Youth, liturgy, and the need for true worship

Liturgy – like the Faith it celebrates – never admits of an “erector-set” approach; good liturgy, true liturgy is received, not fabricated, and it takes seriously the human person in all his complexity of body and soul.

Father David Angelino, parochial vicar at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Houston, elevates a monstrance during eucharistic adoration July 29, 2017, at the Galveston-Houston Archdiocesan Youth Conference. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Catholic Herald)

As many know, in March there was a “pre-synodal” gathering of young people in Rome as part of the preparatory process for this fall’s full-blown synod on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.” I had a few questions about the participants. First, who chose them? Second, why were non-Catholics and even non-Christians among the group? I cannot imagine a gathering of Hasidic Jewish or Muslim youth including Catholic young people to provide input on the way their faith communities should be relating to their own.

For the most part, the final document issued (allegedly) by the young participants is innocuous, although regularly peppered with “buzz words” usually indicative of a leftward tilt. Having been a teacher my entire life, I cannot imagine that the document in question was indeed written by the young people themselves as the style is bureaucratic “Church talk.” The only reason I hesitate to say this apodictically is that the frequent grammatical errors and poor sentence structure do suggest the work of this generation! I also find it rather odd that a generation that is notoriously uncatechized (through no fault of their own) are put in a position to advise a synod on what needs to be done – not unlike a patient telling the physician the remedy for one’s ailment. One must hope that first shot across the bow is not the prelude to yet another manipulation of the synod process. The delegation from the United States is of very high quality, both the four bishops and the two lay women and religious Brother.

One very valuable paragraph in the document deals with the Sacred Liturgy and the sacramental life:

We long for experiences that can deepen our relationship with Jesus in the real world. Initiatives that are successful offer us an experience of God. Therefore, we respond to initiatives that offer us an understanding of the Sacraments, prayer and the liturgy, in order to properly share and defend our faith in the secular world. The Sacraments are of great value to us who desire to develop a deeper sense of what they mean in our lives. This is true of marriage preparation, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, preparation for baptism of children and so forth. Because of the lack of clear and attractive presentation as to what the Sacraments truly offer, some of us go through the process of receiving but undervaluing them.

Another paragraph merits attention as well:

Adoration, Meditation and Contemplation – We also appreciate the contrast of silence offered by the Church’s tradition of Eucharistic Adoration and contemplative prayer. It provides a space away from the constant noise of modern communication and it is here that we encounter Jesus. Silence is where we can hear the voice of God and discern His will for us. Many outside of the Church also appreciate meditation, and the Church’s rich culture of this could be a bridge to these secular but spiritual people. It can be counter-cultural, but effective.

I would like to use the rest of this column to flesh out how these observations of the final document can materialize in a proper and effective manner.

We hear a great deal today about “culture”: the youth culture, the culture of life, the culture of death, the anti-culture. And so, I would like to begin my reflections by demonstrating the connection between culture and worship. As a die-hard Latin teacher, I want to establish the etymological linkage. The word cultura (culture) comes from the word cultus (cult, as in “worship”). To enter into a language is to enter into the mindset of a people. Thus, one can say that for the ancient Romans, “culture” was rooted in “cult” or worship. We can smirk at the Greeks and Romans of old with their thousand little gods and goddesses inhabiting the Pantheon but, for all that, they still lived within a transcendental horizon. In other words, the individual human being was answerable to a higher and ultimate authority. And within that horizon, those peoples forged impressive cultures. Similarly, within the Christian scheme of things, we find that what historians have dubbed “The Age of Faith”– the High Middle Ages – produced a nearly unimaginable font of literature, art, music and architecture – unrivaled to this very moment.

On the other hand, we look at the last century and what do we encounter? What many commentators have labeled “the century of blood.” Indeed, more people died in the wars and under the repressive, godless regimes of the twentieth century than in all previous eras combined. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council got it right in asserting that “without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 36). That should be the object lesson we carry with us through this century and which we emblazon onto the consciousness of our young people.

