This may sound like the start of a “shaggy-dog” story: So … there are these three Western Canadian bishops at a Catholic youth conference called “One Rock 2.0.” The bishops are prepping for a Town Hall, a “Q and A” session with a tough audience, 620 millennials aged 18-35, and the episcopi are steeling themselves for a grilling on the clerical abuse scandals. One of the conference speakers, a millennial, is overheard suggesting that the bishops may want to prepare for questions on the liturgy. The bishops look skeptical. “Is that really something they think about?” one of them asks.
The Town Hall begins. The bishops take their seats on the podium, the young people line up at the microphones, and the grilling begins. And, yes, some questions address the scandals, but seven-out-of-ten millennial questions focus on liturgy and Church traditions.
“I never dreamed they cared…” one bishop is heard to mutter.
Another is overheard to ask: “How do they even know about ad orientem worship?”
Conference participants, millennial and older, attest to the bishops’ manifest public surprise at the liturgical questions. A very precise Ancient Greek idiom holds that we do not march forward into the future. We face the past, the future is behind us, and we back into it. Like all of us, bishops navigate by seeing only where they’ve been and are often blind to what the future might bring.
Millennial Catholic blogger Brian Holdsworth, a speaker at One Rock, expected this issue. “Millennial Catholics are trending toward tradition, in the States definitely, and probably in Canada, but here it’s harder to tell,” says the bearded web developer. “We want authenticity, but nobody’s really prepared to tell us what that is. We’ve got a sense for the vapid and vacuous, and there’s lots of that going around, but we really want to know how to be uniquely Catholic.” Millennials’ hunger for liturgy is easy to understand, he says it comes from anxiety.
“The Age of Aquarius didn’t deliver on all its promises,” says Holdsworth, himself a child of divorce. “We still want marriage and families and real friendships, but millennials see their parents’ mistakes, and it’s like we’ve been cut off from all that.” So millennials generally are swamped by anxiety. “The long-time therapists say they’re seeing an anxiety tidal wave,” he says, and Catholic millennials are fleeing into prayer, “thirsty for righteousness.”
“We’ve been told that all change is progress, but three-quarters of the time, it’s not,” says the father-of-five, a convert of 15 years. “We’re learning that the real fashion is retro, old-fashioned—the kind of worship our grandparents had, and our great-great-grandparents.”
“One Rock 2.0” organizer Fr. Cristino Bouvette says there’s been a quiet liturgical reform “under the radar” across North America. He’s one of a half-dozen millennial priests reforming the local Novus Ordo Mass (blogging at www.swordsoftruth.com). He and his confreres were empowered by the “three legs” of Pope Benedict’s “reform of the reform”: the new translation of the Roman Missal (finally issued in 2011), the unleashing of the Tridentine Mass with Summorum Pontificum (2007), and “mutual enrichment” with the traditional Anglican liturgy made possible with Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009). The way these influences intertwined locally was unpredictable, providential, but serves as an object lesson for an unseen liturgical reform already sweeping North America. This includes a return to “all-male” sanctuaries—i.e., with altar boys—given the now-obvious necessity for a real apprenticeship to an all-male priesthood.
One young priest (who refused to be interviewed) first served a half-dozen years as assistant at two mega-parishes, but all the while, he privately trained himself in traditional rubrics with Tridentine videos. In 2015, he was given a small, aging inner-city parish, a candidate for closing, with the bishop’s encouragement to keep it alive. He started modestly with six “Benedictine candles” across the front of the altar, joking with the seniors that he “really likes candles.” Then, at a weekday Mass, he met a neighborhood family who normally attended Sunday Mass at one parish run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) located far across the city. The FSSP priests had trained their sons to serve the Extraordinary Form, so he asked if they would be willing to serve a traditional Novus Ordo Mass for him—and train other young (male) altar servers. They agreed.
Meanwhile, some three years earlier, local choir director Alane Boudreau was stirred by the new revised Roman Missal. So she turned to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium and discovered what the Council really intended: chant. She began studying the revised and translated Graduale Romanum. She was enchanted by the beauty of the language, especially in the Propers; digging deeper, she discovered that the revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal encourages—as it always had—the congregation chanting the Propers. She tried to convince her current pastor: “Everything doesn’t always have to be pedestrian.” But he objected that his aging congregation wouldn’t like it. As it turns out, she found that the ecclesiastical music profession would need another decade to generate more English settings.
Briefly stymied, the mother-of-nine then discovered that Calgary had a new Anglican Ordinariate parish, complete with English Propers, 400 years worth of music, and a 100-year-old Casavant organ. So she transferred to the Ordinariate choir for the next three years, mastering English chant and improving her organ skills. Then came personnel changes at the Ordinariate parish; simultaneously, she learned of the new, young priest, back at her own end of the city, reviving the liturgical rubrics in a Novus Ordo Mass. It was a match made in heaven.
Over the next three years, the inner-city parish’s traditional Novus Ordo drew over a dozen new Gen X and millennial families from all over the city—mostly large families with lots of boys. They came for the serried ranks of candles and incense, crucifers, torchbearers, thurifers and “boat-boys,” Corpus Christi processions, and real vigil Masses. The choir quadrupled in size, chanting the English introit, Psalm or Gradual, and the offertory and communion antiphons on Sundays—and sometimes in Latin for major feasts. They branched out cautiously into polyphony—cautiously, because the attraction of chant is that everyone can sing it.
