The Need for Liturgy Within Parish Catechetical Programs

Some pastors have experienced people who register in the parish, and go to Mass for a short period of time, but leave once they get what they want: their wedding at their dream church, parish assistance with tuition, renting parish facilities at a lower rate, and the list goes on … 

The Parable of the Sower by Tissot

Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated.  For transmitting a purely doctrinal content, an idea might suffice, or perhaps a book, or the repetition of a spoken message.  But what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion. -Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei §40

Problems in the American Catholic Church

For many in parish ministry, the faith crisis within our culture appears to be continuing with some exceptions.  According to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center, 2012 was the lowest year on record for Catholic identity in America.  Of those polled, there are more who chose to be labeled as not strong in their faith than those who identified themselves as strong Catholics.  While Protestant identity is growing, this same report found that not only is Mass attendance dropping among Catholics, but it is also dropping among those who still consider themselves to be “strong” in their Catholic faith. 1  This means there is a growing percentage of the population that believes they can be a strong Catholic even if they don’t practice their faith.

In a 2011 Pew Research Center study, it was reported that more people are leaving the Catholic Church than converting to Catholicism. 2  Immigration makes it difficult to realize the impact this may or may not be having on our parishes.  These problems, pertaining to Brazil, were confirmed by Pope Francis during his press conference on the flight home from Rio. 3

Some pastors have experienced people who register in the parish, and go to Mass for a short period of time, but leave once they get what they want: their wedding at their dream church, parish assistance with tuition, renting parish facilities at a lower rate, and the list goes on. There is also cause for concern among members of parish programs that appear to be our top participants.  Jesus described a type of parishioner when he said: “The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away” (Matt 13:20-21).  These are the people in our youth and adult catechetical programs who appear to be getting it, but then as soon as the program finishes, or a sacrament is received, their faith “falls away.”

The Crisis of Liturgy

There are various causes to the problems mentioned above.  The purpose of this article is not to enter into a heated debate.  Parish leaders must focus on how to fix the crisis.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing  is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy…”4

I would like to take this concept of liturgical crisis in a different direction.  While there has been a growth of new Bible studies, RCIA resources, youth ministry opportunities, and new media resources used in religion classes, parishes are also experiencing a new phenomenon.  For many, but not all, there is an increased percentage of people in parish programs who either attend minimal liturgical celebrations, or none at all.  They are enrolling in the programs even though they are not participating in parish liturgies.  And, as already stated, there appears to be a steady growth of youth and adults who return to parish liturgies while in their respective programs but, as soon as they are married, confirmed, join the Church, or finish their studies, then their liturgical participation ceases.

We must no longer presume that all of our parishioners are truly a liturgical people who understand the liturgy to be the source and summit of Christian life.  There are always exceptions within each parish, and the occasional parish that is exempt from this disadvantage.  Yet, the consensus in statistics and experiences of parish leaders is that many parishioners are leaving the anchor of the Sacred Liturgy, or are becoming liturgical minimalists.  If the liturgy is meant to be the source and summit of the life of each parishioner, then it is clear that the first step in solving the crisis mentioned at the beginning of this article is to restore the liturgy to its proper place, as the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and as “the fount from which all her power flows.” 5  This must be done on a very practical level.

A New Format for Parish Programs

This reality must change the way many Catholic schools, religious ed programs, youth groups, RCIA programs, and adult catechesis classes operate.  First, we must realize that we are blessed that many are still coming for parish programs, even though they are backing off from liturgical prayer.  This provides an advantage, an opportunity.  Since many are no longer coming to the liturgy, we should bring the liturgy to the parishioners, and into the programs.

This should be more than the typical exposure to liturgy in programs, but rather a weekly welding of catechesis and regular liturgies.  The liturgies must become such a focus of our programs that it is clear that we put more hope in the work of God in the Sacred Liturgy, than we do in our ideas, our books, or our messages. 6  Our programs should help the people become open to God in the Sacred Liturgy while ideas, books, and repetitious messages should serve this endeavor.  Priests, deacons, and lay leaders must discover ways to incorporate the Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, and confession into catechetical programs in order to re-form participants into a liturgical people.