Sociologists of religion remind us that worship always occurs within a context: cultural, political, sociological, religious. Worship forms for the Catholic community underwent a tremendous change in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. The Council itself was needed and had great potential, but it took place in a time of unparalleled social upheaval. Not to have lived then is to be almost incapable of appreciating the degree of confusion and uprootedness which characterized the years of Vatican II and, most especially, its immediate aftermath. To many, it appeared that the train of the Church had been derailed, and one of the first victims of that crash was the Sacred Liturgy. If the plan of the Council Fathers had been followed carefully; if unlawful experimentation had not been tolerated; if unwarranted and unwise changes had not been introduced; things would have been different.

Indeed, the life of the Church would not have been so massively disrupted, as so sadly reflected in: the 75% decline in Sunday Mass attendance; the 65% decline among women religious; the loss of approximately 100,000 priests worldwide during the last decade of Pope Paul VI’s pontificate; the halving of our Catholic school system in the United States. Social theorists would warn that one cannot tinker with the signs and symbols of the liturgy without affecting the very existence of the Church. Why? Because the Church takes her life from the liturgy. It is for this very reason that Pope Benedict XVI, in particular, endeavored, step by step and brick by brick, to recapture what was imprudently discarded and to discard what was thoughtlessly introduced. Cardinal Robert Sarah has assumed Benedict’s mantle in this regard.

The question then surfaces: Who are the young people whom we are seeking to introduce to a life of worship? Saint Paul showed himself to be an exemplary teacher when, before preaching to the population of Athens, he toured their city, endeavoring to learn about their culture. Although he was not totally successful in linking up the Gospel message with the cultural reality he found in Athens, he did zero in on a crucial point of reference in his discussion of the “unknown god” whom they worshiped (cf. Acts 17:23). Cult and culture merged. Following his example, many of us have sought to engage the culture of our students by listening to their music, watching their films, and learning their lingo. Educators who have been in the business for forty or more years will remark that today’s youth are quite different from those we met as we embarked on our teaching careers.

I would summarize the picture in these terms: They are, in effect, a tabula rasa – a blank slate, especially from a religious standpoint. Talking to them about Vatican II as though it happened yesterday (which is often the impression some folks of my generation give) has the same effect as talking to them about Nicaea II. The theological battles and liturgical wars of the Sixties and Seventies are not on their radar screen; which is to say that they don’t have the baggage of the “boomers.” They tend to be rather open to traditional approaches to Catholic life and worship, perhaps as a kind of “reaction formation” to what they have experienced of instability within the Church, society-at-large, and their own families. It is also important to make a critical distinction: We are really dealing with two different groups of Catholic youth – those who are, in the main, aligned with the Church (even if not completely “on page”) and those who are totally alienated (thanks to the corrosive influence of the government school system). While not ignoring the latter, our (limited) personnel and financial resources ought to be expended on the former who, if well formed, will do the best outreach to the latter.1

In my (extensive) pastoral experience with young Catholics over a forty-year period, I find those favorably disposed to the Church are well described in Colleen Carroll’s book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.2 If you have not read this work, you must do so, as it provides invaluable information on who these young people are, how they think and, yes, how they feel.

Permit me to quote extensively from Miss Carroll’s findings. She asks:

Why are young adults who have grown up in a society saturated with relativism – which declares that ethical and religious truths vary according to the people who hold them – touting the truth claims of Christianity with such confidence? Why, in a society brimming with competing belief systems and novel spiritual trends, are young adults attracted to the trappings of tradition that so many of their parents and professors have rejected? Is this simply the reaction of a few throwbacks to a bygone era, a few scattered inheritors of a faith they never critically examined? Is it the erratic behavior of young idealists moving through an inevitably finite religious phase? Or are they the heralds of something new? Could these young adults be proof that the demise of America’s Judeo-Christian tradition has been greatly exaggerated?3

Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft answers thus: “It’s a massive turning of the tide.” He goes on: “Even though they know less history or literature or logic” than students ten or twenty years ago, “they’re more aware that they’ve been cheated and they need more. They don’t know that what they’re craving is the Holy Spirit.”4

If even half of these characterizations are accurate, we have great, good reason for hope. I should mention that Carroll’s findings are not limited to Catholicism; in reality, they cross denominational lines. Interestingly, much contemporary research shows the most striking turns toward tradition can be found within Judaism, where Reform Judaism has lost considerable ground, while Orthodoxy has grown by leaps and bounds, to the amazement of most observers.

