Congregation-at-Mass-Westminster-CathedralA guest essay in the National Catholic Reporter by Loretta Johnson titled, “Questioning Together: Young Adults Celebrate Teaching Liturgy on Retreat,” made my morning. Johnson begins her piece by establishing the context in which about thirty young adults gathered at a retreat center in California for a retreat led by a Jesuit priest. She goes to great length to highlight that many of the retreatants are not regularly practicing Catholics, but those who have been — as we come to see near the end of the essay — unhappy with the current state of parish life as they’ve found it after their otherwise life-giving undergraduate campus-ministry experiences. This is the rule, I’m afraid, rather than the exception in the post-graduate life of today’s young adults.

While I sincerely believe that Johnson’s experience of feeling “left out” of a church that does not often convey a sense of welcome to young adults (certainly not to the degree a campus-ministry or Newman Center program would, which are geared for those 18-22 exclusively), I don’t agree that a retreat consisting of thirty young adults represents a vision of “what the church should be.”

The church is the Body of Christ, which consists of the young and old, the rich and poor, the abled and the disabled alike. The church’s “self-referential sickness,” which is Johnson’s term to describe what in part appears to turn off today’s young adults from active parish life, is actually reinscribed in the described utopian vision of young adults holding hands in prayer — where are the senior citizens? Where are the children?

I share these observations more as a disclaimer than an outright critique. Johnson is not the only one to hold this view. Go to any big city like Boston or Chicago and you’re bound to find a cluster or committed young-adult Catholics at a parish (usually a religious order parish like those run by the Franciscans or Paulists), who offer similar laments and experiences of contemporary marginalization and feeling left out. One of the ways to help overcome this, I believe, is described in the experience Johnson presents to us on the last day of her retreat.

The night before we left, we celebrated a “teaching liturgy.” It was the most profound and intimate experience of Catholic liturgy that I have ever celebrated. For the first time in my young adult life, though I sat in a pew toward the back, I felt cherished, respected and esteemed: I felt a sincere connection with the source and summit of the Catholic faith.

Too, too, too many people — many priests and deacons included — don’t have a full sense of what’s going on in the liturgy of the Eucharist each Sunday when the Body of Christ, which is the church, gathers in worship. EVERYTHING in the liturgy, as Johnson and her peers came to learn, has a meaning and oftentimes these meanings are richly polyvalent.

While the congregation, which has a right and a responsibility to participate fully and actively in the celebration of the church’s liturgy (BTW, case in point, the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word meaning “the work of the people” — it’s the work of all the assembled, not just the priest and other ministers). In order to do that, I — following the longtime cry of sacramental theologians everywhere — have been saying for years, the whole community needs to know what’s going on!

This seems to have happened for Johnson and 29 of her fellow retreatants.

After the gathering rite, our Jesuit presider shared a few thought-provoking facts about the altar, altar table and chapel space. Then he encouraged all of us to ask questions and to share what we knew about the liturgy as our celebration unfolded. As the liturgy continued, he offered us many trustworthy insights. He shared what he knew honestly and humbly — adding a garnish of humor in those moments that were beyond answers. He shared the significance of the different liturgical colors, explained the purpose of each genuflection, and drew attention to the meaning of our prayers and songs. As we shared this sacred meal, our questions were received, not as interruptions, but as invitations. This sacred gathering opened up a space for all of us to share our questions, to announce our anxieties and to admit to our unknowing. In this liturgy, we confirmed our limitedness out loud and we questioned into our faith together.

What a beautiful image. Moving through the prayer of the liturgy together (and, remember, it is a prayer to be prayed, not a play to be watched!), those in attendance gained both the knowledge and experience of what was unfolding in their midst. It became no longer a “beautiful mystery” as advocates of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass crowd often claims, but the true prayer and “work of the people” (leitourgía) at which the priest presides on behalf of and with the whole assembly.

