The Generation Gap and Authenticity

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the fact that more formal worship styles appeal to a surprising demographic: the young.

While many youth liturgical outreaches continue to focus on the casual and the near-secular in order to attract young people, this type of pastoral programming seems to be doing less well in many cases than those using more traditional forms.

Not long ago I visited a parish that within a couple of years had built up a large group of young servers and a sizable youth schola for the traditional Mass–celebrated on a weekday evening. And this is hardly a unique case, just in the parishes I’ve personally visited.

There was a time, a naive time, when it seemed there was a desire among the young for an authenticity that had as its heart a certain casualness and spontanaiety. In the 60s and 70s, it was the fashion to speak one’s mind, follow one’s heart, and go with the flow.

I believe that it is likely that today’s young people are likewise interested in authenticity–but in authenticity that has a much different character. Spontanaiety is wonderful, in its place. Casualness, chattiness, hanging out–these are activities as popular among young people as they have ever been. But there seems to be a growing sensibility that not every place is the same. Mass is not the place for relaxed, casual activities. The true liturgical joys can be found by going deeper, by being more quiet, and by experiencing more and richer beauty.

When I was young there was no leadership in the Church of my experience for this kind of liturgical experience, which leads to a second and more practical reason that young people are enjoying good liturgy: it is available. If a teenager would like to attend a polyphonic Mass on a given Sunday, and if s/he is willing to travel a bit, it is available. If a family has been singing chant at home and would like to join a schola to improve their skills, it is possible–not always at the local parish, but somewhere.

I sometimes wonder why there was this enormous temporal gap in leadership of the sacred liturgy. I suppose some of the reason was political, some was a misunderstanding about the aims of the Second Vatican Council, and some was a skill vacuum of a kind that we are thankfully not likely to see again soon, if all the young people now involved in liturgy continue to persevere and serve.

15 Replies to “The Generation Gap and Authenticity”

  1. As a person who's only a few weeks into her thirties, this has been my experience for the last 10 years.

  2. Anecdotes are fine in the beginning but this idea is now so common that I think it's time we back it up with stats. Recruit some Catholic schools to conduct an experiment with their students. Gregorian chant vs. Life Teen.

    In my experience, youth are all over the map, just like their parents. And "youth" is very broad. 15-year olds have very different tastes from 30-year olds. Also, let's consider that today's youth may be no more fond of folk music than Gregorian chant. They may want EDM Masses with glowsticks.

  3. I second this. As one who came from a "Life Teen parish", Life Teen does many good things such as showing kids Scripture and the Sacraments and telling them to evangelize and share their faith, and they are passionate about Christ. However I do think their methods tend to foster more of emotion like modern Protestantism rather than fostering the intellect and will as Catholicism has always done. Many of their people are holy but I believe lack a general education in things outside borderline sentimental ways or projecting the faith.

  4. Traditional liturgy has a marketing problem. The product is just fine.

    I have been yelling about young people and authenticity for years. Billion-dollar corporations thrive on the principle that people (esp. the young, educated, and thoughtful — or those wishing to appear to be) want products that are un-tampered-with and derive from traditional methods. You see it in clothes and food especially, but also in crafts and other home furnishings, gardening and landscaping, construction, medicine, and music. It's entirely to be expected that young people sympathetic to "organic lifestyles" will be willing to give traditional worship a look, if it's proposed to them in terms of unfiltered authenticity that expands ones freedom by connecting with reality, rather than in terms of exhausted, unreflective habit imposed with a demand for conformity.

  5. Back up with statistics — interesting.

    I'm wondering if an experiment could actually ever be done on something like this: Get a bunch of Catholic youth from lots of different places, get 'em to take a brief demographic survey, then have them attend, say, seven minutes of a "high Mass" sort of liturgy (Ordinary Form, but with chant, polyphony, incense, fine vestments, etc.), take a five-minute break, then seven minutes of a contemporary liturgy (albeit a well-done one, so that "quality" isn't raised as an issue). Then ask 'em, individually: Which did you prefer? In which one did you feel more engaged? Which one seemed more Catholic? Which one seemed more prayerful?

  6. Romulus, I believe you've an overlooked flaw in your premise. For argument's sake, let's agree that the "young, educated and thoughtful" will respond in all things presented them including liturgy, positively and be attracted to wanting more of it. The flaw is that you are including all young folks, not just practicing Roman Catholic youth. Roman Catholic youth, if provided such an ideal experience of the TLM (a full-blown Missa Solemnis, btw), would and actually have demonstrated great interest. The real problem, just like a convention or seminar presented by charismatic and inspiring speakers, is that the Roman Catholic youth will "return home" to the blunt and sure reality that their great experience cannot or will not be replicated in their parish, and likely any others nearby. They don't parish hop like adults. You may counter by saying "Well, it will take time for them to self-initiate and demand from their pastors and themselves the skills necessary to gradually work towards replication of the ideal." And we all know, that is a political problem not easily addressed in this era's ecclesial climates.

  7. OTOH, the vast and great numbers of Prot/Evangelical Christian youth, thoughtful and authentic or otherwise, will go to here Chris Tomlin, or watch Hillsongs, and have a reasonable expectation that the "product" demonstrated there is, to them, authentic. But more importantly, they also know that they can likely find that authenticity replicated at any number of megachurches in most American vacinties. It may be vapid and anathema to RC's, but demographics would likely prove that this sort of worship modality, combined with other aspects of Prot/Evangelical outreach ministries, function more efficiently and successfully than does the average youth ministry and RE program at the local Catholic parish.
    And to think, this is a problem that not only affects youth, but GenXers and Boomers as well.
    There's no panacea or magic bullet. This change is going to be long haul.

  8. Many Catholic schools already have daily Mass. Recruit an even number of high schools. Randomly split them into two groups. Half get Life Teen for a week and half get Gregorian chant. Then they switch.

    After high school, we can't really force people to participate so studying them would require a bit more creativity. Might be better off following the high school students through college and beyond to see if or how their tastes change.

  9. We can't take a poll of "youth" as if they live in a vacuum. Offer them Life Teen, they'll probably go with it, esp. if that's what they're used to. If they grow up with chant, I would suspect they would be more comfortable with that. It's safe to say that young adults who went to the traditional mass as kids would be more likely not to prefer guitars and drums at mass and vice versa.

    So you can't underestimate the environment in which the young people worship. The larger point is that now there is leadership which will offer young people the more formal option which was sorely lacking before. It is statistically verifiable that more young people now are being exposed to more traditional worship, which in turn tends (though it does not guarantee) a preference in this direction among more people.

  10. People crave structure over chaos. It's a natural instinct. Just like the very structured layout of Facebook triumphed over the chaotic mess of MySpace. Everyone, young, old, are attracted to structure. Hence why the Catholic Church will still be around while the "house churches" will disappear in ten years or less. The whole 'rage against authority' in the 60s in both the secular and Catholic cultures was a weapon of the devil.

    Long live the TLM! (. . .and Anglican Use and the Eastern Rites)

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