Colleen Carroll relates a somewhat amusing story, which I recall from my own reading at the time:

In 1997, Father Willard Jabusch wrote a commentary piece for the Jesuit magazine America about the conservative bent of young Catholics. He discussed what he had seen as a priest who oversees Catholic campus ministry at the University of Chicago. Among other trends he had witnessed in the past decade, Jabusch noted student interest in the Latin Mass, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and the early Church Fathers – as well as, in the words of one young convert, “a Church that will not be shifting under my feet.”

Carroll says that “Jabusch did not expect the article to draw much reader response. So he was quite surprised when America’s readers roared with disapproval. ‘The mere fact that I brought this up – it was heresy,’ Jabusch said, recounting the negative feedback he received from middle-aged liberal Catholics who expressed offense at his account of the next generation’s conservatism. Considering himself a middle-of-the-road to liberal Catholic, Jabusch never imagined that his ideas would prove so controversial to other liberal Catholics. But their reactions were understandable, he said, because many baby-boomers have spent their lives pushing for progressive causes that the next generation may dismiss: ‘When you’ve suffered like that, you take it all very personally,’” he commented.5

Well, if that’s who our target audience is, what should we be doing with them in terms of worship? I began by saying that I believed this generation was a tabula rasa, for better and for worse. On the positive side of the ledger, the tired ideological battles of the Sixties and Seventies, as well as the liturgical wars of the Eighties and Nineties, are not theirs; they have a profound desire to encounter God; the Church herself is in the process of reassessment and re-grouping, liturgically speaking. On the negative side of the ledger, they have little understanding of Church history and theology and, all too often, very little experience of liturgy which is uplifting and letting them obtain even a fleeting glimpse of the eternal, which is to say that the element of mystery is generally lacking. The “negatives” stack up to form a kind of collective amnesia; actually, it’s not really amnesia for them because that refers to the state of having forgotten something, whereas this generation, for the most part, has never even heard these things at all. However, “amnesia” is a useful word nonetheless because it is the amnesia of the elders (clergy, educators, parents) that has produced this gaping hole in the religious experience of these young people. And amnesia has fatal consequences for adherents to a religion whose Lord and Founder commanded them to observe anamnesis or sacred memory on the eve of His Passion and Death (cf. Lk 22:19). Amnesia and anamnesis cannot co-exist in a community or individual.

For two consecutive years, on the feast of Saint Gregory the Great, I delivered homilies at the Church of the Holy Innocents on 37th Street in Manhattan, focused on what I thought was needed for that “reform of the reform” promoted by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger. In 1996, I highlighted several “gaps” in contemporary Catholic life which make worship “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23) difficult, if not impossible: the neglect of eschatology in teaching and preaching; a misreading of Sacrosanctum Concilium; an exaggerated emphasis on the horizontal, to the detriment of the vertical; a lost sense of sin; excessive subjectivity; the reduction of the language, art and music of worship to the least common denominator; celebration of sacraments without requisite faith or knowledge. The following year, I identified some important needs, if the Sacred Liturgy is to fulfill its purpose: reverence; beauty; appreciation for divine transcendence; learning (or re-learning) the meaning of symbol and ritual. I would be happy to share the full text of those homilies with anyone who is interested.

