Rorate Caeli has a very insightful and sobering post about the consequences of tinkering with the liturgy. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, Ireland, in a recent homily to the Dublin Diocesan Liturgical Resource Center retreat, canvassed the topic of Mass attendance as affected by the quality of worship. The emphases below are those of Rorate Caeli. My comments follow afterwards.

On the basis of annual head-counts in the Churches of the Archdiocese, it would appear that on any normal Sunday about 20% of the Catholic population of the Archdiocese of Dublin is present at Mass. That is significantly lower than in any other diocese in Ireland. In more than one parish the Sunday practice rate is about 3%. The very low level of practice is not primarily, as some have said, in the somewhat depopulated areas of the inner city but in poorer parishes on the outskirts of the city. Attendance is highest in middle class parishes.

Saying that does not mean that only 20% of Catholics practice regularly. Some may attend on one or more occasion each month. Some may wish to attend weekly but for various reasons do not manage to do so. Taken all in all, however, these statistics are to say the least a cause of great concern.

Even more alarming is the fact that these statistics take no account of the age profile of those who attend Mass regularly. The presence of young people is clearly much lower, despite the fact that family Masses account for a not insignificant proportion of Mass attendance in some parishes.

More and more we encounter people who say that they are Catholic but that going to Mass is not very high on their agenda. There is a feeling that going to Church is not a significant dimension of being a Christian.

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You do not simply go to Mass. The liturgy is not a performance but an action in which God’s people actively participate. The liturgy is however in the first place the action of God. Active participation is not just about us saying and doing things. There is an active participation which is fostered through silence and reflection and interiorly identifying ourselves with what is taking place. In today’s world there is anyway a superabundance of words and a fear of silence. The liturgy must always lead people beyond the superficial and fleeting character of much of contemporary culture.

Where the liturgy becomes performance we can very easily end up with banalities and with what some have called the “disneyisation” of the liturgy. Such banality is often linked also with a sense of personal protagonism, at times by the priest or of a musical group or even of guest speakers. Our reading this morning reminds us that “we have nothing to boast about to God”. The liturgy is not our work.

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No, the liturgy is not our work, it is something that is handed down. The ancient rites of the Church, East and West, are the products of more than 1 1/2 millenia of handing down. One of the very real problems with the so-called “reform” of the Mass– leaving for a moment the actual rubrics but instead focusing on the new Mass as it is all-too-often celebrated in actual parishes around the world– is the fact that it is the work of people. All too often it is the work of “experts”, real or imagined, who substitute their judgment for that of the Church. The focus is on what “we” “do”, as though we are the stars of some bad Broadway play.

The Archbishop is right to be concerned that only 20% of people in his Archdiocese (in Ireland!) go to Mass. And he is right to note that young people are not well-represented among that number. Go to a Life Teen Mass and you will see the many substantial roadblocks put in the way of a young person who wishes to worship as a Catholic. It is nothing short of appalling. “Youth” Masses of the banal, modernistic variety do not attract Catholic youth. Go to a Mass in the Extraordinary Form and look around you if you want to see where the young people in this Church are. Why? Because the Mass is timeless–ever ancient, ever young. It doesn’t need to be made “relevant”.

The very effort to modernize the liturgy, instead of making more relevant, had the effect of freezing it in a particular time period. It feels like the early seventies at most Masses.

His Grace also makes an excellent point about actual participation of the faithful not consisting in a multiplicity of words but in silence and interior worship. The average Mass of the average parish abhors silence. You can’t meditate, you can’t focus. No silence at the consecration. No silence at Communion. No silence after Mass for thanksgiving.

The loss of the sacred in our liturgies has emptied our pews.