Young Catholics and Old Rite Liturgy

When I sold back in 2014, I took the decision step back from writing long pieces on the internet. Or, at least, to make it a very rare occurrence. Actually doing youth ministry, it seemed to me, was preferable to commenting on it and, while I was definitely doing both during my years running, the shift to focusing more on the former has definitely benefitted me.

That’s why I only write long pieces now when I either have something I really, r-e-a-l-l-y, want to say, or when I get my arm twisted. Last week Matthew Schmitz published an excellent piece in the Herald about young Catholics being attracted to traditional liturgy, and my inbox suddenly started making those annoying, arm-twisting, beeps.

One trend I’ve seen again and again over the years, both inside the Church and beyond, is that when people want to inject some life into their organisation and convince the world that it’s still vibrant and relevant, one of their first go-to moves is to try to get more young people involved.

It’s not that young people are more valuable than middle aged or old people, of course, but there is a certain sign value to an organisation full of youth. It simultaneously becomes both an organisation with a future and an organisation cool enough to be able to compete with the culture of the day.

It was much the same ten years ago when Pope Benedict published Summorum Pontificum, the document which allowed priests to once again say the Old Mass freely without having to jump through a ridiculous amount of hoops. All of a sudden, “Tridentine Masses” started to re-emerge here and there, and the two forms of the Mass (actually, there are way more than two in the Church, but hey…) started being referred to as the “Ordinary” and “Extraordinary” forms. Forms, which were supposed to exist side-by-side to the mutual enrichment of one another, and the whole Church.

Pretty much as soon as this happened, the blogs (remember them?) jumped into action predicting the beginning of the end for the newer form of the Mass. One rather glib comment I read at the time predicted that by 2020 the new Mass would be as hard to access as the old one had been a few years before. As soon as people see the beauty of the EF Mass, they said, they’ll abandon their OF parishes in droves.

Coupled with this were the de rigueur predictions that young people would be chief among those flocking to EF Masses. Coupled, in turn, was a steady stream of information telling us that it was already happening. The field reports regularly posted online were of EF Masses bursting at the seems, and with the sort of age demographic you’d usually find listening to Radio One or littering the beaches of Ibiza.

At a certain point (circa 2008/09) I found it all rather curious. I was a working youth minister with my finger in a lot of pies at the time and yet what I was seeing on the ground told a very different story. I had only ever once in my career had a young person ask me about EF/ Old Mass (and that number hasn’t risen to double figures in the years since). I also attended a few EF Masses myself in that period, and the numbers I saw on the ground, again, just didn’t line up with the reports online.

I went to one Mass in Sussex and there were 30 people there, all very old. Maybe, I thought, this was just the wrong Mass to be at, but a bit of googling revealed that it was very well advertised and was actually the only EF Mass in the Southeast that day — a Sunday — outside London.

In June 2008 (if memory serves) I went with some friends to a Pontifical High Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos was celebrating, and there was a good crowd. All in all, it was a lovely occasion, but when I got back home I just couldn’t believe what I read online.

All of the reports noted the numbers and the beauty of the occasion — all good so far — but they also went a step further and commented on how many young people were there. One commenter (beware the comboxes!) even tried telling us that the majority of people there were under 25.

I was thirty at the time and was quite definitely one of the younger ones there. While young Catholics were definitely represented, the main thing I could see in front of me from my perch about 2/3 of the way back was a heck of a lot of grey hair and bald heads. Ibiza this was definitely not. The vast, vast majority, in my view, were over 45, if not older than that.

True to form in an era when I spent way too much time on line, I decided to challenge this assertion in the comboxes and things got pretty bitter. I held on for dear life though. I was there. I had been at that Mass. I knew damn well what I had and hadn’t seen. And, while I liked (like) the EF Mass, I didn’t think lying about it was really the way froward. It even got to the point (I know, I know…) where we were getting photos from the LMS website and arguing about how old each identifiable person in the photo was!

The idea that people were streaming to EF Masses and that the majority of them were young was plainly laughable. To their credit though, the bloggers did eventually wave the white flag and concede that maybe, just maybe, the “reform of the reform” was more of a trickle than an avalanche.

To illustrate that point, my own diocese has two regular EF Masses and, while I’ve never been to one of them and haven’t been to the other for a few years, I’ve never seen a particularly young crowd.

It’s ultimately rather pointless trying to play the numbers game though. As far as I know there has never been a proper academic study around young (practicing) Catholics and their liturgical/ theological trends. I’d love to see one, and I suspect that raw data being collected for next year’s synod might give us a few hints, but until that happens all we can do is trade opinions. For what it’s worth, these are mine:

Are young Catholics more orthodox than their elders? Do they have different liturgical preferences? Is there a groundswell of support for the EF Mass among young Catholics?

