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The estrangement from rituals. A reflection by the president of the professors of liturgy

Forty-year-olds, the departure continues

 Quarantenni, la fuga continua  DCM-007
01 July 2023

About ten years ago a rather meaty text entitled La fuga delle quarantenni [The Flight of 40-Year-Old Women] written by theologian Armando Matteo was published. The essay spoke of the difficult relationship of women with the Church (Rubbettino), highlighted how women born after 1970 -but even more decisively those born after 1981- manifested an evident estrangement and disaffection to the Catholic religious universe. The noted theologian wrote, “We find ourselves before the emergence of a generation of women who are beginning to break a centuries-old alliance that has certainly benefited both partners, but which now demands to be renegotiated again. Certainly on the ecclesial front”.

It is obvious that in the woman-Church relationship comes into play the change in women’s status that has occurred over the past century, particularly since 1968. Today, by virtue of this, according to the 2022 Report of Almalaurea, an Italian public Inter-University Consortium, regarding the profile of graduates, among 2021 graduates, the female percentage is higher (59.4 percent) than the male percentage, and the share of women about to graduate is 63.0 percent (57.9 percent for men). The an average graduation grade equal to 104.2 out of 110, while for men the figure is 102.4 for men (these grades are approximately equivalent to 2:1 by UK graduating standards).

The writer Michela Murgia does not shy away from pointing out how in the Catholic imagination the virtuous woman is characterized by acquiescence, obedience, and concealment, and how this view is confirmed by a certain re-reading of Mary of Nazareth. The author states, “There is nothing like Scripture to reveal to us how false is the idea of Mary that they want to depict us as docile and meek, the perfect mold of all good little women” (Hail Mary, Einaudi), and adds, “if the Church did not invent the subordination of the sexes, she chose to legitimize it spiritually”.

How can young woman today identify with such imagery and be better prepared than in the past? How can she [the church] maintain a relationship with ecclesial communities when with difficulty ways are being identified that are capable of enhancing the contribution of women in decision-making processes?

It is therefore “taken for granted” that the empty churches that the pandemic has left us see the presence of not only a few men, a few children, a very few young people, but also very few women.

It is appropriate to point out how today’s “forty-somethings” demonstrate not only a disaffection with rituals, but with church doctrine too. Turning away from the liturgy is the external manifestation of a distancing from the Church. Let us now, however, turn our attention to the Christian celebration, while trying to highlight, in the context outlined, some of the causes that have led, and still lead, so many faithful, not only women, but also men, to leave the liturgy.

The fatigue of liturgical language

It seems that today the liturgical gesture is no longer meaningful; it no longer speaks to the faithful. It often happens that we participate in celebrations though find it dull. Does this happen because we do not know how to “put the liturgy” into action? Alternatively, is it because adequate liturgical formation has failed in recent decades? On the other hand, is there more to it than that? Romano Guardini, for example, in his Letter on the Act of Worship (1964) noted how contemporary man had lost “symbolic capacity,” [he] was no longer able to experience the “symbolic ritual language” of the liturgy.

Certainly, the current difficulties with Christian celebration can be traced to a multiplicity of causes, both internal and external to the liturgy. Let us try to identify some of them.

Is the liturgy “still” art?

In the Italian National Synthesis of the diocesan phase of the synod path we read, “Faced with “dull liturgies” or reduced to a spectacle, there is a need to restore sobriety and decorum to the liturgy in order to rediscover all its beauty and experience it as mystagogy [...]”

All too often, the liturgical actions in which we participate are sloppy, and poorly edited.  In them, it is difficult to have a profound experience of the Mystery. The inadequate chanting, unkempt environment, inappropriate speech making, clumsy gestures, and absence of prayerful silence ... how can one pray like this?  The liturgy consists of the languages of art; in liturgical action, the different codes are put into action in a manner similar to art, while maintaining the necessary symbolic difference from their use in daily life, precisely to avoid losing capacity to open to the experience of the mystery.

In the liturgy, it is not only the manner of the enactment of different languages that is fundamental, but also the relationship between them. In a Christian celebration, languages must find a harmony and balance, without “prevarication” or excessive personalization. Singing, the voice, gesture, lights, smells, all these must harmonize, “amplify” and support each other, all in noble conciliar simplicity, as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the constitution on the sacred liturgy, one of the four councils issued by the Second Vatican Council states.

