A common view among Catholic educators and liturgists appears to be that entertainment-oriented 'youth' Masses are needed to attract (or retain) the allegiance of young Catholics. Such an approach has proved generally unsuccessful, to judge from the sparse numbers of Catholics who attend Mass regularly after leaving school.
A recent graduate of the University of Adelaide, Bernard Finnigan, offers a critical view of a certain kind of Youth Liturgy. The term "Youth Liturgy" covers different approaches and situations, not all of them equally open to the criticisms expressed in this article.
Attendance at a recent Youth Mass at St Francis Xavier's Cathedral, Adelaide, confirmed for me the inadequacies of such an approach to the liturgy and the reasons for its failure to stem massive present-day falling away by young Catholics from the practice of their faith. Indeed, I suspect that it actually contributes to the problem.
What took place in Adelaide was merely reflective of what has ensued on a wide scale over the past 20 or so years in cathedrals, parishes, schools, colleges and youth groups around the country.
The scene inside St Francis Xavier's Cathedral rather reminded me of those excited gatherings of unruly students on their first day back at school. I was even asked to move pews so that groups of friends could sit together.
Up on the sanctuary a band and its instruments occupied most of the space in front of the Blessed Sacrament (reserved on a side altar as is the universal policy in Adelaide). The drummer with his impressive kit and reversed baseball cap was to live it up throughout the Mass with a musical program consisting of those forgettable religious-rock tunes aimed at convincing us that an undemanding Christianity equals self-fulfilment and feeling 'OK' about oneself. The lengthy commentaries on the Scripture readings and the homily which followed offered the usual watery accounts of the Bible's harder teachings that have been staple ingredients of R.E. programs in Catholic schools.
The five priests lined up in front of the altar did their utmost to look laid-back and with-it in the spirit of the youthful 'happening' while the Eucharistic Prayer was punctuated at regular intervals by musical refrains about 'sharing bread'. The Sign of Peace was an occasion for prolonged hugging and kissing as several youth 'special ministers' advanced on the altar and grasped handfuls of Sacred Hosts for transfer into wooden bowls for distribution.
Reception of Holy Communion seemed something of an interruption to the liturgical entertainment, with band members apparently put out by having to off-load their instruments to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord.
The Youth Mass concluded with further opportunities for back-slapping and hugging precluding any possibility of post-Communion thanksgiving. Later, when I expressed a negative view of the event to a Catholic friend, she responded that I simply did not like others having a better time than myself. Many clergy and religious seem consoled at the sight of large numbers of young people enjoying themselves at Mass - any kind of Mass - when the ranks of the practising young are so depleted. It seems not to occur to them that all this may be a part of the problem.
In this writer's opinion Youth Liturgies of the kind described scarcely deserve the label Catholic - 'Christian' perhaps, and certainly motivated by good will - since they reflect inadequate appreciations of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the Eucharist's real presence, the ordained priesthood and the supernatural dimension in general.
Wherever or whenever it is celebrated, each Mass is offered for four ends: adoration, petition, thanksgiving and reparation. In many youth-oriented liturgies these priorities are obscured by such preoccupations as entertainment, self-fulfilment and fellowship. The Mass then becomes scarcely distinguishable from any other social get-together.
Well-meaning liturgists continue to insist that since today's youth have been raised on a diet of visual stimulation and instant satisfaction of wants the Mass must be made contemporary and relevant to the culture of the young via special effects, dancing, movement, popular style songs, up-to-date themes and so on.
Even if such a strategy were valid, it could never succeed in the long-term since no local cathedral, parish or high school can ever hope to compete with the visual and sensory appeal of modern music clips or the special effects of multi-million dollar budget movies and rock concerts. Those already absorbed by today's condom culture will view the trendy liturgies turned on for their benefit as pitiful and passe.
Those with any inkling of the faith are barely able to express it or experience it in the whirligig of most youth celebrations. They are discouraged and pressured by those who have already sold out on their faith - that is, if they ever had it. And given that most students, potentially sympathetic to the faith and the future of the Church, have already been fed stones or fairy floss in the Catholic R.E. classroom, it is little wonder that they give up on faith practice.
Liturgical emotionalism undeniably appeals to many young people, and youth liturgies have their stalwarts who are generally charged by the emotion of the music and the feel-good sentiments. But sooner or later many tire of this approach or their enthusiasms spill over into Evangelical Protestantism with its greater abundance of emotional security and companionship.
Others become disdainful of the childish antics in which they are invited to indulge as they become more enmeshed in the popular youth culture or pursue higher studies.
The solution to youthful disaffection is not bigger and better Youth Liturgies. What is essential is that young Catholics from the beginning are taught what the Mass really is; what the Real Presence means; that every Mass ever celebrated is effectively the same, whether Involving the Pope in St Peter's or some lowly priest in an insignificant church.
At a recent retreat I was particularly enlightened by the words of the priest. He said that the Mass was beyond history. At each Mass we do not bring the sacrifice of Calvary forward to our time. Rather, we are transported back to that definitive moment in history: the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, when Our Lord and Saviour gave his life for our sins.
If the young are taught in the classroom and from the pulpit the whole deposit of faith, including the true meanings of the Mass, the Sacraments, and the priesthood, they will respond. And if when they attend school Masses and parish Masses they witness an air of reverence, of sacredness - not least from the celebrant himself - they will share in the same faith that has inspired Pope, peasant, saint and scholar to follow Christ for 2,000 years.