Kanye West is not the first celebrity musician to undergo a public conversion to Christianity. Forty years earlier, Bob Dylan entered his Evangelical period, during which he won a Grammy for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The refrain included these lines: “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
In response, John Lennon released a parody, “Serve Yourself,” which, besides being profane and blasphemous, missed the mark by being more angry than funny. The refrain went like this: “You got to serve yourself, / Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you."
In a spoken-word addendum later in the song, Lennon asked, “Who else is gonna do it for you? / It ain’t me I tell you that.” The ex-Beatle was, of course, too much of a nitwit to understand that his framing did not undermine Dylan’s at all, but rather affirmed and extended it. “Serving yourself” does not eliminate the master-servant dynamic; rather, in trying to reject all exterior masters, we become enslaved to our passions, which are at least as jealous as any other master. There is no escaping service: the question is always, Whom do we serve?
What Lennon’s “Serve Yourself” does undercut, though, is his own rhetoric about the universal brotherhood of mankind. It is pretty hard for “the world to live as one,” as he annoyingly lilted at the end of “Imagine,” when everyone’s focused on fulfilling their own desires. Universal fraternity is comprehensible only in the context of a shared supernatural lineage; universal solidarity is possible only in fulfillment of a shared supernatural purpose. “Imagine” denies the legitimacy of anything intrinsically shared among persons, especially supernaturally, then exhorts us to, well, share everything. It is a kind of distinctly modern stupidity that would have been ridiculed by all the previous generations we portray as benighted and ignorant.
But Lennon won. “Imagine” is still a radio staple, and while “Serve Yourself” is only a curiosity, its ethos consumes our culture. Even as cynicism about the possibility of real brotherhood has taken root, Lennon’s self-contradictory ideal of total personal liberation as the path to social peace is still the prevailing assumption, especially among the cultural elite. Whether in matters of money or matters of sex, we are taught that we serve others best by serving ourselves first. It is the anti-gospel.
In winning, though, Lennon has proved Dylan right. The result of his brand of liberalism has not been liberation from service, but the proliferation of new masters. That is, freedom from an all-loving God frees us only to join the service of far more jealous and less compassionate masters. Around us, there are corporations and the state, political parties and consumer brands, exacting identities to perform and social media cliques to please; within us there are lust and greed, pride and resentment, anxiety and self-hatred. The opposite of true faith is not atheism but idolatry; if we do not serve God, we will serve any number of gods of our own making.
Service is inescapable, in other words, because religion is inescapable. Religion is much more than a curious sociological phenomenon or any subjective set of supernatural beliefs; fundamentally it is the virtue by which we justly fulfill our duties to our place in society and creation. The question is not whether we are “religious,” but whether we are succeeding or failing at these duties, and thus at the virtue of religion.
The pagan Romans had a concept of religio just as surely as Christians did, based on things like properly honoring the emperor and properly propitiating the gods. As the venerable Cicero explained, authentic religion was distinct not only because it was socially valuable, but because it fulfilled one’s own nature and thus brought happiness. What was good was also advantageous. The Church extended this understanding of religio to a Heavenly Father, rather than just the fatherland. In the virtue of religion we place ourselves properly in the order of creation by treating God, the transcendent Other, with complete love and prescribed worship. Thus we fulfill our nature and, through his grace, become more like him until he receives us into perfect and eternal communion with him in heaven. What is good is also advantageous.
Every person, even the most thoroughgoing “atheist,” makes decisions about his life based on what he believes to be true about his place in the universe, what will fulfill his purpose, and what will make him happy. And so we all perform duties in service of our notion of truth: if we think money is the most important thing, we pursue promotions and raises and deals to the exclusion of other goods; if we think pleasure is the most important thing, we pursue sex and power and (again) money to the exclusion of other goods; if we think Jesus is the most important thing, we pursue holiness above all other goods. The question, then, is whether our idea of truth is right or wrong— whether we worship the true God or cheap knockoffs. And when the true God recedes in importance within a soul or a community, the knockoffs fill the vacuum.