Clerics and catechists should incorporate the liturgical celebration into each lesson plan to provide for an experience or encounter with the very person at the center of their studies, Jesus Christ.  Mass, being the most ideal, is not always the easiest to incorporate, especially when priestly involvement is difficult owing to their already full schedules.  The easier forms of liturgical prayer to organize, like Adoration and/or Liturgy of the Hours, could become the regular prayer forms used within the programs.  When time and resources allow, the programs should seek to incorporate Mass and confession as often as possible.  “The sacramental character of faith finds its highest expression in the Eucharist.” 7

The Importance of Liturgy for Catechesis and Evangelization

Without the regular incorporation of liturgy into catechetical programs, the participants in parish programs—those who are not regularly and authentically participating in liturgies—will receive an incomplete or even deformed formation.  They may gain great knowledge of God, without ever knowing God.  The Sacred Liturgy is one of the ways in which the Church passes on the faith. 8  It is the way the events of salvation history, studied in these programs, are celebrated and made present. 9  If Scripture is truly the soul of parish theology programs, then the liturgy is the proper context for hearing the Scriptures. 10  Specifically, the lectionary of readings used at Mass provides the way to see a unity between the varying stories of Scripture and between the Old and New Testaments. 11

Have you ever encountered a program participant who did not understand the relevance of Scripture for the modern person?  The homily—either at Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours—provides an opportunity to see the relevance of the ancient Scriptures for mankind today. 12  When suggesting the participation of the lay faithful in the Liturgy of the Hours, Benedict XVI spoke of the familiarity with Scripture that comes from praying the Liturgy of the Hours. 13  Would this degree of familiarity not benefit Bible studies and Scripture classes in schools?

The Sacred Liturgy provides a unique context for catechesis. 14  Benedict XVI often referred to the Sacred Liturgy as a school. 15  It is also an opportunity for the faithful to confess their faith. 16  “In the celebration of the sacraments, the Church hands down her memory especially through the profession of faith.” 17 As these parishioners find themselves in a weekly movement between catechesis and liturgy, their faith will grow; the consistent return to the Church’s liturgy will nourish and strengthen their faith. 18  Pope Francis puts it beautifully in his first encyclical:

There is a special means for passing down the fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others.  It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. 19

These reasons demonstrate how the constant exposure and participation in the Sacred Liturgy allow a reinforcement and reception of catechesis from the law of prayer.  Catechesis is not just about gaining knowledge.  It is aimed at aiding one’s relationship with God, and growing that relationship.  It is aimed at salvation.  Without regular and authentic participation in the Mass, the parishioner is missing the normative way for Christ to continue the work of redemption in one’s life. 20 This mode of Christ’s work occurs when parishioners encounter the mysteries of Christ in the liturgy. 21   Is it not more powerful to have the students learn of Christ, and be united with Christ, than to just learn of Christ?  With liturgy and catechesis, Jesus becomes the living and accessible Savior. But without the liturgy, he is studied as a figure trapped in history.  A regular participation in the Church’s liturgies provides the individual with the chance to not only gain knowledge of God, but to come to know the living God. 22

Once parish programs begin to incorporate liturgy into their weekly events, pastors and catechists must find simple ways to engage in liturgical catechesis to help parishioners go deeper into the mystery of Christ, to understand the invisible at work through the visible. 23 As expressed in Lumen fidei: “The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal.” 24 This will also help our people to answer their call as missionaries to the poor and needy.  It must also be noted that this accommodation, bringing liturgy to these programs, should have as a goal the eventual integration of the parishioner into the multi-generational liturgies of the entire parish and diocese. 25

Conclusion

In 2008, I read about an Italian priest who was frustrated with the absence of young people at the parish Mass.  One day, he arrived at the local arcade, where he knew the young people from his parish were congregating, and began to set up for Mass. When the youth finished their gaming, and realized what was going on, they began to prepare for Mass.  It was reported that these young people responded to the sacredness of the Mass with a reverent silence, wonder, and awe.  Although I don’t think the answer to the current problem is weekday Masses at the local arcade or McDonald’s, I do think the innovative thinking of this priest was correct, and that the priority of liturgy is the first step.  We must meet our people where they are, in order to bring them to where they need to be: a unified People of God with the Sacred Liturgy as the source and summit of their daily lives.

 


[1]  Pew Research Center, “’Strong’ Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S.”, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/03/13/strong-catholic-identity-at-a-four-decade-low-in-us/

[2] Pew Research Center, “Leaving Catholicism,” 2009 and Revised 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux3/

[3] Catholic News Agency, “Full transcript of Pope’s in-flight press remarks released,” 2013, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-transcript-of-popes-in-flight-press-remarks-released/

[4] Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs (1927-1977), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998) 148.