Several years ago, a Sunday radio show in New York was called “Where Catholics Meet” (I don’t know if it is still running). I would like to suggest that the Sacred Liturgy is the place “where Catholics meet.” That fact helps explain why emotions run so high and tensions surface so readily when discussions turn toward the Church’s worship life. Our privilege and solemn responsibility as parents, clergy and teachers is to ensure that our youth know, intellectually and viscerally, how to worship their Lord in the way worthy of Him and of benefit to them.

I would not be true to myself were I not to call to my side at least once the great Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. It seems that the convert-apologist had a somewhat extended correspondence with a Protestant minister on the nature of true worship. At a certain point, the minister wrote: “Well, Dr. Newman, I suppose we shall simply have to agree to disagree. You will worship God in your way, and I in mine.” With typically British wit, the Cardinal replied: “Oh no, reverend sir. You should certainly feel free to worship God in your way, but I shall worship Him in His way!” You see, liturgy – like the Faith it celebrates – never admits of an “erector-set” approach; good liturgy, true liturgy is received, not fabricated, and it takes seriously the human person in all his complexity of body and soul.

Cardinal Newman deals with this matter extensively and brilliantly in a sermon he preached fourteen years before his reception into the Catholic Church. He confronts the objections already present in his day, which sound so familiar in ours:

We sometimes meet with men, who ask why we observe these or those ceremonies or practices; why, for example, we use forms of prayer so cautiously and strictly? or why we persist in kneeling at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper? why in bowing at the name of Jesus? or why in celebrating the public worship of God only in consecrated places? why we lay such stress upon these things? These, and many such questions may be asked, and all with this argument: “They are indifferent matters; we do not read of them in the Bible.”

Then he answers such objections:

The Bible then may be said to give us the spirit of religion; but the Church must provide the body in which that spirit is to be lodged. Religion must be realized in particular acts, in order to its continuing alive. . . . There is no such thing as abstract religion. When persons attempt to worship in this (what they call) more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshiping at all. This frequently happens. Every one may know it from his own experience of himself. Youths, for instance (and perhaps those who should know better than they), sometimes argue with themselves, “What is the need of praying statedly morning and evening? why use a form of words? why kneel? why cannot I pray in bed, or walking, or dressing?” they end in not praying at all. Again, what will the devotion of the country people be, if we strip religion of its external symbols, and bid them seek out and gaze upon the Invisible? Scripture gives the spirit, and the Church the body, to our worship; and we may as well expect that the spirits of men might be seen by us without the intervention of their bodies, as suppose that the Object of faith can be realized in a world of sense and excitement, without the instrumentality of an outward form to arrest and fix attention, to stimulate the careless, and to encourage the desponding.

Finally, he presents a rationale for a life of worship consonant with both the doctrine of the faith and the needs of the human person:

Much might be said on this subject, which is a very important one. In these times especially, we should be on our guard against those who hope, by inducing us to lay aside our forms, at length to make us lay aside our Christian hope altogether. This is why the Church itself is attacked, because it is the living form, the visible body of religion; and shrewd men know that when it goes, religion will go too. This is why they rail at so many usages as superstitious; or propose alterations and changes, a measure especially calculated to shake the faith of the multitude. Recollect, then, that things indifferent in themselves become important to us when we are used to them. The services and ordinances of the Church are the outward form in which religion has been for ages represented to the world, and has ever been known to us. Places consecrated to God’s honour, clergy carefully set apart for His service, the Lord’s day piously observed, the public forms of prayer, the decencies of worship, these things, viewed as a whole, are sacred relatively to us, even if they were not, as they are, divinely sanctioned. Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason,—for the Church’s authority is from Christ,—being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls.6

So, where do we go with all of this? If Colleen Carroll has accurately taken the pulse of today’s youth, as she asserts without fear of contradiction, that “today’s postmodern young adults are not. . . concerned with having a purely rational modern faith, . . . Instead, young adults. . . are ‘rebelling’ by embracing traditional worship”; and if Cardinal Newman and the tag-team of Ratzinger/Sarah is right about the nature of Christian worship; I want to propose a three-fold program for our Catholic schools (elementary, secondary, college and campus ministry programs at secular institutions – no, elementary school is not too early to begin) and to do so with much urgency. In a 2009 address to Catholic educators in Rome, Pope Benedict spoke of “a worrying educational emergency in which the task of those called to teach assumes particular importance.”7 “A worrying educational emergency.”