This action, the unveiling of meaning and significance of what it is we celebrate when we gather each Sunday, is something that should happen more often and in more places. How can the People of God live out their responsibility and duty as Christians called to full and active participation without knowing what’s going on?

How can presiders not turn the liturgy into their little self-centered show, tempted to do as they please, while thinking it is about them because several hundred eyes are in fact looking at them to lead the assembly in prayer?

I have seen good, faithful people stand and sit and kneel in silence, staring at the sanctuary like opera-goers at the Met. And I have seen presiders, thinking that they’re being “hip” or “inclusive” by changing things or adding things or indiscriminately removing things (I’m thinking, for example, of a particularly egregious disappearance of the Penitential Act in a certain New England ministry center run by a religious community not my own — if only the presider knew the significance and beauty of its place within the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist!), make major mistakes that have deeply symbolic value that often contradict their intentions. There is room within the liturgy for adaptation, for local custom, and so forth, but at the proper times and places.

Johnson’s essay reminds me of the universal need we have as a church to educate one another and know what is going on so that we can pray together and pray together well.

Perhaps if Johnson and others knew better what was going on each Sunday at the celebration of the liturgy, they would be less concerned that the woman or man in the pew next to them was not the same age or gender or race as them, and be able to pray as we should. Conversely, the older (or younger) parishioners might be more welcoming and inclusive, not just of young adults, but of every member of Christ’s Body.

When it comes to the liturgy and sacramental theology, ignorance is far, far, far from bliss!

Photo: Stock


  1. I believe that with each movement there should be explanation either verbal or maybe , each week in the bulletin different parts of The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass being explained ?

    Most Catholics do not realize what really happens at this Great Mystery . And sometimes the presiders !

    I love this Most Holy ritual Our Father has given us mere mortals.

    Respectfully In Christ Jesus
    Mary Anne huegel

  2. I am so tired of my students complaining that they ” do not get anything out of the Mass.” I tell them that they are there to participate and GIVE of themselves so that the Mystery of the Body of Christ can be fully realized. I would love it if there could be more catechesis as the liturgy was celebrated.

  3. This is so true. We need to begin with children and youth – helping them understand the Mass and their role and how they are to participate, both internally and externally. However, that requires training catechists to do this well. The source material is the rubrics for the assembly in the Roman Missal and the GIRM.

  4. You are so right. People need to understand what the Mass is about and their role as members of the assembly. They should be taught how to participate internally and externally. This actually needs to begin when they are children… but that means, of course, that catechists need to be trained to do that. The source material, of course, is the rubrics in the Roman Missal and the GIRM.

  5. I think you and Johnson are right about how much understanding can enrich the liturgy for young adults–and for all of us. Rather than tailoring liturgies to suit what we think young adults want (as if they all young adults prefer one type of liturgical experience), I’ve found that understanding the liturgy more can help a person better appreciate and actively participate in liturgies regardless who’s there and what it’s like. You put capture this so nicely: “Perhaps if Johnson and others knew better what was going on each Sunday at the celebration of the liturgy, they would be less concerned that the woman or man in the pew next to them was not the same age or gender or race as them, and be able to pray as we should.” Yes!

  6. I believe that educating the people is the key. Yes I do agree that many mass goers do not understand the celebration and the Liturgy and this is so sad because this is supposedly the core of what going to mass is all about. Not everyone knows for example, what the offering of the bread and wine meant and what these symbols signify. Yes, catechism is the key. I do agree.

  7. Excellent comments. Proves a point that many have made here: the importantance of teaching what the liturgy (both parts) is about- symbolism and history included. Sr. Margaret Link makes a point that I adamantly agree with – it is not always about receiving, it is about giving — to God and to the Community, the Body of Christ.
    I believe that the key to the liturgy is the way in which the celebrant integrates the readings into a teaching that is applicable to our lives today.
    Now, if they would leave well enough alone and stop changing the ‘responses’ things would be less confusing.
    Thanks, Fr. Dan

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