Oct 15, 2006

Mass Marketing Mass

Online Edition – October 2006

Vol. XII, No. 7

Mass Marketing Mass

by Father John A. Valencheck

“Are you tired of a church that is old-fashioned and boring?” asked a postcard in the parish mail addressed to “Occupant”.

The postcard was heralding the grand opening of a “megachurch” nearby, and listed what services a person who became a member could enjoy: ample parking, free baby sitting, programs for persons of all ages, good music — and free Starbucks Coffee and Krispy Kreme Donuts.

There was no mention of commitment or sacrifice — or even of Jesus Christ, for that matter. In reaction to this, my pastor asked the legitimate question, “How are we supposed to compete with this? They are supplying entertainment and free breakfast. What are we supposed to do in order to entice people into the Mass?” This is a serious question for Catholics who live in an entertainment-driven culture. People are willing to leave the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for pastries and upbeat music.

There is an interesting and innovative twist of the basic notion of “church” implied in that postcard. It is in the idea that “church” is an institution outside of us providing services for us. This conflicts the belief that Church is something that we are supposed to become.

Some people — even some Catholics — think that the real Church is made up of priests and nuns and a bunch of people in Rome. This is a mistaken idea. In fact, the Church is the whole Body of Christ. The Church is the man in Saint Peter’s seat, and the child on the lap of her mother in the pew — all with a mission given them by Christ.

The “megachurch” postcard suggests the opposite. Shopping for a new church means looking into the amenities that are provided for you and choosing the one you like best — in much the same way as you might choose a health club. You may join such a place, but you do not in any way become it.

Catholics can fall for this mistaken notion and even feed into it when trying to make the Mass more marketable. Parishes may try all types of tactics. Pastors and their staffs will tackle this dilemma — apparently with the bedrock assumption that the Mass is a painful event. Entire parishes seem to be influenced by this mentality.

“Get it over with” — or “Jazz it up”

One solution is to make the Mass pass as swiftly as possible, apparently on the assumption that the people who are there do not want to be there, so the object is to get them in and out before they can register the full measure of their boredom. The focus of the Mass is now placed on those who do not want to be there. It is doubly dangerous if the priest, performing his duties in a quick, apologetic fashion, seems to indicate, “This is not really all that important”.

Why be there at all then? Starbucks Coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts are going to look mighty tempting some Sunday and there, wandering Catholics will see sincere people enthusiastic about what they are doing together.

Just as common (or more so) is the parish that decides the Mass should become more entertaining.

Implementing an “entertainment” plan might target the music, the homily, more lay involvement, bigger decorations, themes, dancing, technology, the encouragement of idle chatter in the church, and a relaxed “presiding style”. There are perilous problems with this approach also.

The first is that a sensation once tried is soon tired. An entertaining innovation can too quickly become grating and we are right back to the problems of being boring. “Are we doing that again?”

Constantly developing the next great innovation, of course, steals time away from the true matters of faith that are infinitely more important. Besides, whom should we try to please? Unlike the “megachurch” that attracts through its advertising a certain homogenous “clientele”, the typical Catholic parish is a hodgepodge of persons with greatly varying tastes. What will entertain Mrs. McGoogle is bound to bore Mr. MacIntosh and vice versa.

More importantly, however, is that the Mass is not entertaining nor is it meant to be entertainment. To put it more bluntly, we will never, ever compete with the megachurches in their power to put on a good show.

The Mass is the wrong venue to even attempt doing so. It would be like trying to drive a nail using a screwdriver: one may have some moderate success, but it works against the nature and purposes of both, so it cannot achieve its goal, and may cause harm to both the instrument and its object. A person who seeks entertainment may be brought to Mass, but he is sure to be disappointed — and doubly so if he never becomes aware of the real purpose of the celebration, or the reason he is supposed to be there.

The confusion is heightened in that, just as the notion of what the Church is seems to have altered, the focus of what a Church service is supposed to be has also changed. If I attend Mass because I am entertained, or its style suits my personal taste, then I shift the focus from God to me. If worship becomes a selfish act Little Johnny can justify defiantly stating, “I don’t get anything out of it!”

Mistaking the Path for the Destination

This comes about when too much attention is given to the ritual itself. There is a saying that goes, “When the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger.”

The ritual is supposed to point beyond itself and when a parish pays such incredible attention to the ritual, it never transcends it to a worship of God. The path is mistaken for the destination. Worship becomes heavily horizontal (focused on people) and the vertical dimension (focus on God) becomes anemic. Ritual then runs the risk of seeming trite. A person can find himself asking the question, “Why am I kneeling? What does this have to do with what we are doing, with the culture in which I am living?”

The solution for Catholics is not to stop kneeling or to look for other ways to make the Mass fit modern culture better. In fact, the Mass, and the Catholic faith in general, is meant to be countercultural. The Liturgy helps the attentive and informed worshipper transcend his particular culture, puts him in touch with a deeper reality, with mystery, places him in proper relationship with God, and then sends him on a mission to inform, not to be informed by his culture.

This is why, at least in part, everything that we do at Mass is so different from any other aspect of our lives. What we perceive, what we taste, and see and feel and smell and hear, what we understand is completely at odds with the six days and twenty-three hours of the rest of our week.

The liturgy needs to reflect this. It does so in the way special clothing is used, in what we say, the gestures that we make, the positions in which we put our bodies, in the incense, candles, the ritual, in our art and architecture, in the celibate male priesthood, and in the Church’s insistence on truly sacred music — that, all things being equal, Gregorian chant has a place of prominence in our Liturgy.

All of these are major signals that what is happening here is different; that we are not trying please man or validate his view of the world, but that this mystery has something to say to him, wants to transform him, wants him to go out and transform the world.

The successful Mass puts us in contact with the Divine, reminds us of our proper relation, of our dependence, of our obligation, of our blessedness and responsibility. Whether we are bored or not has no bearing in evaluating a successful Liturgy. (Boredom is within the person, the Mass is not.) The only real measure of an effective Liturgy is this: did the ritual celebration make it possible to transcend it — did it draw worshippers into the Divine, to Christ’s sacrifice, toward the kingdom of God and His will for us?

The solution then is not be apologetic for what we Catholics do at Mass, nor to attempt to overcome “deficiencies” of the Mass as viewed in the megachurch marketplace. Instead, we should delve more deeply into the Sacred Mysteries, and celebrate them boldly, proudly, and well.

Priests and ministers must first themselves give witness to this in the way they carry out their duties. To do otherwise is only to weaken the Mass and to make its message and power confusing. Mass should be celebrated in as solemn, beautiful and timely a way as we can make it.

This will not be easily achieved in a parish that has restricted itself to rushed or entertainment models for the celebration of Mass. Like re-educating the taste of a person with a sugar-reliant palate, the switch to a more spiritually nourished and sophisticated liturgical taste is not accomplished overnight. But unless Catholics make the effort, we may not only lose our appreciation of our true gifts; we risk handing souls over to those are much better purveyors of sugar than we should care to be.


Father Valencheck is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland serving at St. Clare in Lyndhurst. This is his second essay published in the Adoremus Bulletin. An earlier article appeared in these pages in February 2006.



Father John A. Valencheck