The first plank in the program ought to be a serious course in the history and theology of Catholic worship, especially at the high school level. Introduce students to the “greats” of the liturgical movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to be sure, without neglecting the Fathers of the Church and the grand sweep of liturgical life spanning twenty centuries. Special attention should be given to the landmark encyclicals of Pope St. Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini (on sacred music) and of Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, and, of course, to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium.

With the first plank in place, then the second should be providing the finest examples of liturgy for the school community through Masses, holy hours, Penance services, the Liturgy of the Hours by having recourse to beautiful vestments and vessels, and music which reflects our noble tradition with Gregorian Chant, Renaissance polyphony, and worthy hymnody; in other words, having the sacred rites executed with dignity and solemnity, thus opening the door for students to cross the threshold of the Liturgy of Heaven.

Finally, we should take the best and the brightest among our students and give them an even higher level of liturgical theology and formation, in the mode of a practicum, using them as liturgical planners. This will redound to the good of the school, to be sure; it should also have a spill-over effect for students’ parishes, where they can share right now what they are learning, thus enhancing Catholic worship beyond the walls of the school and eventually reaching any parish to which they will belong for the rest of their lives.

I began this perhaps overly-long reflection by demonstrating the connection between cultura and cultus. Saint Gregory the Great saw that very same connection centuries before me, which is why he determined that the way he would transform the cesspool of the Rome of his day into a Christian civilization would be by tending, first of all, to the worship life of his flock. I submit that if it worked for sixth-century Rome, it can certainly work for twenty-first-century New York, or Los Angeles, or Oshkosh.

Colleen Carroll sums it all up admirably:

That ability – to see with the eyes of faith – is what guides today’s young orthodox Christians. Whether bucking a culture that sees their morality as reactionary or fellow believers who regard their traditions as retrograde, these young believers cling to the hard gospel and holy mysteries that, they believe, make those struggles worthwhile. And they gravitate to churches that help them reverence the intimate yet mysterious God to whom they have surrendered their imaginations, and their very lives.8

“Surrendering [our] imaginations, and [our] very lives” to that “intimate yet mysterious God” – that ought to be the basis of the upcoming Synod’s outreach to Catholic youth.


1Jesuit Father James Martin and his constant drumbeat on LGBT issues, Life Teen Masses, and the many shockingly heterodox presentations and aberrant liturgical celebrations at the Los Angeles annual religious education conferences – all of these misunderstand the proper and effective way to “reach out” to disaffected and uninterested young people.

2Colleen Carroll, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002). Note: Since the publication of this book, Miss Campbell has married and is now identified as Colleen Carroll-Campbell.

3Carroll, 3.


5Carroll, 81.

6“Ceremonies of the Church,” 14 November 1831.

7 And Address of 12 November 2009 to Rome’s Libera Università Maria Santissima Assunta.

8Carroll, 86.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 270 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. “The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council got it right in asserting that ‘without the Creator, the creature vanishes’ (Gaudium et Spes, n. 36). That should be the object lesson we carry with us through this century and which we emblazon onto the consciousness of our young people..

    There is so much here— I will reread several times, thank you for an insightful article.