Ritual, any anthropologist will tell you, is part of every human community. Secular scientists will give you any number of materialist explanations for this fact, but they all miss the simple truth. God built ritual into our nature, because it is through ritual— specifically, through liturgy—that we worship him the way he asks us to: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
But liturgy is, of course, not an innovation of the New Covenant. The Old Testament is full of examples of ritual and liturgical worship. Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac was a ritual. The Passover was a ritual. The Psalms were liturgical songs. In Exodus and Leviticus, God delivered precise instructions on everything from the construction of the tabernacle to the arrangement of worship to the vestments of the priests. We could go on, but the point is clear: God made us to glorify him, and the primary way we do so is through liturgy.
Like anything that is built into our nature, though, liturgy can be misdirected. There are the obvious examples of occult rituals and Black Masses. More frequently, though, our ersatz liturgies look like, say, professional sporting events. Professional football, especially since it generally takes place on the Sabbath and increasingly replaces genuine worship, is a great example.
NFL games and their broadcasts follow a precise set of rules and are therefore predictable from week to week. First there is the order of events: a pregame show with interviews and predictions; the introductions of the broadcasters followed by kickoff; regularly spaced commercial breaks and a halftime of exactly twelve minutes; the final score and a sign-off. (Ite missa est.) The players and officials wear prescribed, identifying clothing proper to their roles and authority, including the badges worn by team captains. In the stadium there are some prescribed postures, such as standing for the national anthem, which functions as a kind of benediction, and definitely not standing if everyone else is sitting. Like a church’s windows and statuary, the stadium is filled with symbols honoring the venerable benefactors of the liturgy—Staples and Heinz and the Home Depot. You get the idea.
The problem is not the simple fact that professional sports take on the form of a liturgy—that is completely natural, even good. There is definitely a problem with what and whom the liturgies venerate: the whole thing has become an oblation to consumer capitalism. But more importantly, the problem is in what they replace. Pop culture liturgies are fine as far as they go, but they have exploded in number and popularity and intensity just as the genuine liturgies of the Lamb of God have declined. This is not a coincidence.
We will talk more about the specifics of the Mass later, but here let us focus on a specific way the Mass should function in our lives: as a fulcrum in the organization of our time. The Mass is to be the fixed point around which everything else is organized. Even if we sometimes go to Sunday Mass at a different time than usual, we still go to Sunday Mass, and we arrange things as best we possibly can to make that happen. (There is something to be said for reducing the number of options to force the faithful to commit, but with the proliferation of weekend labor there are also real benefits to keeping several options so those with unchosen Sunday duties can attend.)
The alternative to organizing our time around the Mass is not complete freedom. Put differently, Sunday Mass is not an imposition on what is by nature unstructured time. Someone or something always has a claim on us—it is just a question of whose claims we recognize, and when. A weekend “free” of Mass (barring compulsory work or illness) will always be a weekend dedicated to things we consider more important than Mass: professional sports, or travel, or concerts, or planning a party, or resting because we have exhausted ourselves during the rest of the week.
The same goes for the entire liturgical calendar. The alternative to observing the Church’s fasts, feasts, holy days of obligation, seasons of penance, and so on, is not an unstructured or liberated life. The alternative is observing the civil-corporate calendar and all its fasts (there are not very many—bad for business), feasts (Super Bowl Sunday), holy days of obligation (Fourth of July), and seasons of penance (Black History Month). Again, none of these is bad in its proper proportion: shared cultural touchstones such as sporting events are part of living in a society; well-ordered displays of patriotism are expressions of the virtue of piety; if anything, Black History Month unjustly isolates our acknowledgment of racial injustice to a single month when we should be doing far more consistent penance. But they have a habit of becoming disordered, in terms of their importance and their substance, when they are asked to bear more weight than they should.
The point, to be very clear, is not that we should follow the Church’s liturgical calendar to the exclusion of the civil-corporate calendar. The point is that no matter what, we follow a liturgical calendar. The question is which celebrations we recognize and elevate, and which we downgrade and ignore. It is not “neutral,” for example, to spend January 1 at home recovering from the activities of December 31 without going to Mass; it is choosing to observe our culture’s New Year’s Day and not the Church’s Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.
