Youth and liturgy

Precisely when circumstances prevent us from physically attending the celebration of Mass, we realize that we need it. Now, and when everything returns to normal, we would like to make more use of it. Priests are also creatively imagining ways to help young people to experience it.

Juan Miguel Rodriguez-March 30, 2020-Reading time: 9 minutes
Young girl reading a book sitting inside a church.

The famous film Amadeus by Miloš Forman, depicts a singular scene. Mozart has managed, not without effort, that the emperor allows him to compose an opera that he finally succeeds in presenting to the court. It is The Marriage of Figaro. The scene is narrated by Salieri, also a composer and musician, who attends the premiere. Despite his animosity towards Mozart, the beauty of the music strikes him in a remarkable way, arousing in him a mixture of envy and admiration. 

The dramatic tension is directed, however, towards the emperor, who, in stark contrast to Salieri's feelings, expresses his boredom through a yawn that is noticed by all. The film situates at this point the decline of Mozart's career, who, from then on, will gradually lose the esteem of the court. Shortly afterwards, Mozart is seen, tense and worried about the poor reception his composition received by the emperor. Salieri tries to explain what happened. It is not, he says, in any way, a deficiency in the composition or a poorly interpreted melody. The cause is to be sought in the emperor himself, who, being unable to maintain his attention for long periods of time, easily falls into boredom, even if he finds himself in front of a beautiful artistic creation.

The new cultural framework

This scene sums up in some way the challenge that the liturgy implies for people of all ages, because the greatness of the encounter with God through the liturgical celebration is often in stark contrast with the poor reception that is given to it.

The liturgy has a sublime grandeur: in it, "Christ primarily signifies and realizes his paschal mystery". a truly unique event, because "All other events happen once, and then pass away and are absorbed by the past. The paschal mystery of Christ, on the other hand, cannot remain only in the past, for by his death he destroyed death [...] he participates in the divine eternity and thus dominates all time and remains permanently present in it." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1085). "The liturgy constitutes a living experience of God's gift and a great school of response to his call. [It reveals to us the true face of God; it puts us in communication with God.s "connection with the Passover mystery" (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 38). In the liturgy, and through its sacramental language, man touches, so to speak, the beauty of the mystery of God. But these treasures are not opened except through a long and patient journey of prayer.

It is necessary to develop the capacity to enter into the mystery of the liturgy. This is a task for all ages, because prayer and openness to God require the full exercise of human freedom, which must always give a resolute "yes" to the gentle impulses of grace.

This task takes on particular features in the context of an era in which technology is making a strong impression on the way of approaching reality. The new generations are growing up in the midst of fast and intuitive interfaces; they attend shows in real time, even if they are not physically present; they have, through screens, practically innumerable possibilities for entertainment and amusement and can learn about events immediately, even if they have occurred thousands of kilometers away.

The difficulty of the liturgy

Faced with this way of relating to the world around them, understanding liturgical language presents particular difficulties. Capturing the beauty of the liturgy requires attention and patience, cultivating inner and outer recollection, imbibing the symbols and the realities they signify, learning to wait and developing wonder in the face of a reality that does not belong to us and at the same time communicates something of the divine. Developing this capacity is a challenge in the face of a disposition that seeks superficial, immediate and shocking impulses. However, not all the picture is negative. Certainly our era has its specific problems, but the new generations also have a potential that the liturgy can take advantage of. On the one hand, we can mention what, for lack of a better expression, we would call "a sense of globality". 

Young people perceive with remarkable clarity that their individual decisions are never isolated events. They are particularly aware of the reciprocal influence that is inherent in all human interaction but which in the age of technology has multiplied its incidence in terms of speed and diffusion. This cultural mark that leaves its mark also on the personal level greatly facilitates the ability to understand the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, in which each part lives from the whole and has a unique and irreplaceable role in everything.

They are also sensitive to problems that may not concern them directly, but in which they feel particularly involved and willing to collaborate. They feel involved in areas as varied and diverse as global warming; the conservation of biodiversity; war in remote regions; the situation of the underprivileged.

