As a kid visiting the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, I never really understood the artistic value of the white-on-white canvas. If anything, the minimalist art display left me bored, stir crazy, and (much to my parents’ embarrassment) acting out. There was just nothing there to hold my interest. Now, the paintings full of vibrant colour, animated scenes and unconventional characters; even the modernist splotches of paint chaotically splattered – those busy works of art; they held the interest of a pre-adolescent child.
Fast-forward 30 some-odd years later, as a parent myself; I have gone through the embarrassingly frustrating chore of keeping a lid on a bored child. From looking around at Mass, and hearing the pleas of both bored children and exacerbated parents, I know that I am not alone. (Now that my son is an adolescent, things have gotten way better, but for a while I wondered if either one of us was getting anything out of the Mass).
This has gotten me to wondering if the post-conciliar stripped-down version of the Mass is the liturgical equivalent of the white-on-white canvass.
The Vatican II document, Sancrosanctom Concillium (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy) stipulates that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. … and … this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit… (SC 14).
Yet, this full and active participation in the liturgy seems to be the furthest from the truth for the youngest parishioners in the pews, not to mention the adults who are not. How many times do parents need to hear a whiny “I’m bored!”? Or how many times in our conversations with fallen away Catholics do can we listen to the arguments “I’m not being fed in the Catholic Mass.” or “I don’t get anything out of going to Mass.” Unfortunately, as a direct fall-out of our pop-culture society, many of the people who are saying this (children and adults alike) are really saying, “I’m not being entertained.” or “There’s nothing here to hold my technologically shortened attention span.”
The thing is, if these people understood what was truly going on at the Mass, if we all truly understood and saw what was going on at the Mass, we would be both amazed and afraid. Our attention would be more than held. We would be rapt in concentration, to the point that it would take our breath away. Not only would we be so focused on what was going on around us (visible and invisible), we would joyously participate with our whole mind, heart and soul.
Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten how to see the Mass with liturgical eyes.
Smells & Bells is the colloquial phrase most often used to describe Catholic liturgical tradition. It refers to the smell of votive candles and incense that used to permeate every Catholic church and chapel (even hours after Mass had finished), along with the bells that are rung a at the most sacred moments of the Mass or that used to sound from the belfry to mark the prayerful passage of the day (think of the Angelus bell that would ring 3 times a day, or the tolling of the funeral bell that announced the death of a fellow villager).
As a kid, I would look forward to the Easter Vigil every year, because these Smells & Bells fascinated me. Yet in the past generation, much of this has disappeared from the Catholic liturgy.
Kids love action, and I have friends who purposefully sit in the front row so that their kids can see what limited action is going on during the Mass. Imagine how much easier it would be to maintain children’s attention (and adults as well) if there were sacred action happening throughout the Mass. This would also allow for teachable catechesis moments where parents can quietly whisper why the smelly smoke is being used, the priest is making those silly gestures or it sounds like Nana’s old-fashioned wall telephone is ringing.
The traditional architectural beauty of Catholicism is also another way that young and old alike can be captivated by the faith and drawn into a more full and active participation in the liturgy.
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we make a family pilgrimage to St.Michael’s Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Toronto. We’ve been doing this since my son was about 5 years old, and from the very first time he walked through the doors, he’s been mesmerized by the story told by the buildings beauty. From the Cardinal’s hat dangling high above the main altar, to biblical images illustrated in the stain glass windows, to the paintings and statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints; he has had so much to learn from the church around him and how it ties into the Mass that after many yearly visits, he is still captivated by it all, and growing in his wonder of sacred liturgy. Having just re-opened after a multi-million dollar renovation, St. Michael’s Cathedral offers an even more awe-inspiring celebration of the Mass.
Sadly, much like the Smells & Bells of the Mass, the ornate beauty of Catholic architecture has also disappeared over the past generation. Even with a so-called revival of Catholic art in churches, newly built buildings are very much a stripped-down version of their stately predecessors. They have become a white-on-white canvas.
Gone is the ornate and warm woodwork that would decorate the walls. Along with the devotional paintings, they are replaced by whitewashed, barren walls. Any statuary that is left in the building is simple, and often colourless; or so much artistic liberty has been taken that much of the Mass is spent on trying to figure out what it represents as opposed to having it point our attention towards the Paschal Mystery.
The same can be said of the stained glass windows in many churches built in the last 30 years. Gone are depictions of scenes from the Bible. We can no longer be inspired by the lives of the saints. Instead, we are left with either a collage of a multi-coloured mosaic or a symbolism that is impossible to decipher or too simple to hold our attention. Originally, stained glass windows were meant to instruct the illiterate who could not read Sacred Scripture for themselves, in many ways they need to make a revival for a lost generation that hasn’t had the opportunity to get to know our wonderful heritage.
For kids and adults to be engaged in the Mass, there needs to be something to engage them with. For generations, the Smells & Bells of the liturgy and the ornate beauty of Catholic architecture enthralled Catholics into a greater love and participation in the sacred liturgy (even if they didn’t understand the language). A return to the glory of our Catholic heritage will help us all to see the Mass with newly opened liturgical eyes. Not only with the faithful be drawn more into the Mass, but it will help those who feel there is nothing to hold their attention for an hour every Sunday fulfill Vatican II’s call for a more full and active participation in the liturgy.