The fact that I have to say these things at all demonstrates the extent to which Catholic culture has been dissipated over the past few generations. More than any other institution in the Church, including the family, it is the parish that can push back, renewing the everyday commitment to the Lord that comes with prioritizing his claim on our time.
The way we organize our time is more about whom than when: whom we spend time with and whom we share experiences with. For instance, prioritizing your favorite hockey team over the Oscars is a decision about which community you identify with and wish to share experiences with: the wider world of film buffs and poseurs, or your local fan base. Choosing a night at the pub with your friends over your child’s first-birthday party says something about how you value your relationship with the guys over your (soon-to-be-lost) relationship with your family.
The parish is the local instantiation of our family in God. If it succeeds in nothing else, it must be—because by its very nature it is—a liturgical community. Liturgy is, quite simply, the communal prayer of the people of God. It is where we experience communion twice over: communion with the Body of Christ as his people, and communion with the Holy Trinity in prayer and the sacraments. It is in liturgy, more than in any number of successful ministries or apostolates, that we recognize, manifest, and participate in the unity of the Church.
Liturgy unites us with our fellow Catholics through space and time. We hear the same readings at Mass as our brothers and sisters in Tokyo or the terrorized Church in Nigeria. We pray the same Gloria and Sanctus and Agnus Dei that Christians have prayed for centuries, even if the language and musical settings have changed. And most importantly, in the Mass we share in the same Body and Blood of Christ, the victim of Calvary whose sacrifice unites all who take up their crosses and follow him.
Expanding the liturgical offerings of the parish expresses and deepens this unity. Having more opportunities to be together not just as a community but as a praying community emphasizes the supernatural reality of the Church in her local form. The parish is not just a group of people committed to the material good of one another, or even of the wider community, but to the supernatural common good. When we join our prayers not only with those of our fellow parishioners but with the prayers of our fellow Catholics everywhere, it makes clear the wonderful truth that we are all in this together, helping each other to heaven with Christ as our shared foundation.
This is about more than the Mass. The Church’s tradition of liturgical prayer goes beyond the Eucharistic celebration. For inspiration (if not for imitation) we can look to the Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney. Sunday at Fr. Vianney’s parish was grueling. A three-hour Mass, including processions and a lengthy homily, ended in the late morning. After a respite, presumably for some midday nourishment, a catechesis from the pastor—ostensibly for children but well attended by adults—began in the early afternoon. The rest of the day was full of liturgical prayer: Vespers (Evening Prayer), Compline (Night Prayer), and the Rosary. For every part of Sunday prayer and lessons, the church was full.
We do not have to commit to twelve-hour church days to learn from the patron saint of parish priests. As we dial back expectations, though, we should remember that nineteenth-century France was hardly less secular than twenty-first-century America. While the modern ideology of secularism was not as deeply rooted, St. John Vianney served a community only a generation or so removed from the most violent anti-Catholic cultural and political struggle in history. When he arrived in Ars-sur-Formans, the town parish was moribund and the people disconnected from God and the life of his Church. He did not waltz into a plum situation and spruce it up; he transformed the parish and, in turn, the town.
Introducing more liturgical prayer in the distracted era of the smartphone might seem extravagant, but we do not have to start with the full Vianney. For instance, Morning Prayer or Lauds could be seamlessly inserted before or after a morning daily Mass, or Vespers attached to an evening Mass. While this kind of public prayer should be open to all in any case, especially families with young children, a weekly or monthly opportunity for Vespers with childcare would signal openness to the entire community. The Liturgy of the Hours, after all, was never meant to be a private prayer just for priests. As the number of clergy declines and loneliness increases, opportunities to pray with the parish community would further integrate the priest and his flock.
Increasing options for public, communal prayer feels unrealistic because it so contradicts the spirit of the age, which is consumed by busyness, distraction, and isolation. But this is precisely why it is so important. It has always been by embracing the contradictions of Christ—not in a showy or aggressive way, but simply as part of everyday life, as if it is the most natural thing in the world—that the Church has attracted the alienated, the disheartened, the curious, all those who are not well served by the world as it is. The parish, at its best, can demonstrate a different and striking way of simply being in the world.