The challenge of involving young people in the liturgy presents particular challenges in our time that occupy and sometimes worry priests, catechists and pastoral workers.

Facing the challenges

First of all, it is important to point out that the liturgy cannot and should not compete with the entertainment industry. Undoubtedly, within the possibilities of choice, it is necessary to opt for those that facilitate the fruitful and active participation of the people, as the Second Vatican Council points out. 

However, we must never lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the liturgy is the encounter with God in order to worship him in Christ and with Christ, and therefore in the Church. To denaturalize this fundamental principle for the sake of a misunderstood practicality would be a betrayal of the people who participate because they would be deprived of an encounter with the divine, surreptitiously subtracted for a moment of entertainment. Although proposals such as these may have an ephemeral success, they fail in the long run because people can always find other spaces for entertainment.

On many occasions it is necessary to work patiently, without haste, to form and educate slowly, to develop sensitivity for beauty and the sacred. It is necessary to count on grace, and to attract it with prayer and a self-sacrificing work that has a lot of sacrifice.

To help others, it is necessary, first of all, to live the liturgy personally. "The first way in which the participation of the People of God in the sacred Rite is favored is the proper celebration of the Rite itself." (Sacramentum caritatis, n. 38).

No one gives what he does not have. And, according to a well-known liturgical principle, no one can make someone pray unless he prays first. It can be said that the liturgy is a school of prayer, not only for young people, but for all those who take part in it, and in a particular way for the priest, who acts in persona Christi. Whoever enters the rich world of liturgy soon discovers that in this "art of prayer". -The phrase is from St. John Paul II - one never finishes learning. "In the liturgy the Lord teaches us to pray, first by giving us his Word, then by introducing us to the Eucharistic Prayer with the mystery of his life, his cross and his resurrection."Benedict XVI pointed out in a meeting with parish priests. 

The dimensions of this formation embrace the intellectual dimension, which leads to an ever better understanding of the meaning of the rites, the prayers and especially the Word of God; but it also embraces the affective dimension, forming people little by little to pray with their sensibility; and it also reaches the corporal dimension, which also participates in the liturgical action. Only those who are truly imbued with the liturgy can transmit it as a living experience. And this is of particular importance with young people, who are always characterized by a special sensitivity for the authentic and to respond to it with energy.

Elements in favor

Music plays an essential role in this dynamic. Aristotle says: "There is nothing so powerful as the rhythm and song of music, to imitate, approximating reality as closely as possible [...] the feelings of the soul.". Through music, feelings can be strengthened and with it a participation that involves both intelligence and affections. 

In this sense, it is particularly important to choose appropriate pieces according to criteria that depend to a great extent on the celebration and the people attending. In any case, it is always necessary to keep in mind that music is a function of the liturgy, and not the other way around. Moreover, it should be considered that in our time there is a considerable and abundant production of religious music, but this does not mean that all of it can or should be incorporated into the celebration. For religious music to be part of the liturgy requires careful discernment that allows it to be integrated into the celebration with the consent of ecclesiastical authority.

It is also important to take care of the formation in symbolic language. The Catechism says that "every sacramental celebration is an encounter of the children of God with their Father, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, and this encounter is expressed as a dialogue [...] symbolic actions are already a language.". Understanding this aspect of the dynamics of the liturgy is fundamental for active and conscious participation. As Guardini explains, "In the Liturgy, it is not primarily a matter of concepts, but of realities, in order to make them accessible, it is necessary to teach how to discover in the corporeal form the depths, in the body the soul, in the earthly event the hidden sacred virtue"..

It is necessary to learn to unravel and, when necessary, to discover the riches of liturgical texts and ceremonies. We are reminded of this by the Sacramentum caritatis: "In ecclesial communities it is perhaps taken for granted that they are known and appreciated, but this is often not the case. In reality, they are texts that contain riches that guard and express the faith, as well as the journey of the People of God over two millennia of history.". This is the mystagogical catechesis, so dear to the Fathers of the Church, in which the treasures of prayer and piety bequeathed to us by the prayer of the Church are made accessible to the new generations. 