Undoubtedly, with rare exceptions, we have not given the liturgy such attention, or rather; we have not been aware of its dynamisms, and perhaps even of its nature as a symbolic ritual action.

The problem of liturgical language, however, is even more complex. We should ask ourselves how to decline the liturgy in the contemporary context, which seems to have lost that symbolic universe in which the liturgy used to take meaning.

In addition, each celebration takes place in a specific time, in a specific place, in a culture. It is therefore necessary to consider how contemporary man experiences time, space, and the body.   The lockdown itself, along with the digital relationships that have characterized it, has led to a dematerialization of the relationships themselves. How can this be  harmonized  with the slow and “memory-rich” time of the liturgy; with the present way of celebrating that re-actualizes the salvation event that occurred historically in the past and anticipates the heavenly liturgy? How can this be reconciled with the punctual, accelerated, fragmented time experienced by contemporary man with the “slow and transfigured” time of the liturgy that opens us to mystery? Today, an important operation of inculturation is needed.

Liturgy and the image of Church

A concrete celebration manifests the face of the Church. Today, we must ask ourselves what image of the Church emerges from our celebrations. If we refer to the pre-pandemic time, the statements of young people reported in the Instrumentum Laboris of the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 3-28, 2018)-Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment-are interesting. We read in No. 69, “The theme of the liturgy often returns, which they would like to see as alive and close, while it often does not allow for an experience of any sense of community or family as the Body of Christ” [...] Many responses to the questionnaire indicated that young people are sensitive to the quality of the liturgy. Provocatively, the Pre-Synodal Meeting says, “Christians profess a living God, but despite this, we find celebrations and communities that appear dead”.

How can such communities that have been defined as dead and unfamiliar be revived? Perhaps with a healthy dose of realism we should start again from the quality of our relationships, in search of meaningful, authentic relationships. How can we celebrate together if we do not know each other, if we do not share the Christian life beyond the liturgy? There can be no communion with God in celebration without sharing in charity with our brothers and sisters. At the same time, it is important to seek concrete spaces of ecclesial responsibility, in “a synodal style in which decisions are taken together, based on the contribution of each person to understand the voice of the Spirit, in the key of discernment and not of representative democracy” (Italian National Synthesis of the diocesan phase of the synod journey).

Certainly the enhancement of the instituted ministries in place with Francis’ Motu proprio Spiritus Domini of January 10, 2021 could support such a search and offer a different image of the Church. The concrete celebrating assembly, in the diversification of liturgical ministries, is a sign of the gifts and charisms that the Spirit arouses in the ecclesial community and at the service of the community itself. Nevertheless, is all this sufficient for the “40-year-old” of today to reconnect with the Church, and consequently with the liturgy?

The absence of initiation into the liturgy

The decreasing participation of God’s people in the liturgy is also due to some shortcomings related to liturgical formation.

Perhaps the most obvious among these is given by an idea of liturgical formation equivalent to mere explanation. Liturgy is not a thought, but an action, and for this, it requires a long and gradual initiation, which is capable of involving all human dimensions. Indeed, it is not only through explanation that young men and women are formed in the liturgy, for we need prayer experiences that create an intermediate language. The liturgy is the point of arrival, not departure; it involves a whole series of actions that precede it.  We must not forget that we learn to celebrate by “celebrating well day after day”. 

Regarding liturgical formation there are many things that could be said, but perhaps it is appropriate to ask who can carry out such a formative work. There is talk, by virtue of what Sacrosanctum Concilium proposes, about the liturgical formation of presbyters, how they should be trained in the ars celebrandi, and possible paths of initiation into the liturgy in seminaries. Nevertheless, given the significant contribution made by many women, and by many women religious, from the post-Conciliar period to the present, in catechesis, in youth ministry, in accompanying adolescents on their Christian journey, in Catholic schools, it is legitimate to wonder what theological, and therefore liturgical, formation they have received.  Particularly with regard to women religious. If all of them had been offered the access to the institutional paths of theology, they would have been able to offer a more competent Christian, and therefore liturgical, formation to children, teenagers and young people. Therefore, we ask ourselves, shifting our attention to the future, would it not be the case to invest seriously in the formation not only of the laity but also of women religious, clearly determining a ratio studiorum, contemplating theological studies as for presbyters? Otherwise, how will they be able to face all the current challenges that evangelization poses, and among them, the liturgy?

Sister of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, President of the Association of Professors of Liturgy #sistersproject