Some young families drove fifteen or twenty miles across town so their boys could learn to serve the Novus Ordo Mass properly in a disciplined, all-male sanctuary. Well over a dozen altar servers, nine-to-19 years old—quite likely some future priests were among them—were trained by the original FSSP alumni.
The congregation more than doubled in size. With the new families voting not only with their feet, but also their checkbooks, the parish went from “the red” to “the black.” There were children everywhere, something it hadn’t seen since the 1970s. Naturally, there was the potential for a split between the old neighborhood parishioners and the newcomers, but that never happened. The young priest kept joking about his predilection for candles, never gossiped, listened and made sympathetic noises to the half-dozen very aged parishioners who were annoyed by the kids.
After three years, the diocese underwent its triennial clerical shuffle, and the young priest was moved to build a brand-new church, 80 miles away. His replacement thought all the “smells and bells” were judgmental traditionalism. He declared that he was six years from retirement, he felt like he was “a prisoner behind bars” with all the Benedictine candles, and he wanted “community” instead of “reverence.” His homilies became not-so-veiled condemnations of his choir director.
Most of the new families scattered—but it was like the scattering of Christians after St. Stephen’s martyrdom. Choir director Boudreau was invited to start a traditional Novus Ordo Mass at the flagship downtown parish, and she took much of her choir and the “veteran” FSSP server trainers with her. Two other families with boys, previously commuting across the city, were invited to organize the altar servers for a new traditional Mass at a megachurch in their own area. A third big parish promised two other families an all-male, cassocked sanctuary on special feasts. A half-dozen older servers at the original parish hung on until, four months later, the unsympathetic priest moved on. His millennial replacement likes candles.
“It’s a really predictable path,” says Boudreau. “Once you look into liturgy, you’re drawn to the beauty and the wisdom of the Divine Office. People are fed by the language of the Graduale Romanum. There’s a groundswell in chanting the Propers—especially the Psalms.”
Fr. Bouvette says the chant’s new popularity is a replay of St. Pius X’s reform early in the last century. Following the example of St. Jean Vianney, that pope encouraged congregational chant as the Baroque Mass had become inaccessible. “The Mass had become an opera,” says the priest. Today, again, pop hymns have become impossible for a congregation to sing. Ironically, the most reverent choral mode—chant—is most accessible to a congregation.
Roderick Bryce, music director at the Edmonton Archdiocese, says, “Benedict was absolutely prophetic” regarding the liturgy, and “we won’t understand his achievement for decades.” In the Anglosphere, however, “it’s very much the youngsters leading the way,” and there’s still backlash from the baby boomers. Bryce has brought an eight-voice schola into the cathedral, and aging nuns have complained, “That’s not our tradition around here.” In response, he was asked, “Around here, are you turning your back on the Universal Church?” Another baby boomer lamented, “We used to sing as a congregation,” to which he replied, “I’m glad you mis-remember that, but it’s not true—hardly anyone ever sang the trendy hymns.”
Bryce knows a millennial priest who took a group to the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland. During an outdoor Mass, the entire field of youth launched into the Pater Noster—“What could be more global than that?”—but his Canadian kids could only look back at the priest with embarrassment, unable to join in. “He felt he’d failed in his responsibility to the youngsters in his charge,” Bryce says. “He’d failed to bring them fully into the Universal Church.”
In asking for traditional liturgy, “millennials are not asking for something that isn’t theirs,” says the 39-year-old father of two. “The entire liturgical treasury of the Church is theirs, and it’s one-hundred percent legitimate for them to ask for it. If it’s legitimate, do it, and don’t do it apologetically. Don’t apologize.”
Bryce says it remains a mystery, why even dedicated, orthodox Anglosphere bishops don’t understand the liturgical issue. His own Archbishop of Edmonton appointed him to make his cathedral a flagship for music reform, but most, even good bishops, don’t think the issue is worth fighting a few noisy Boomers. “I used to think it was so obvious, they had to see it and just didn’t like it,” he says, “but now I realize, it’s not really on their radar; it’s not a big issue for them.” When reminded that, in any organization, it’s always hard to get feedback from the “shop floor”—loyal priests especially avoid correcting their bishops—he’s hesitant. He knows the information is everywhere. It must be “a generational thing,” he insists. “They wouldn’t have had it in their seminary days, and it’s still suppressed in some seminaries.”
The Edmonton music director says the reforms mandated by Vatican II were obviously needed, but the implementation went way too far. So now, “mutual enrichment” will obviously flow more from the Extraordinary to the Ordinary Form, and less, from the Ordinary to the Extraordinary. There will always be issues regarding chant versus polyphony, how much of the Mass is to be sung, and how much Latin to include. But “the main battle is the texts,” he says. “It’s all about the texts. Get the text right, and you’re a winner.” Meanwhile, he tells me the Church must still endure “your generation”—he points at me—and with all the anxiety sown by the “liberating” Baby Boom.