[5] Sacrosanctum Concilium, §10.

[6] cf. Lumen Fidei, §40.

[7] Lumen Fidei, §44.

[8] Dei Verbum, §8.

[9] National Directory for Catechesis, §33.

[10] Verbum Domini, §52.

[11] Verbum Domini, §57.

[12] Verbum Domini, §59.

[13] Verbum Domini, §62.

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1074.

[15] Sacramentum Caritatis §91; Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, §93.

[16] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1124.

[17] Lumen Fidei, §45.

[18] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1123.

[19] Lumen Fidei, §40.

[20] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1069 and §1075.

[21] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1085.

[22] National Directory for Catechesis, §33.

[23] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1075.

[24] Lumen Fidei, §40.

[25] Sacramentum Caritatis, §63.

  1. Pew Research Center, “’Strong’ Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S.”, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/03/13/strong-catholic-identity-at-a-four-decade-low-in-us
  2. Pew Research Center, “Leaving Catholicism,” 2009 and Revised 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux3
  3. Catholic News Agency, “Full transcript of Pope’s in-flight press remarks released,” 2013, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-transcript-of-popes-in-flight-press-remarks-released
  4. Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs (1927-1977), (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998) 148.
  5. Sacrosanctum Concilium, §10.
  6. cf. Lumen Fidei, §40.
  7. Lumen Fidei, §44.
  8. Dei Verbum, §8.
  9. National Directory for Catechesis, §33.
  10. Verbum Domini, §52.
  11. Verbum Domini, §57.
  12. Verbum Domini, §59.
  13. Verbum Domini, §62.
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1074.
  15. Sacramentum Caritatis §91; Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, §93.
  16. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1124.
  17. Lumen Fidei, §45.
  18. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1123.
  19. Lumen Fidei, §40.
  20. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1069 and §1075.
  21. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1085.
  22. National Directory for Catechesis, §33.
  23. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1075.
  24. Lumen Fidei, §40.
  25. Sacramentum Caritatis, §63.
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avatar About Brandon Harvey

Brandon Harvey has been working in youth ministry for nearly ten years. He received his theological training from Briar Cliff University and Franciscan University of Steubenville. Besides full-time parish work in youth ministry, Mr. Harvey is an adjunct professor at Briar Cliff University, deacon candidate instructor, instituted acolyte, husband and father.

Comments

  1. Hello Mr. Harvey,

    I appreciate your desire to see a program of faith formation that has integrated catechesis with liturgical worship and prayer. I cannot personally relate to what I hear of your experience – of catechesis present and active in a parish setting with Scripture study and doctrine, yet not integrated with liturgy. In my experience I find grave deficiency in attention to the faith formation of parents – and of adults in general – while offering activities, formal catechesis and sacramental prep for children and “youth.” Yes, many parents take their children to religion classes yet do not take them to Mass – but I see a huge gap between what is needed and what is being received in all areas of formation of the faith for adults: participation in liturgy, in Scripture study, in Catechism studies, in retreats and days of prayer – formation in all its aspects is being pursued by very few of the adults in parishes that I have experienced.

    Are you actually in a parish setting in which a significant segment of the parish membership is receiving catechesis, but the problem is that they are only learning about God yet not meeting Him in the liturgy? That sounds to me like a wonderful problem to have! A glass half-full! A solid foundation upon which to build! On a typical Sunday of about 1300 adults in Mass attendance, we might see 13 adults in our morning or afternoon Scripture or Catechism sessions. They are a wonderful and serious group of 13, however, and I thank the Lord for each one of them! But we need substantive formation for all the adults of all our parishes – and, we agree, not merely academic facts but a coming into that union of persons with God that is our vocation.

  2. avatar Ted Figlock says:

    As an oldtimer (79 years) I have the wonderful benefit of Jesuit High School and College training. My first catechetical work was in a local parish while attending Fairfield University. Then at Ft. Devens while serving in the ARMY Medial Corps prior to assignment to MACV and the Vietnam 73 Med Grp, 1970-1971, including the Cambodian Incursion. So I have been around, and among the HAVES and HAVE NOTS. The CRUX of the “PROBLEM” is belief in the Eucharistic Presence of Christ. I told Brother Joe how wonderful I felt when I had the LAST RITES when I had my heart attack-to have all the sins of my past life forgiven. Brother Joe told me I was a JERK. “You have all your sins forgiven at every confession”. He is right. And we HAVE JESUS really there, every LITURGY!

