Vol. XX, No. 8
Reflections on the Youth Mass
by Brandon Harvey
Hundreds of youth devoutly gather every week to participate in the Mass with a firm understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The youth are assisting as servers, readers, cantors, and ushers. Their participation is rooted not in a mere sense of obligation but out of zeal for Christ.
This describes some of the positive elements of the modern phenomenon called the “youth Mass.” The mentioning of the youth Mass typically incites immediate liturgical feedback, both for and against. Typical conversations center around musical style, musical instruments, ministerial personality, language, and youth involvement. After all the debating, both sides find the other to be speaking a completely different language. The path forward requires a reflection on two issues as a basis for a common language in these conversations: Masses for special groups and the expression of liturgical symbols with their ability to be understood.
The Church does not reject the idea of a Mass for a group of youth, but the Church does express some concern. It is not uncommon for numerous parishes in a diocese to schedule a regular youth Mass and some on a weekly basis.
In Sacramentum Caritatis (SC) Pope Benedict XVI expresses caution and criteria for Masses for particular groups that seek to solicit deeper participation of that group. The criteria laid down four principles: these groups must work to unify the community and not create disunity, the benefits of the separate Mass for the group should be evident, the “fruitful participation of the entire assembly” should be encouraged, and finally, the unity of the liturgical life of a family should be preserved (SC 63). The two principles that are of concern for the youth Mass are the principles of parish and family unity.
Eucharisticum Mysterium (EM, 1967) had similar concerns and advised offering these liturgies for particular groups on a weekday in order to preserve the unity of the parish’s Eucharistic celebration on Sunday (EM 27, see Dies Domini 36).
The emphasis on parish and family unity for Sunday Mass is because its common celebration is the chief representation of the universal Church (General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] 113). The “assembly which most fully portrays the nature of the Church and its role in the Eucharist is that which gathers together the faithful, men and women, of every age and walk of life” (EM 16).
The Church’s desire for unity does not negate her understanding that situations will arise when a particular group needs a separate celebration of the Holy Mass. Organizing such celebrations requires choosing among liturgical options (Redemptionis Sacramentum [RS] 39, SC 54). But how does one determine how to make choices about a particular celebration of the Mass for that group? Because it is a Mass for a particular group, the temptation is to seek what would interest the group and this is where the youth Mass usually takes a turn for the worse.
Planners often do not realize that the options should be chosen to clarify the signs and symbols from which the liturgy is woven (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1145).
Liturgical planners, including those on youth ministry teams, do not realize that the options should be chosen to clarify the signs and symbols from which the liturgy is woven (CCC 1145). Decisions should be based on which option best communicates to the people the invisible reality that the liturgical signs and symbols represent. Therefore those planning these liturgies for youth need to have a basic knowledge of the parts of the Mass, their options, and purpose.
Making choices based on the personal interests of an individual or group is rooted in marketing and consumerism. Its product is a seed that will and, in my experience, has eventually developed differing degrees of the so-called cafeteria Catholic. But the pastoral approach, the approach that forms disciples, is rooted in making choices that will help the youth best grasp the meaning of the rite and the Mass as a whole so that their participation in the work of God may bring forth fruit.
On the part of planners and the celebrant, the key to nourishing liturgies is their proper celebration with these given options (SC 38, RS 32, Canon Law 899.3). There are numerous Church documents that stipulate that priests and their assistants cannot introduce their own preferences if these are not included in the liturgical options (Sacrosanctum Concilium 22.3; GIRM 24, Ecclesia de Eucharistia 51-52; RS 11-12, 18, 30, 58, 62, etc.).
This is because the Church’s rites were not developed through the centuries by mere accident; the “liturgical words and rites, moreover, are a faithful expression, matured over the centuries, of the understanding of Christ, and they teach us to think as He Himself does” (RS 5). It is important to remember that fruitful participation in the Mass for a particular group is not achieved by modifying the ceremonies “but in probing more deeply the word of God and the mystery being celebrated” (RS 39).
It is not enough for those planning liturgies for youth to have a deep liturgical knowledge and to have everything well organized. It is also necessary that the “faithful be helped to make their interior dispositions correspond to their gestures and words. Otherwise, however carefully planned and executed our liturgies may be, they would risk falling into a certain ritualism” (SC 64).
Therefore those planning the youth Mass must also be sure that the youth are receiving regular mystagogical catechesis. Mystagogical catechesis has three dimensions (SC 64). The first seeks to interpret the liturgical rites in relation to salvation history; second, the meaning of the signs and symbols must be presented; third, mystagogical catechesis explains how the liturgical rites affect and transform the individual.
A community that plans not only for the execution of the liturgy but also mystagogical catechesis is a community seeking the fruitful, conscious, and authentic participation of their people (GIRM 22).
What does this all mean for the youth Mass? I hope these basic principles can serve in future dialogue with those planning liturgies for youth. This should also serve as a reminder that formation in liturgical theology, the history of rites, and liturgical planning are needed by those in youth ministry, campus ministry, and religious education because these ministries are having a greater impact on the liturgical life of youth.
Thinking with Christ and His Church when planning liturgies and mystagogical catechesis will provide youth the opportunity to live out the way of life required by their baptism, by which they were “set in a new context, entrusted to a new environment, a new and shared way of acting, in the Church.” (Lumen Fidei 41)
Brandon Harvey has been involved in youth ministry and catechesis for ten years. He received a BA in theology from Briar Cliff University, where he has served as an adjunct instructor in the past, and an MA in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Brandon lives in Nebraska with his wife and three kids.
Editor’s note: many of the documents referenced in this article — including Dies Domini, Eucharisticum Mysterium, and Redemptionis Sacramentum — can be found on our website, Church Documents section: adoremus.org/ChurchDocs.html.
Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy