Can Liturgy Heal a Secular Age?

It is hard to describe the early twentieth century liturgical movement as one grounded in Augustinian realism. From its very beginning, it was presumed that attention to liturgical formation, whether that included liturgical reform or not, would result in the healing of individualism, secularization, racism, and all the social ills in modern society. Secularization, in particular, was to be counteracted through liturgical renewal and reform.

Fr. Lambert Beauduin, often regarded as the founder of the liturgical movement, noted that renewed attention to liturgical formation would re-awaken Christian vigor in society:

The piety of the Christian people, and hence their actions and life, are not grounded sufficiently in the fundamental truths that constitute the soul of the liturgy; that is, in the destiny of all things unto the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; the necessary and universal contemplation of Jesus Christ; the central place of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Christian life . . . All these truths, which find expression in every liturgical act, are asleep in men’s souls; the faithful have lost consciousness of them. Let us change the routine and monotonous assistance at acts of worship into an active and intelligent participation; let us teach the faithful to pray and confess these truths in a body; and the liturgy thus practiced will insensibly arouse a slumbering faith and give new efficacy, in both prayer and action to the latent energies of the baptized souls. (Liturgy: The Life of the Church, 20)

Through intelligent participation in liturgical prayer, it was presumed that the effects of secularization could be thwarted. In its earliest days, this intelligent participation did not presume vernacular liturgy but a teaching of the key dimensions of the liturgical life of the Church as connected to life. The goal was to infuse areas of life in which religion was considered absent with the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ. Josef Jungmann, S.J. in particular claims:

If the Church comes to life in the participants in the actively celebrated liturgy, then a new relationship to the surrounding world itself comes into being; a new relationship to the material world itself, to the world of trades and professions. For it is real men of flesh and blood who are caught up in the process of the liturgy. It is their voices, their goings and comings which have become part of the sacred action. It is the bread from the work-a-day world which is carried to the altar. It is the work of the tradesman's hand which appears in the sacred furnishings and decorations, in the building which encloses everything. It is the every-day world which is drawn into the sacred action, joined with the sacrifice which Christ presents with His Church assembled here. (Josef Jungmann, S.J., Pastoral Liturgy, 344)

Liturgical prayer was the key to avoiding secularization, to forming men and women, in a public religiosity that could transfigure cultural and social life with the Eucharistic love of Christ. In the intervening years, it's fair to say that the hopes of this liturgical movement have been unmet.

Participation in the sacramental life of the Church has not flourished since the Second Vatican Council. Between 2010 and 2015 in the United States alone (according to CARA out of Georgetown), there has been a 14% decline in infant Baptisms, a 6% decline in Confirmations, a 10% decline in First Communions, an 11% decline in marriages, while Mass attendance has held steady at 24% of American Catholics (although only 9% of Millennials attend Mass once a month).

A recent conversation with Fr. Thomas Vernard, O.P., a French Dominican and deputy director of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, revealed that only 2% of French youth between the ages of 25–35 have opened the Bible. A tourist seeking to attend Mass at Sacre Coeur will discover very quickly that she is among the few present to participate in divine worship rather than to see the sights.

Perhaps, then, the early members of the liturgical movement oversold the manner in which liturgical renewal could put an end to the process of secularization. They did so out of good intentions. But, their assumption that intelligent participation would stem the tide of secularization reveals a naivety about both the nature of ritual, as well as secularization.

If the Church is to respond to secularization today, she will need to attend to these questions. What is secularization? And how does ritual actually function? Can liturgy thus stem the tide of secularization?

Secularization and the Chain of Memory

In the study of secularization, Danièle Hervieu-Léger's work Religion as a Chain of Memory is perhaps the most important to date. Hervieu-Léger opens up this book by considering various forms of the secularization hypothesis, ranging from the disappearance of religion from human consciousness to the political disempowerment of religion in the public sphere. In each case, the theory of secularization reveals more about the protagonist of the theory than the state of religion in late modernity. Human beings still practice religion. They still employ religion in public discourse. The supposed disappearance of religion from the world is, well, a fallacy.

But, it is also naive to simply say that secularization doesn't exist at all. We need only look at the decline in religious practice in Europe (and now in the United States). More importantly, fewer people are returning to those rites of passage that were once integral to human identity in Catholic countries. Infant Baptism, First Communion, and Marriage are now optional.

Hervieu-Léger suggests that the major change in religion in the twentieth century is a matter of cultural forgetfulness. She writes in Religion as a Chain of Memory:

The problem of transmission, whether in culture or religion, is not primarily a problem of failure to adjust to the educational methods used to transmit a body of knowledge. It is structurally linked to the collapse of the framework of collective memory which provided every individual with the possibility of a link between what comes before and his or her own actual experience . . . The question of secularization . . . takes on a new form, namely that of the possibility, and plausibility, of a group being able, within a context of memory reduced to fragments . . . to recognize itself as a link in a chain of belief and entrusted with the task of extending that chain into the future. (130)

Religion provides a privileged culture whereby we can connect our narrative to those in the past. We see ourselves in a broader story, one that is ultimately connected to God. With the loss of religious memory, the human person is no longer able to see one's identity as linked to the communion of saints, to the Scriptures, to the Tradition: all those markers we employ in assessing Catholic identity. Thus, all that is left is the naked individual who can assess the "efficacy" of a religious tradition by the way that said tradition moves him. If it doesn't move the person, then it has no value, because it is an isolated fact rather than part of a coherent narrative. In other words, I'm spiritual but not religious or, as Grace Davie better says, I believe but I don't belong.

This account of secularization helps to explain the uniqueness of American secularization. As Christian Smith notes, American secularization is not European in form. Rather, it is an internal secularization whereby the particulars of the Christian tradition are forgotten because of a generic religiosity that he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. People don't feel the need to belong to a particular religious body, because what really matters is being a generally nice person who believes in a generally nice God.

Thus, we should not be surprised in such an instance that fewer Americans are attending Mass or participating in the sacramental life of the Church because these particular acts of worship are not essential to religious identity. They are not part of a common store of memory, a way of making sense of identity in late modernity.

Liturgical renewal did not heal secularization because it did not understand how secularization functioned. The liturgical movement thought that secularization was simply reducible to intellectual arguments about the existence of God. It failed to grasp how a whole society could be influenced by forgetfulness. No liturgy, however beautiful it may be, can simply fix the problem of forgetfulness.

Ritual and the Subjunctive Mood

In addition to secularization, the early liturgical movement often seemed to misunderstand the role of ritual in human life. They saw liturgical prayer as something that must be understood, participated in in an intelligent manner. In essence, ritual was simply a series of cultural and behavioral assumptions inscribed in particular ritual practices. Anthropologists could analyze these ritual practices to get to the heart of a culture's self-understanding. And Christian liturgists could make these ritual actions clearer so that folks in the pews would pick up the cultural markers of Christian life. As Nathan Mitchell writes, summarizing this classical consensus, "Ritual is essentially a way to regulate social life; to shape personal and corporate identity; to review and renew values; to express and transmit meaning in symbolic word and act; to preserve tradition; and to insure cultural cohesion and continuity" (Liturgy and the Social Sciences, 25).

This account of ritual presumes that to become an upright member of a society requires that we sincerely believe (and thus understand) what it means to participate in a society's rituals. Yet, in recent years, ritual theorists have critiqued this classical consensus. One critique in particular sees ritual functioning in the subjunctive mood, creating a world "as if" (drawing ultimately from the work of Victor Turner on performance). This approach, found in Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, de-emphasizes the comprehensibility of ritual action. Ritual matters because it is fundamentally related to the restoration of a world, not the communication of information from a society to an individual. The authors write:

The subjunctive world created by ritual is always doomed ultimately to fail—the ordered world of flawless repetition can never fully replace the broken world of experience. This is why the tension between the two is inherent . . . and ultimately, unbridgeable. Indeed, this tension is the driving force behind the performance of ritual: the endless work of ritual is necessary precisely because the ordered world of ritual is inevitably only temporal. The world always returns to its broken state, constantly requiring the repairs of ritual. (30)

This restoration of a broken world through ritual action is essential to understanding how liturgical might "heal" in a secular age. Liturgical prayer isn't about communication of information. It is about creating a world "as if," one that Catholics understand as a sacramental world not yet visible to the naked eye. Authentic participation in the rite can thus take place even when someone does not entirely understand what is unfolding in the Eucharistic assembly. One can understand, through ritual bracketing, that this action is about the restoration of communion between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, between neighbor and neighbor.

In this sense, one could argue that liturgical catechesis and reform about the Second Vatican Council was inadequate relative to how ritual action actually works. It sought to explain. It assumed that if more was taught, then more would be caught. Yet, explanation is not the function of liturgy. Ritual does something before it communicates something.

Liturgical prayer is performed most fruitfully when we seek to let the world "as if" become the world "as is." The more that our liturgical practice seems drawn from the present world, from that which emphasizes comprehension and sincerity of belief, the less the contemporary human person will see ritual as necessary.

5 Consequences of Liturgy in a Secular Age

But as Joyce Donahue, one of our readers, constantly reminds me, so what? What are the consequences to this argument for liturgical practitioners and catechists alike? What should the Church do in light of this argument?

  1. Liturgy and the Chain of Memory: Liturgical prayer should be understood as part of the chain of memory. We should admit to ourselves that some of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, not intentionally, cut us off from dimensions of this memory that linked us to our forebears. The suppression of certain liturgical feasts, the disappearance of much liturgical art, the decline of devotional dimensions from Catholic life—all of these have created a gap in the chain of memory that linked the Church to the past. We cannot go back and restore this chain of memory as some traditionalists seem to argue. Liturgical prayer will always take place in a post-conciliar Church even if it is the Extraordinary Form. But we can acknowledge that the story of salvation commemorated in liturgical prayer was present in every age, connecting us to those who have gone before. The Extraordinary Form is an authentic way of celebrating the mystery of divine love. So, today, is the Novus Ordo. What is needed in Catholicism is a form of liturgical study and research that draws upon all the practices of the Church through the ages. The next liturgical reform should not privilege one era because it was viewed as an authentic way for communicating Christian identity (versus another era in which all was wrong). Instead, the whole scope of Christian identity as a story through the ages should enter into the picture of liturgical renewal and reform. And where it is appropriate in the present rite, it would be acceptable to introduce aspects of the past in today's liturgy. The possibility, for example, of ad orientem worship, should not be dismissed as some bygone, retrograde, conservative conspiracy. It is simply a restoring of a posture of prayer that has been performed in the past and could be again, connecting us to Christians who have come before. It has theological validity. And it could be attractive precisely because it provides a missing link in a chain of memory.
  2. Why Liturgical Prayer . . . At All?: The problem today, though, is not the restoration of the liturgy. Instead, what is required is a new approach to liturgical formation that is linked more closely to the existential questions that drive human life on earth. Liturgical catechesis that simply explains symbols, telling the child or adult what it means, is useless in the present context. What is necessary is an apologia for liturgy itself. Why is it the case that formal prayer, repeated again and again, can lead to knowledge of God? What essential human needs and desires are met in the sacramental life of the Church? We are now at a stage in which explaining why liturgical prayer exists at all, rather than what it is, may be more fruitful in catechesis and theological education.
  3. Less explanation, more aesthetic knowing: Present approaches to liturgical catechesis seem obsessed with explanation. But, there is a form of aesthetic knowing, of creating a world "as if," which is the very function of liturgical prayer. Here, approaches to catechesis like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd need to be integrated into the entire catechetical program of the Church. Why couldn't there be marriage retreats that focus on the liturgy in an contemplative vein rather than a series of workshops on communication? Why couldn't a contemplative form of catechesis influence high school teaching on doctrine or the Bible rather than that of Shared Christian Praxis? In the same way, why can't there be churches full of artwork for the person to contemplate rather than liturgies filled with verbose speech, explaining away the mystery of faith? The best apologia for the late modern person relative to the liturgy may be this contemplative, aesthetic dimension that was marginalized in the post-conciliar era.
  4. Bodily Practice Matters: So many approaches to liturgical catechesis after the Council emphasized sincere belief being expressed through ritual action. For example, the United States' decision to make optional the Friday abstinence from meat depended upon an understanding of ritual whereby we first choose to believe, then take up a practice. But that's not how ritual functions. It is the practice itself that creates the world "as if." Contemporary liturgies are so verbose, full of so many words, so many explanations. What is essential is that the body lets the liturgical life of the Church be written upon it. We come to see ourselves in a story because it is written upon our very selves.
  5. Restoring a Culture: Lastly, Romano Guardini himself noted that the renewal of the liturgy required a restoration of civilization. We become a people who worship when we move away from the sterilizing problem of pragmatism and techno-centric knowing. Perhaps, the most important dimension of counteracting secularity through liturgy today is not related to the liturgy. It's related to alternative forms of education that teach children to contemplate, to appreciate, to love, and thus to find themselves worshiping. It is about restoring the capacity to perceive the world "as if," in art and literature, music and science. It is about wonder. If this capacity for wonder is not restored in homes and in schools, it will never appear in Church. And secularity will continue to be a highly effective catechetical program, more than anything that we can offer. In other words, if James K.A. Smith believes that Protestants need to retrieve ritual for the sake of Christian formation in a post-Christian era, Catholics need to retrieve liberal education together with ritual to do the same thing.


Thus, it's not that the early liturgical movement was entirely wrong. Liturgy can play a role in combating secularization. But we have to understand how ritual functions and how secularity works. And most of all, we have to recognize that in our liturgical reform and catechesis in the post-conciliar era, we may have made mistakes because of our starry-eyed optimism. It's okay to critique the past if you do so out of love, out of respect, out of awareness that the hopes desired by our forebears were worthy indeed.

This doesn't mean that the Mass of the Second Vatican Council is itself the cause of secularization as some have argued. It's not that liturgical reform introduced modernity into the Church. Modernity was coming anyway, and it's here. A secular age has arrived, and it's silly season for the Church to bemoan this fact and imagine creating some ideal community of the redeemed who don't have any commerce with the modern world.

More simply, liturgy can't fix everything. And the sooner that we recognize this, the sooner we can actually develop a pastoral liturgical plan for a secular age. One that restores women and men to participate in the memory of salvation revealed in Christ, to see their lives as a Eucharistic offering of love.

They'll do this not because they "understand" the Mass. They'll do it because they've fallen in love. And the liturgical life of the Church is now written upon their very selves.

Featured Image: Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. 


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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