  3. avatar Dakota Hoard says:

    Good article, Mr. Harris. I have similar concerns and I think your proposal could be a very effective step in drawing these people into a deeper communion with Christ and His Church. As you suggest, one cannot persist in the faith while being willfully separated from the Church’s liturgies, especially the Mass. A couple of comments:

    First, I think it’s worth examining the deeper problem going on here, viz., the disordered perspective of these parishioners. People very often approach religion with the mindset of getting something for themselves. I think this is why some people seek out didactic programs while skipping liturgies and why others go to Mass but leave immediately after receiving communion. I think this is also the main allure of many protestant communities: their activities are directed toward giving people certain feelings or experiences. People are confused about the true direction or focus of religion: they think in terms of God giving something to man, rather than man giving the worship due to God.

    Second, because so many are confused about the orientation of religion and liturgies, there seems to me a few dangers which may arise when incorporating liturgies into catechetical programs. For one, people might not appreciate the change in focus from that in the catechesis, which is immediately directed toward them (though still ultimately for the sake of God’s Glory), to that of the liturgy. Obviously, some instruction on the liturgy would need to be given beforehand. Secondly, there may be temptation for those in charge of planning to change a liturgy illicitly (or even just make up some para-liturgy) in order to make it fit into the catechetical program or make it more palatable to those participating. That, of course, would not be drawing people into a greater appreciation of the life of the Church but reinforcing bad habits, directing them away from the Church.

  4. avatar Father Dylan Schrader says:

    In my experience, most of the adults who participate in parish “programs,” such as Bible studies, adult catechesis opportunities, or even fish fries, picnics, etc. are precisely those who are regular participants in Sunday Mass. The exception is the parish school. In every parish that I know of, a large number of families whose children attend the parish school do not participate in Mass each Sunday. This is truly alarming, especially since the children are taught that missing Mass is a sin. Thus, they begin to feel guilty for something for which they are not responsible, but over time, they learn to suppress the feeling of guilt and get used to not going to Mass. So, when they are old enough to choose for themselves, they have a longstanding habit of missing Mass. They graduate from school and, often, “graduate” from the Church, since the Church was reduced to the school in their experience. Another possible exception is youth groups. It is quite possible to have young people involved in youth groups who are not solid in their Mass attendance.

    I think the great need is for confession. Even among those who participate in Mass each Sunday, the number of those who have made a confession within the last month, two months, or even year, is incredibly low. This makes one wonder how many people are in the state of grace within the parish.

    I would hesitate to add special celebrations of Mass for individual parish groups. This is much more taxing for priests than many of the faithful realize. Rather, I would encourage scheduling parish events around the sacred liturgy so as to facilitate attendance at Mass. We also need to combine things in convenient ways for the faithful. There is no reason why at a parish with two priests one could not expose the Blessed Sacrament, teach a bit on the faith, and give time for adoration followed by Benediction while, at the same time, the other priest hears confessions.

    Perhaps priests could hear confessions while parents pick up their children from school in the afternoon. Perhaps priests could even hear confessions during Sunday Mass once in awhile, when there are two priests available.

    • Thank you, Father Schrader, for your thoughts and your own experience on these matters. I often wonder, and wish I knew, what priests and pastors especially think about many of the important issues in the Church today. I agree that there is a need for more to seek and receive Confession – but I would hasten to add that before we the laity are encouraged to Confession, we need to be encouraged to holiness. And before that, we need to to know and understand much more clearly and precisely what sin is, and what holiness means.

      So many in the Church today have received very little in the way of formation in the faith – at an adult level. I have worked in adult formation, in several dioceses and parishes, and have consistently been very troubled by the relatively few adults who seek to grow in the faith. I think – this is my speculation and hope – that this could change if homilists in a given parish would consistently, knowledgeably, regularly, sincerely and fervently yet with charity preach and teach about sin, and stress our call to holiness and what that means. I think – I hope – that a true renewal could be ignited, if such an on-going parish mission were to be embraced.

      I think, hope, that we could see many more Catholic adults growing in the faith – and in sincerity of heart seeking holiness of life – and receiving the sacraments with right disposition and thus fruitfully, including of course the Sacrament of Confession.

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