How do we keep our airmen alive? That was a major question for the Allied forces at the beginning of World War II.
What? I clicked on this article because it mentioned Latin and I thought it was gonna talk about Church stuff?
Stay with me. We’ll get there. But first, we need to talk about World War II airplanes.
Only about 25% of Allied airmen were surviving to the end of their tours of duty and only about 10% of the airmen flying at the beginning of the war would survive to the end. As you can imagine, protecting the planes became a major effort and Allied engineers began studying the damaged planes that returned from battle. They found a consistent pattern: the outer wings, the tail, and the fuselage were frequently damaged. So the engineers proposed adding additional armor to those areas. The cockpit and the engines weren’t being hit very often, apparently, so they had no plans to add additional armor in those areas. Sounds reasonable, right?
Because a Hungarian-Jew named Abraham Wald asked a simple question: what about the planes that didn’t come back? Where were those planes being damaged?
You see, if returning planes were damaged in predictable patterns, he reasoned those damaged areas were non-essential to surviving. We should rather increase armor on the areas of the planes with no bullet holes (the cockpit and engines) because clearly, the planes damaged in those areas weren’t coming back. That brilliant insight helped the Allies better protect their planes and eventually win the war. Take that, Nazis!
Abraham Wald identified a classic example of what’s called “survivorship bias” and it’s now a well-known social phenomenon. Basically, when we see mixed results, we often assume we should double-down on what’s working in the success stories rather than asking the harder question of why the failures are failing and what can we do about it. It’s easier to invest in what’s already working for a minority than to identify new solutions to the majority’s problems.
The Catholic Church in America and in much of the developed world faces stats comparable to a WWII airman. Only about 7% of Catholics are “highly engaged.” About 85% of young Catholics stop practicing their faith in college. One of the largest Christian denominations in America (about 1/10) is “lapsed Catholics.” Less than half of Catholics believe in the real presence of the Eucharist.
The Church is in crisis to say the least. A common consensus has emerged in certain circles of Catholic social media about what should be done: a return to tradition, altar rails, Gregorian chant, the extraordinary form of the liturgy (known commonly as the “Traditional Latin Mass” or just TLM).
The line of thinking in this narrative goes: if you look at “traditional parishes” they are teeming with young families and youth. Just give us tradition and the youth will return. The boomers of Vatican II (mockingly called “Susans” #NoMisogyny) messed it all up with their felt banners and folk music masses! Let’s return to the good old days before the council when Catholicism was strong!
[Never mind that life before Vatican II was not the golden age of American Catholicism some seem to think and the liturgical reforms had been going on for a century and included traditionalist hero St. Pius X, but that’s a blog for another time.]
Much like the well-meaning WWII engineers who thought armoring the damaged areas of the surviving planes would help solve the problem, many in today’s Church make a similar error in survivorship bias by assuming that because some traditional parishes and devotions are thriving, we can transplant their success across the board with similar liturgical efforts.
Sadly, it’s not that easy. The traditionalist solution makes sense at first glance because it only looks at those who have stuck around. It doesn’t look at the Catholics who are leaving, what they need, and where they are going.
So where are they going? and why?
Most “lapsed” Catholics go either nowhere and become one of the “nones” who practice no organized religion or to protestnant, non-denomentanitonal mega churches. And they aren’t going to the mega churches for their traditional liturgies (although many mega churches are adopting more traditional elements which is cool.) What attracts them are the key tools from the mega church play book: great bible-based preaching, engaging music, and, most importantly, a highly hospitable and welcoming community.
Now, I’m not saying mega-church style liturgy will save American Catholicism either. Nor am I saying more traditional liturgy is bad. I simply point out that many Catholics who have stopped going to mass are attracted to worshipping in a modern, mega-church style, so traditional worship won’t appeal to them (at least not initially). The real point I want to make here is that focusing on liturgical battles is missing the point because liturgical style is not a silver bullet, one size fits all solution. Different people have different spiritualties and charisms and that’s fine. The Church allows for that and has for millenia which is why we have different rites and great cultural accommodation and variety within those rites. So, no, Latin won’t save us, and neither will the guitars.
