Instead of joining the chorus arbitrarily throwing rocks at this year’s World Youth Day (WYD), I would like to offer what I hope is a more helpful and insightful critique of why such a disastrous Catholic event could take place at all.
Before we get into the negatives about WYD and why the negatives we saw at the event are indicative of a deeper spiritual and moral sickness, I would like to say something positive.
While there is much to criticize about the event, I cannot criticize the distinctly Catholic sentiment and motivation that urges pilgrims to go on an adventure to worship God and edify their faith. Long before the present WYD fiasco, Catholics would process, hike, and march in the tens of thousands all over the world to visit this or that holy place or to see the pope. These are good Catholic instincts.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Also, the grace of the sacraments works whether the priest is orthodox, the Mass is reverent, or the situation is modest, so I hope that souls open to the grace of God were changed for the better at WYD. This is not to say that sacrilege or heretical preaching is justified—nothing of the sort—but God is not bound by the silliness of this or that cleric or Eucharistic “minister,” so I pray that good things come to those who went with an open heart.
With the niceties out of the way, we ought to be honest about the event. Starting with the first Mass, it was a festival of sacrilege, liturgical abuse, immodesty, and grotesque “architecture.” If a Catholic from 1950 were to be transported to the 2023 event, he would think he had stumbled upon a jetson-inspired Lutheran revival event with priests wearing drapery as vestments and women dressed in male clothes.
The question has to be asked, however, how we got here. As I said, it is one thing to throw rocks and point fingers at the silliness of WYD, but it is quite another to get to the heart of the issue and consider a remedy.
Ultimately, WYD is no different than the types of “youth” events that are seen within Church institutions all over the world, which have been cringe and ridiculous for decades. Generally speaking, at least in my lifetime of 35 years, so-called youth events have been corny attempts at making the Faith look “exciting” or “cool.” Whether it be a protestanteqsue praise and worship event, some sort of “dynamic” homily where the priest runs up and down the aisle and yells a lot, or a charismatic event where people are passing out left, right, and center after crying for an hour, it has all been done before.
But, why? Why do Catholics flock to these events where the Faith and liturgical practices that converted continents from devil-worshipping paganism are apparently nonentities?
We could blame Vatican II; or if that makes you uncomfortable, we could blame the modernists who inserted the ambiguities in the documents and then exploited them. Or, if that is still too on the nose or lowbrow, perhaps we could blame the Freemasons, or maybe the aliens, or perhaps the people claiming there are aliens where there are none. Maybe we should blame the traditionalists, or the liberals, or whomever.
The reality is, there is a fundamental sickness that is to blame that has metastasized into the body of the Church and affects every man woman and child. There is not a person alive today who has not been touched by this illness, and WYD is only a visible spectacle that portrays the most ridiculous and laughable version of this disease.
I am speaking about the disease of the “unsacred” nature of modern life.
Simply put, as a whole, we have lost a sense of the sacred for a variety of reasons—not least of which is our industrial age that has embraced utilitarianism as the highest platonic form. Simply put, as a whole, we have lost a sense of the sacred for a variety of reasons—not least of which is our industrial age that has embraced utilitarianism as the highest platonic form. Tweet This
It is my opinion that the most pernicious vehicle of the unsacred sickness that plagues us is found in the decline of music, which is intrinsically linked to the decline in morals.
In the Scriptures, Christ tells us: “Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Notice how Our Lord does not tell us that the Faith comes by architecture or images or dancing or big-screen TVs. This is not to say that aesthetic practices are dispensable—far from it!—but only that the Word made flesh tells us that the Faith enters into a soul primarily by way of sound and word. It is through the faculty of hearing that what we believe enters our hearts.
In Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s new book Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life, Dr. K offers a resounding critique of modern music and its effect on morals and the Church writ large. In the foreword, Fr. John Perricone offers a powerful and succinct critique of modern music that clearly explains why we have arrived at a WYD event such as the one that just took place.
“We begin to believe, the way that we sing.” When Catholics in a typical parish are served lounge music instead of sacred music, their souls suffer a kind of dry rot. They experience not the “fear and trembling” of Calvary but only the wispy breezes of the musical theater. This is no longer religion but vaudeville. Worse still, when the music descends to mimicking the rock concert, the soul undergoes a proportionate excitation. And not to divine things.
This “dry rot” of the soul was typified at WYD when a DJ Priest (ugh, spare me) serenaded the pilgrims with techno music one morning. To make matters worse, he did this from a table that was set up in front of the altar.
Let us unpack the symbolism of this event for just a moment, as it, in my opinion, is a window into the rotten musical soul of the modern Church.
A priest of Jesus Christ was tasked with playing banal and rhythmically grotesque electronic music to a crowd of upward of a million young Catholics, and he did so in a repurposed space that was supposedly also used for the infinitely sacred Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Playing secular music in such a setting is bad enough, but the significance runs deeper than that.
This priest did not even play an instrument or use his human voice. No, he pressed buttons on a computer system that sent digital signals to loudspeakers that transmitted artificial musical sounds that were generated in a machine and are meant to mimic the physical nature of real sound.
There is no institution or organization on earth that can even pretend to hold a candle to the Catholic Church when it comes to her treasury of musical greatness. Gregorian chant, Palestrina’s polyphony, or even the fiddle tunes of Irish Catholics could have been performed, but it was mechanical non-music that took center stage at the largest gathering of young Catholics on earth!
The kids can hardly be blamed for this as there were dozens of priests and bishops bobbing their heads around Fr. Techno, when the appropriate response would have been rending their garments. But these prelates have been fed on the saccharine unmusic that has rotted out the sacredness of the Catholic liturgy for decades, so this event was not shocking to them, as it should have been.
All polemics aside about liturgy and Vatican II, if we are to recapture the sacred in our Church, then we must start by retraining our souls to appreciate heavenly and human music.
Fr. Perricone also writes in Dr. K’s book about how the Arian heresy was spread throughout the Roman Empire by way of music:
Boethius echoed these great giants of natural wisdom when he wrote, “Music can both establish and destroy morality. For no path is more open to the soul for the formation thereof than through the ears.” Added to these, they observed the great success that Arius enjoyed in winning the masses by composing hymns. Whole populations found themselves praising the Arian Christ, no longer God, but only like God.
Perhaps we cannot fix the hierarchy or the institutions, but we can fix our souls with the sweet balm of rightly ordered and beautiful music. Maybe, if we do that, then in a generation it will be inconceivable for anything like this to take place as our tuned ears and tuned sensibilities would reject this like we reject the smell of sulfur.