Being in the World
There is a way of being in the modern world that we perceive to be normal and natural, and it goes something like this: rushing from place to place to meet our work or other “practical” responsibilities, spending downtime either obsessing over those responsibilities or mindlessly scrolling online in order to distract ourselves from them, fitting in friends and family in the interstices, and maybe carving out an hour a week for God. But, as I stress in chapter 3 of The Prodigal Church, being is necessarily about relationship with the living God. Living as if he does not exist, or is indifferent to our existence and what we make of it, may be “normal” these days, but it is not natural, and it is not neutral.
There is no neutral way to be in the world. We are either performing our duties to God and our neighbor, or we are not. We are either living in and reflecting his light to others, or we are absorbing it into our own darkness and denying it to others. We are either growing closer to him, or we are receding from him. And when the parish and its proper orientation toward the Lord recede from our personal and community consciousness, the rest of the world rushes in.
At its very best, the parish can be a mode of a better, more real way of being in the world—one where our relationship with Christ is always front and center. If the allocation of our time is more about who than when, then the parish can fulfill its supernatural purpose best by being a place where the people of God can be together with our Lord as much as possible. The parish can make it more visibly possible to organize our lives around him by offering communal chances to do so.
A simple way to do this, in addition to incorporating the Liturgy of the Hours in some way, is to integrate the liturgical calendar more concretely into parish life. Solemnities and patronal feasts should play a greater role in the lives of the faithful than Presidents’ Day, or Independence Day, or Thanksgiving, and this begins with the parish’s treating them as more important. It is about more than the vestment color and the Propers of the Mass—though educating the faithful about these would be a good hook. It is about making the parish a place where these feasts can be really celebrated, liturgically and socially.
This could begin simply by making the liturgical calendar a priority in communications with parishioners. The faithful should be at least as aware of the upcoming liturgical feasts, and the opportunities to celebrate them at the parish or at home, as they are of the upcoming Boy Scout bake sale. In fact, pegging fundraisers and other parish events to feasts rather than to convenience is a simple pious practice that gently emphasizes the supernatural and acknowledges the saintly assistance that makes all our efforts profitable. Placing the annual parish festival on or near the parish’s patronal feast—including a special Mass and the feast’s office of prayers—rather than the date considered maximally profitable is a small act of faith that the patron is more than a mascot.
The parish’s invitations to the outside world should also be about more than its “secular” offerings. Integrating Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours into these events is a way to consecrate them, but the parish should also communicate its distinctly spiritual offerings to the wider community. In this way, again, it manifests its supernatural purpose and invites the world to more than an encounter with a healthy human community, which is a necessary but an insufficient condition of evangelization. Rather, the parish must invite the world to an encounter with Christ.
Many years ago our Pittsburgh neighborhood was home to the region’s Maronite Catholic parish; the church has moved to the suburbs, but a disproportionate number of Arab Christians still live in the area, including the owners of a celebrated Lebanese bakery and café. Recently relics of the Lebanese mystic St. Sharbel passed through town, and the parish hosted an opportunity for veneration of the relics and Eucharistic adoration. Instead of communicating this through distinctly Catholic channels, the parish produced fliers, featuring a glorious monstrance and the hooded visage of the saint, and placed them in the windows of several shops in our neighborhood. This was a parish that communicated its distinctive offering to the world—what it can offer that no other community or institution can. And in a simple way it made Christ present in the everyday life of the neighborhood.
My dream would be for it to be normal for parishioners to spend time at least once a week at the parish for a liturgical or paraliturgical event other than Sunday Mass—a party or seminar or fundraiser pegged to a feast. This is obviously a stretch goal, especially in places where numbers of priests and parishioners are dwindling. But we need goals that, like heaven itself, sometimes feel unreachable to orient us in the right direction. And ultimately a renewed Church is one where parish life demonstrates that it is possible, through grace, to live oriented first toward the Lord, not toward the next promotion or hookup or election.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is a slightly modified excerpt from The Prodigal Church courtesy of Sophia Press, all rights reserved.