Flashy liturgy—whether achieved with bells, rails, chants, and incense, or LCD screens, stage lighting, praise bands—can get people in the door depending on their persuasion, but what gets them to stay is the community. Think, would you rather go to a parish of your preferred style but full of jerks, or a parish not of your preferred style, but full of amazing, compassionate, devoted followers of Christ who treat you like family?
This is not to say good liturgy is not important or even essential to evangelization and discipleship, but the sights and sounds are not what make good liturgy. What ultimately makes good liturgy is a good Church worshipping well, or as the council fathers at Vatican II said, “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else (SC 14).” The people are the Church. When are people going to be the most conscious and engaged? When they love and are loved by the people around them. So the investments should not primarily be into the practical elements of the liturgy itself (although that can be important too), but into relationships. A beautiful gothic style Cathedral can seem musty and imposing if you don’t have friends and a warm community to chant alongside you. The most charismatic worship band and moving visuals with lights and screens can seem hackneyed and worldly if you’re not worshipping with brothers and sisters at your side.
Even parishes like Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland which has had astounding evangelical success adopting best practices from the a mega-church model, doesn’t rely on the praise band to keep people around. It’s the small groups, the intentional welcome, the community. People get connected and stay connected and that is the thrust of their mission.
My protestant friends tell me that there were similar “worship wars” in their churches about 10-20 years ago but now many churches have largely moved beyond that debate by refocusing on the unity of their community. Liturgically, many have settled into a mix of traditional and modern where they sing older hymns and contemporary songs. Even where churches have decided to have separate services with different worship styles, their communities have endured by focusing on being one church family.
Unsurprisingly, this is exactly the same way that the small, persecuted early Church came to evangelize the largest, most powerful empire the world had ever seen. When Paul traveled and preached, he wasn’t just putting on a good show (though his preaching was incredible). He stayed and developed relationships with each community. He refused to take sides in the gentile vs. Jewish cultural debates of the first century. Read Romans and especially first Corinthians (Chapter 12) and you’ll see the ferocity with which some thought their way of worship was the only way, whether strict adherence to traditional Jewish customs or exuberant displays of charismatic gifts. They even had a highly controversial Church council about it (Acts 15). Sound similar to anything in the current Church?
Instead of prescribing strict liturgical norms, St. Paul emphasized care for one another, especially the most needy among them, famously raising large sums of money from gentile communities to send to Jewish ones. How did Paul manage to unite such a disparate, fractured Church? By focusing not on liturgical rigorism but on “a more excellent way:” love.
St. Paul’s most famous passage (1 Cor 13) addresses these ancient worship wars directly. Perhaps a modern reading may help us as well:
“If I sing in beautiful, ancient chants or in enrapturing modern ballads but do not have love, I am but screeching static. And if I have the gift of great preaching and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all reverence so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind . . .”
We’ve heard this passage so often it can sound cliché, but this is not an easy solution. Rather, it’s easy to put up altar rails (or LCD screens) and then focus on those who come but ignore those who are falling away. Living Jesus’ radical message of love is harder. This is not just showing up to mass on Sunday but also getting involved in a small group or ministry where I make friends. Offering to cook meals and drive to doctor’s appointments for sick and pregnant neighbors. Going out of our way to befriend the new family that moved in down the street even if they don’t apparently share my socio-economic class or race. Being willing to share with friends, neighbors, acquaintances, even strangers about the impact Jesus Christ and his Church have made in my life. Chanting or singing with my full heart in church even it’s not my preferred style of worship. Fellowship, outreach, community, witness, unity, charity, love—it’s how Jesus did it. It’s how the apostles did it. It’s how the saints have done it for 2,000 years. My brothers and sisters, it is how you and I will do it.
Let’s pray for the grace to rise to the occasion. Though our Church is hurting, we are ripe for a new renaissance of love.
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”
-1 Cor 12