My wife and I have recently started regularly attending our local Latin Mass in the Extraordinary Form. We took our two young boys one Sunday in July, shortly after the news of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sins jumpstarted the current round of clergy sex scandals. We had previously attended about once a year just to mix it up, but since July we have gone every other week and now three weeks in four. We may switch permanently.
The antiquity of the Mass contrasts with the youth of the congregation. Numerous little children filling the nave provide a background noise of crying, cooing, crawling over pews, and scuffling into laps. These sounds of family life contrast with other parishes where children depart for children’s liturgies or cry rooms, or are simply absent. The adults also present a diverse group. A majority of those present are young families and adults under 50. Although the Catholic Church has hemorrhaged men for decades, men and women are about evenly split here. Nor is it all white people. Despite being a low overall percentage of the local population, a good number of Hispanics are present. Three or four black families and some Asian couples also attend. The congregation more obviously runs the gamut from rich to poor than your typical American parish. “Here,” in Joyce’s mocking but true words, “comes everybody.”
My wife and I are Millennials. Like most of my cohort, I exclusively attended the Novus Ordo in English growing up. My wife converted from Evangelical Protestantism during college. Yet we are poised to join a puzzling trend of modern American Catholicism: the small but growing set of Millennials finding a home in the Mass of Trent.
This confuses our bishops and elders. Catholicism, they say, should make itself more understandable to the modern world. Father Thomas Reese once likened the Mass to new software versions in need of occasional upgrades—like DOS, the Extraordinary Form should be made obsolete. Some think Millennials are revolting against their Baby Boomer parents. Others see Millennials attracted to the mystery of the older form, seeing it as something new and different from their childhood. Many think Millennials have a false nostalgia for a Catholicism that never existed before Vatican II. Still others think this attraction stems from a desire for comfort, security, belief, and the ease with which to avoid the messiness of modernity.
But the young families I have met almost completely lack such pretense. They do not consider themselves better or seek some false comfort. They acknowledge they are sinners living in a sinful world—indeed, that’s what makes them seek out the old rites. They engage the modern world around them, hold down ordinary jobs, cheer for the same sports teams, and spend their weekends doing ordinary modern things. But they share a particular priority: to raise children in twenty-first century America while remaining authentically Catholic.
Millennials and “authenticity” go together. Brand managers speak of a brand being “authentic” to itself or its corporate values to draw in Millennial consumers. Workplace gurus teach older generations how to be “authentic” around Millennials to attract and keep good young employees. Millennials themselves discuss seeking “authenticity” and meaning in their lives and often do so through their choices in consumption, such as by buying locally sourced food produced by old techniques, local craft beer and liquors, handmade products, and “artisanal” goods.
For Millennials, being authentic means that the external, public presentation corresponds to the internal, private reality. Marketers have learned that sales gimmicks simply meant to boost sales only turn off Millennial consumers. Instead, Millennials are loyal to brands that provide social value or utility, or which have a durable quality. Millennials also want the people producing the goods to feel invested in their products and society. This is why farmers’ markets, local butchers, and craft breweries have made a comeback. These people have not “sold out” to big farms or mass-produced meat or bland beer. The product itself comes first, and making the sale is secondary. That personal sacrifice vouches for the goods’ quality and value.
Consider now the Latin Mass. Most priests who celebrate the Extraordinary Form are strong in their faith and ask others to take their Catholicism seriously. They are not “selling” redemption on the cheap. They know (often from their own experience in their dioceses and religious orders) that salvation takes work, effort, and sacrifice. They give you Jesus Christ in his flesh and blood, because that’s why you are there. Everything else is secondary.
But because the external form of the liturgy is secondary to, yet consistent with, the internal Eucharistic reality, it is lifted up into that reality. The chant, the Latin, the repetition, the silence, the incense, the bells—all find their place in glorifying that moment when the priest elevates the Body and Blood. Millennials drawn to the Latin Mass do not see these things as a pretense, but rather as a way to express most fully and consistently the Catholic teaching of the Eucharist.
In other words, Latin Mass Millennials view the liturgy as authentic in a way that the progressive stylings fashionable after Vatican II are not. Yes, Millennials find the Latin Mass mysterious, but in the old sense of mystery, that “revealing” of the true relationship of God and man. It presents order in our messy world—an order that publicly embodies the Faith we privately believe. The Latin Mass presents Catholicism uncompromised by trying to sell itself to the people. It does not try to trick you into thinking it is anything other than what it is.
If I had been allowed an intervention at last month’s Youth Synod, this is what I would have told the gathered bishops: Youth want to know that you, the bishops, believe and embrace the things you teach—that you are authentic. Embracing authentic Catholicism means not trying harder to sell the Faith through new liturgical gimmicks or pastoral compromises. It means presenting the Faith in full and ordering our public lives as faithful, loving, sacrificing Catholics around those internal beliefs. Don’t tell the youth about the Faith, show them. And there is no more beautiful, uplifting, and authentically true way to do so than by a devout presentation of the ancient Latin Mass.
(Photo credit: Solemn High Mass in Notre-Dame de Paris; Gonzague Bridault / New Liturgical Movement)