience with others for fear I could cause scandal or obstruct another person’s faith journey. I remained silent, hurt, disappointed, and estranged from a community to which I had made many sacrifices and given so much of my heart and love. I had felt so excited to be invited to participate with my priests at this Amazing Parish conference, but it proved to be a devastating experience for my own faith journey. I’m no longer so young, idealistic, vulnerable, or earnest in my Church volunteerism. I love Christ. I love the Church. And, after the Amazing Parish experiment, I am more committed than ever to traditional forms of liturgy, worship, and lay involvement. Thank you and God bless!!!

  22. Thanks< Richard. I'm still in the introduction phase.

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