  2. I am convinced we stand on the threshold of one of the great evangelizing opportunieis ever presented to any generation. Young people today are increasingly aware that loose sex, casual divorce, destroyed families, and much moral corruption accompanied the loss of morality. They know they are not happy the way they were brought up. In their hearts, they know that having sex with mulitiple partners has not made them happy or secure. They know they want a stable family, not one that will break apart in divorce. They need and want the church, they just don’t know that the church provides these things. This generation was taught blatant lies about virtually everything – religion, history, science, etc etc. Now is the time to effectively show them how the Catholic religion is the glue that holds society together. Now, in plain, everyday terms, we have to show them that the moral positions of the Catholic church lead to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Now, using facts and evidence, get out there and do that. The social science evidence is out there. Use it. Here is the theme – Catholicism enriches your life, makes families stable, and it teaches the lessons that mankind has learned through the ages. The young people know the universities are full of total baloney, they have sat through idiotic teachers teaching total nonsense. Now is the time to begin to reach them

  3. Archbishop Alexander Sample Portland OR offered High Pontifical Mass Liturgia Antiquum Romana at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception today. It was beautiful as was his powerful homily. He noted Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum and its contribution to ‘reconnect’ the disruption of the Liturgy post Vat II. As I recall Benedict’s purpose was to allow celebration of the ancient rite but a primary intent was to reintroduce some of its deep spiritual character and sense of mystery into the Novus Ordo. Many have criticized that both liberal and conservative the latter wanting all or nothing. I have implemented his ideas into my Novus Ordo Mass with excellent response. Archbishop Sample also addressed the great unexpected response particularly by youth to the Roman Liturgy and the bafflement of many prelates. Sample’s response was that is precisely what bishops should be asking themselves.

    • I watched that mass and it was excellent. I am constantly amazed at the power and majesty of the Extraordinary Form. The commentary by the EWTN people was also excellent, pointing out various things, explaining in clear language what was going on and why. If only this was on TV very week, there would be a tremendous enriching of the Novus Ordo, as you point out.

      • Agreed to the letter on a weekly programming. Men like Archbishop Sample offer hope for a better future. This morning I used the English Roman Canon Lit Prayer I that laity rarely if ever experience. I explained what’s discussed here on liturgy and Benedict XVI. The best measure I had of response was the complete reverential silence during the consecration though many are suffering colds. I count it as a minor ‘miracle’.


    Blessed be God.
    Blessed be His holy name.
    Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
    Blessed be the holy name of Jesus Christ.
    Blessed be His loving and sacred Heart.
    Blessed be His Body and Blood.
    Blessed be His passion and resurrection.
    Blessed be Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
    Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life.
    Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
    Blessed be Holy Mary, the Virgin Mother of God.
    Blessed be her Immaculate Conception.
    Blessed be her glorious Assumption.
    Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.
    Blessed be our God, always now and for ever and ever. Amen.
    •This Thanksgiving prayer takes 1-2 minutes and fills in a glaring omission, that of thanking God for the great gift of the Holy Communion. There are prayers after Communion now, but they are still a ‘give us’ not a ‘thank you’ – eucharistia. What guest with what manners would rush out after a dinner without complimenting/thanking their host? The exposition of the Blessed Sacrament takes place par excellence at every Holy Communion. Can the Body and Blood of Our Lord be ever more exposed in this life than at Holy Communion?
    •More important still, is to receive Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ, worthily (1 Corinthians 11:28-29, Matthew 5:23, 6:15) – to be free, beforehand, from serious sin, to pray at least the biblical act of contrition, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner. Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom”, and to go to Confession when necessary.
    •Rightly we complain about disrespect shown to the Blessed Sacrament. But what does shunting the tabernacle from its front-and-center location to the sidelines tell the Faithful? Towards what do we genuflect? Restoring the tabernacle with its perpetual candle to the middle of the altar area –its universal location for many centuries and still its location in some churches– would rectify the schism between the altar and the tabernacle and would showcase the Eucharist as the center of Church life. Also, an image of the Last Supper by the altar, such as the one at Saint Maximilian Kolbe church in Mississauga, the Consolata Missionaries’ chapel in Toronto and in many other Orthodox and Catholic churches, from Rio de Janeiro to Jerusalem, would call to mind the roots of the Eucharist.

    Slavic Christian Society / Société Chrétienne Slave / Slăviansko Xristianskoe Sŏbranie, Mississauga, 2000, 2004, 2008.

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