My answers are 1) yes, 2) yes, and 3) yes, but not a huge one. Let’s unpack:

Firstly, I think it’s very important to distinguish what we mean by “Catholics.” The 2010 “Mapping the Terrain” survey (a great piece of work) found that nineteen percent of millennial Catholics don’t even believe in God! Hence, I really think that if you’re trying to discern trends “among Catholics” with an eye to discerning what’s working in the Church, you really need to restrict yourself to those who are, at the very least, regularly receiving the sacraments and on a conscious path towards discipleship.

Teens are a diverse bunch, and the real reasons why they engage with the Church often don’t reveal themselves until they reach independence from their parents in adulthood, after which they soon either lapse completely or dive in deeper.

Hence, Among 18–30s, it’s possible to get a clearer picture, and personally I reckon that the majority of those who are in that practicing/discipleship bracket are morally and doctrinally more orthodox than the generation before.

You certainly find twenty-somethings sitting in the pews who are pro-gay marriage and anti-clerical, but they’re not the majority. Most of the under-45 “I’m a Catholic, but…” crowd aren’t active in a parish. As Sherry Weddell points out, the watered-down version of the faith isn’t strong enough to stand up to contemporary postmodernism in the current generation.

So yes, by and large, younger (practicing) Catholics are definitely more orthodox.

It’s at this point though that the standard arguments come off the rails slightly. Why? Because orthodoxy of belief and life doesn’t necessarily equate to traditional worship. The whole “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi” thing, so often trotted out at this juncture, is meant to be about mutual enrichment. It’s not a checklist, but a sign that if two of them are right and good, then the other one probably is too.

In the 1970s you could quite readily assume that if somebody took a guitar to Mass then their theology would be on the liberal side. You could equally assume that for somebody hankering after the Tridentine Mass (as it was called then), the opposite was true.

These days, not so. At least not always.

The charismatic renewal, for one (the group I identify with, if you were wondering) are very big on guitars and modern music, but yet — love them or loathe them — you’ll struggle to find a group of lay Catholics more doctrinally knowledgeable and orthodox, nor as morally sound in how they live their lives.

Equally, there are also currents in traditionalist circles whose (how can I put this tactfully? whose..) attitude to certain moral teachings are shall we say, at odds with the catechism. So, the simple formula that trad liturgy, and only trad liturgy, equals doctrinal orthodoxy, just simply isn’t up to date.

And that brings us to the crux of the matter. Are young people flocking to the EF Mass? Well, some are, yes. That’s for sure. But are they doing so in anything like significant numbers? Let me stress again that I can only give my opinion, and it’s not a simple one.

Matthew Schmitz is careful not to give statistics or numbers in his article. He even avoids words like most or majority. And, as it happens, I agree with almost every word he writes. Especially the by-line: “Young Catholics feel they have been denied their inheritance. Where do they go from here?” That’s a question the Church needs to put front and centre.

If you asked me for stats about young Catholics and the EF Mass, I’d call it a small minority. When you compare the numbers Juventutem are getting with the numbers Celebrate, New Dawn and Youth 2000 are getting, it’s just incomparable. There is also one town I know, not far from where I live, where there is a well-known traddie parish and a well-known charismatic-ish parish. Again, the numbers of young people are just so skewed in favour of the latter that it’s not even a comparison.

I also think that in the UK there is very much a London divide when it comes to young traditional Catholics. They are much — much — more pronounced in the capital then elsewhere, yet, as with most things, the opinion formers largely live inside the M25.

So, if you pressed me for a gauge of numbers, I’d definitely tell you that young practicing Catholics aren’t flocking to the EF Mass in large numbers (even in London, actually) but I’d also tell you that that’s not the point. And I don’t believe that trading stats and percentages was Matthew Schmitz’ purpose either.

The point is that there are some young Catholics who are being fed by the EF. The point is that it’s a positive thing that young Catholics with that spirituality are being fed. The point is that all of the above reveals the fact — as do Celebrate et al — that young Catholics are an age demographic which is not, by and large, being fed in the wider Church.

So, to answer Matthew’s question, where do we go from here?

Simple. First, we evangelise. Second, we feed. It’s the same question and the same answer that’s been before the Church since Pentecost. Than, as now, the methods needed aren’t a one-size-fits-all. Yet, within the array of what’s needed, I can definitely see a place for the EF Mass, and I absolutely believe that there are people being fed by it.

Therefore, perhaps a third part of the answer might be to recognise there are people being brought to Christ by all sorts of things, and that those things don’t have to be a threat to one another.

Now, back to work…

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