The symbolic richness of the Liturgy is inexhaustible. Both in the physical elements, tabernacle, temple, altar, crucifix, candles, votive lamps, etc., and in the gestures: kneeling, standing, the procession, the rite of peace, the bow, etc., we find an invaluable treasure of piety and prayer that always offers new lights to those who meditate assiduously.

One element that should be developed at length is everything related to liturgical time. In this way, young people can understand that the liturgical celebration is more than a sacred parenthesis in the midst of daily concerns, but that what is lived and celebrated must also leave its mark on ordinary activity.

Mystagogical Catechesis

In mystagogical catechesis, one can take advantage of all the resources offered by modern technology: presentations, videos, music collections, distance conferences using the internet, etc. A more or less detailed description of the Missal and its structure can also be very useful and instructive. For many people, a missal for the faithful - or its electronic equivalent - can also be a very good alternative that will allow them to follow the Eucharist attentively even in conditions of a certain precariousness.

It is important to be certain that no matter how well known some texts or ceremonies may be, they always contain unsuspected riches. An illustrative idea can be provided by an event in the life of St. John Henry Newman. While still a member of the Anglican confession, he received a Roman Breviary as a memento from a friend who had recently died. He began to pray the office daily, commenting that the brevity of the prayers, the majestic and austere modulation of the Roman liturgy and the meditative and soothing tone of the psalms, together with the precise and methodical nature of the Breviary, were extraordinarily pleasing to him. And all this, in spite of the strong animosity he still felt at that time against the Catholic Church. 

At this point, the homily can play an important role. It is a challenge to integrate it harmoniously with the rest of the liturgical celebration, and to have a content that is at the same time profound and accessible, and all this within a suitable time frame, preferably brief. On more than one occasion, the homily may focus on some relevant aspect of the liturgy. This will make it possible for the faithful to better understand the meaning of the celebration and, consequently, be prepared to participate in a better way. It may be appropriate to briefly address some aspect of the liturgy in each homily, following a systematic plan. In this way, young people who attend the celebrations on a regular basis will end up learning a good handful of basic notions.

Encounter with beauty

The authentic encounter with the liturgy is always an encounter with beauty. "True beauty is the love of God that has been definitively revealed in the Paschal Mystery. The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is an eminent expression of God's glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of Heaven on earth." (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 35). However, this does not mean that it is immediately perceptible to everyone. As in the world of literature, cinema, music, etc., a certain amount of learning is required, which in no small measure depends on a serene and open contact with reality.

C. S. Lewis, in his famous book Letters from the devil to his nephew has dealt with this argument. The world reflects in some way the perfections of God. To contemplate it, to live and participate in it, allows man to approach the Creator in some way. The great risk of today's world is to impose a gigantic technological veil through which we do not reach reality itself, but only its representation on screens and electronic devices. This can be entertaining and useful, but it can immerse us in a totally fictitious world, as happens in video games and, in a destructive way, in pornography. 

In this bubble there is no real interaction with reality, but rather with one's own imagination which is under powerful and prolonged stimuli. When they end, the imaginary constructions disappear and can provoke a painful sensation of emptiness that seems to demand a new stimulus. It is practically impossible for a person enslaved in this way to seriously subject himself to the healthy discipline of prayer.

Therefore, an important part of liturgical education consists in bringing people closer to reality and learning to enjoy it in a healthy way. Mountain hiking, sports, time spent mastering an instrument, helping and serving others, are very valuable experiences, regardless of whether their results can be considered small or insignificant in relation to human problems. Regardless of their final effect on the exterior, they change people, they motivate, open horizons and unfold dormant forces, and they create internal and external habits that are necessary for fruitful participation in liturgical celebrations.

One of the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as is well known, is entitled with these words: "The combat of prayer".. In an analogical sense, they can be applied to participation in the liturgy, which is also prayer: the prayer of Christ and of the Church. It is a fundamental task of all ages to teach Christians to participate in the liturgy as a way to correspond to the grace that always requires human collaboration in the effort and sincere interest to draw closer to God.

The authorJuan Miguel Rodriguez


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