Restore or Rebuild the Church and the Mass?

Our youngest daughter and I recently found ourselves at a Latin High Mass at the beautiful Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in St. Louis. It had been a few years since I had been there; while my attraction to Mass in the old “extraordinary” form has been strong, and opportunities abound in St. Louis, one gets stuck in a rut. This was our 15-year-old’s idea, and I embraced it. As always, attending these Masses helps me reflect about the way things used to be, the way they are now, and the way they should be. To some extent, they provide the antidote to some of what ails the Church today.

The Mass was long, but not in a bad way. I did not wear a watch or worry about the time. It was a 10 a.m. Mass and there was nothing pressing afterwards. I knew we’d be home in time for lunch. That said, the Mass took roughly an hour and forty-five minutes. Now, some professionals believe Mass should take less than an hour, and the current thinking about homilies is that the briefer, the better. Consumers today want everything in a hashtagable sound bite. I did not time the priest’s homily, but it did not seem long. It was interesting and tied the readings together, even after he started with mundane announcements about priest assignments. One writer notes that, on the Sunday after Pope Francis said that homilies should last no longer than eight minutes, he then gave one that lasted for more than twice that.

As I have read various homilies over the years, I’m struck by how long some are—say, those of the Church fathers, or those by priests whose writing I admire, such as Msgr. Ronald Knox. You can easily find collections of Knox’s sermons, and they are very readable. Some of his books are collections of sermons written for a younger audience, in fact—the three dozen schoolgirls who descended upon the home where he was staying during World War II to work on his translation of the Bible. Knox was a middle-aged Oxford academic not used to adolescents. With this experience during the war, he and the young evacuees formed such a strong bond of friendship that, years later, he even officiated at some of their weddings.

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Adding to the length of the Mass was the chanting throughout, it being a High “Sung” Mass. While many Masses as experienced in parishes today have the “four-hymn sandwich” (opening, offertory, communion, recessional), the chant experienced throughout the High Mass ties it all together, as Martin Mosebach points out in The Heresy of Formlessness: “The bond that Gregorian Chant weaves throughout liturgical action and song is so close that it is impossible to separate form and content.” When it came time for communion, the choir sang Palestrina’s powerful polyphonic motet Sicut Cervus. Sometimes I assume Palestrina has been banned from parish choir repertoires.

Thinking about these two elements of the Mass, the homily and the music, I could not help but call to mind one of the parish revitalization programs popular today, based on the 2013 book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter. The book traces the experience of a suburban Maryland parish that was losing its parishioners, and how it emulated some practices of a large local evangelical church to foster growth.

At its core, the Rebuilt program (one encouraged actively in my home archdiocese) aims to create a welcome “weekend experience” for the community, and a lot of time and energy are put into the two elements I cited above, the music and the homily, with the latter now referred to as the “message.” While everything in the Mass my daughter and I experienced that late-summer Sunday was pointed to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Rebuilt model appears to focus on everything else. When I reflect on St. Francis de Sales and its massive sanctuary soaring heavenward, I have to confront this line, from Rebuilt: “We did nothing to our exceptionally austere seventies-era sanctuary because we prioritized the guest experience over the architecture. The liturgical decorations might delight churchpeople, but they are of no interest to the dechurched.”

Perhaps the best reflection of our experience that Sunday was considering those filling the pews at St. Francis de Sales. It was not a tiny group of elderly people who remember how beautiful Mass was back in the 1950s, but rather a very mixed demographic that included several young families, and there were 200 or more in attendance. The fact of the matter is, the Old Mass has become new again, rediscovered by a new generation who will appreciate it, something else Mosebach points out in The Heresy of Formlessness. It is not simple nostalgia that brings young Catholics to the Mass, but a need for a deeper experience than they had been receiving from those who run the churches, the generation that embraced a twisted understanding of the so-called “Spirit” of Vatican II.

Relatedly, my experience has been that those who frequent parishes for weekday Masses—so often, those who are retired, but often younger families—are the backbone of the parish, leading highly effective programs like the local Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary or St. Vincent de Paul, programs ignored by the Rebuilt authors. While the smart pastor would work to encourage these faithful Catholics to grow in their spiritual lives, the Rebuilt program almost considers daily communicants to be parish parasites. “In our experience at Nativity some daily Mass goers were isolated from parish life, and seemed quite selfish in their attitude toward the parish,” the Rebuilt authors write. “In an unexpected way, these people were actually the ultimate consumers because they were consuming the most, while giving the least.”

When we look at human souls as spiritual consumers, and focus on the “guest experience” as if the Mass is a ride at Disney World, we’ve lost sight of a few things. When I think about the comment about daily Mass attendees “giving the least”—perhaps because of old age? I can only think of Our Lord’s reaction to the widow and her mite. And I think that while she’d have no place at a Rebuilt parish, St. Francis de Sales would happily welcome her.

The capital campaign to help restore St. Francis de Sales is called “Tradition for Tomorrow.” Judging from the number of those in the pew and their average age, and the simple desire of our teen daughter to explore something other than our usual parish for a Sunday Mass, the real success in growing the Church and saving souls will take place when churches are restored, not Rebuilt.

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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