Are Young Adults Over Traditional Religious Rituals? Maybe Not as Much as You Think!
For a while I didn’t understand why Hollywood was obsessed with creating horror movies based on Catholic traditions. From “The Exorcist” (1973), to “The Da Vinci Code” (2006), and “The Nun” (2018), Catholic tradition seems to be on the chopping block when it comes to tales of supernatural fear and trauma. I voiced my confusion, and my friend matter-of-factly said, “Well it’s because it’s so ritualistic.”
That made sense. When I saw The Rite (2011), a film about an exorcist-in-training whose experiences causes him to question his beliefs, I was surprised at how easily I handled the movie. Usually, I am the first one to unashamedly cover my eyes at every shadowy scene. This time, however, I wasn’t at risk of jumping out of my chair when [name some ‘scary’ movie thing] happened.
While we debriefed the film, I came to the realization that it didn’t scare me because I come from a religious tradition in which demons, possession, and the otherwise “strange” phenomena showcased in the movie weren’t so “strange” as the movie depicted it to be. It was part of a mysterious reality that, as a Roman Catholic Christian, I know exists. Catholics, among many other mainstream Christian traditions, believe that evil is a real force in the world and that it can dramatically enter lives of ordinary people. When supernatural phenomena were lit with spiritual meaning shaped by the priest’s participation in traditional practices, it made the mystery less scary for me.
That’s the secret of ritual. Each step has a meaning. Each movement unveils a truth. It is quite beautiful when the movements are illuminated with meaning. I can imagine that for some people walking into a Catholic mass, it may seem like a lecture hall coupled with the worship of a circular wafer. However, I have discovered that when the mass becomes a meaningful exposition of an ancient and modern tradition, the beauty of the story begins to unfold. It is no longer a singular narrative, but a chronicle of meaning intertwined with 2000 years of people, voices, perspectives — all which include me.
This may be surprising for many people to hear from a 21-year-old college student: There’s no need to rewrite these traditional rituals; I don’t see how they’re not meaningful anymore. I know that, as religious affiliation declines, especially in Christian churches, people worry about how to make rituals “more relevant” to younger generations — to me. But if rituals are the practices that make God present to us, how can a living God expire? The foundation of traditional ritual, both in practice and in transmission, can never change, because it speaks to what we as Christians understand as an objective reality – God.
We are the ones who change. I seem to forget that I am a fragile, fleeting creature. I constantly grapple with the concept of an eternal God, and sometimes I misunderstand God’s ability to stand outside of time. I wrestle with appreciating God’s beauty in the liturgy when the rest of the world swirls around me using words like “boring,” “irrelevant,” and “old-fashioned,” to talk about tradition. Jesus resurrected people from the grave, casted out demons, multiplied loaves and fishes, gave sight to the blind — God is not boring. If anything, I am the one who is boring. In the Catholic mass, a piece of bread literally becomes Jesus’ flesh. Heaven literally becomes present on earth. What isn’t exciting about that?
But, I forget. I forget that when I stand in line to receive communion, I am receiving more than just a piece of unleavened bread. For Catholics, receiving communion is more than just standing in line to eat a piece of bread and take a sip of wine. It is more than just symbolic representation. We encounter a deep communion with Christ Himself, the Christ who said “this is my Body.” And, we receive this divine food along with the communion of saints who have come before us.
Communion is not about going through the motions. It is taking an actual step toward communion with God, the saints, and each other as a community. The bread and wine unite us. That is why whenever I bid farewell to a good friend, I say, “See you in the Eucharist” — because, as a Catholic, I have faith that I will. But it is so easy to forget.
Jesus didn’t come to be what the people wanted Him to be. He wasn’t the King they expected, nor the leader they wanted. In the same way, the liturgy is not here for my entertainment. Rather, it is here to communicate Truth, to remind me of all the reasons why Jesus did come and continues to come every single day. Truth in itself is not “boring.” But Truth tends to be considered “irrelevant” when it is not ready to be received.
So, how do we manage to make the Truth easier to swallow? How do we even attempt to make liturgy or ritual easier to understand?
About a month ago I attended a Tridentine Mass, the form of the Catholic Mass which was the traditional celebration of the Roman Rite before Vatican II. It was beautiful and well, extraordinary. When my friend asked me if I would return, I replied that I would go back when I needed to be reminded of the importance and sacredness of the Eucharist.
Almost all of the Tridentine liturgy is said in Latin. Although I had a booklet so I could follow along, I had no idea what anything meant. That was hard. Despite the differences from the ordinary form of the mass, I could tell that this ritual was special, simply because everyone on the altar (the priest and eight altar boys) always had their eyes on the tabernacle—the ornate box where the host is stored in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and other high liturgy churches. It was only during the homily and communion that they faced the congregation.
A part of me wrestled with this, “They just don’t want us to participate. … This is boring … I feel disengaged. … Why won’t they look at me?” But, then I thought, maybe it’s not about me. They have their eyes on what was important—Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus is the one who is important, the one whom I should have my eyes on.
In no way do I think that the reforms that took place in the Catholic Church in the 1960s should not have occurred. I am beyond grateful to have the ordinary form of the liturgy in my own, native language. However, I do believe that we can try a little harder to ensure that people are ready to receive the Truth in the service they attend.
How do we do this?
If anything, ritual needs to be reframed rather than revised. These frames invite the viewer to recognize the beautiful piece of art that the Lord has gifted us. As with any piece of art, the way these rituals are framed should not distract from the main attraction. It should enhance, strengthen, and reveal the deeper meaning, the beautiful truth that the ritual unveils.
Many people have the idea that traditional ritual needs to conform to the current situation that we live in. I disagree. In a timeless piece of art, say Leonardo Di Vinci’s Last Supper, we do not need to add any more dollops of paint or erase any “mistakes” that he could have made. We simply need to learn to appreciate the art—and the liturgy—for what it is. Sometimes that means providing resources for viewers of a work to understand—a plaque explaining how the painting fits into the museum as a whole, a purpose and reason for the viewer to understand why the painting is so important and not just meant to hang on a wall.
Reframing ritual also provides a way for participants in a religious service to understand why certain phrases are said, or why certain movements are part of the liturgy as a whole. My university held a “Teaching Mass” in which a priest explained the the liturgy word by word. In my own spiritual life, I have found such joy in knowing the “secrets” behind the liturgy that I routinely attend. In the wise words of St. John Paul II, “sacramental life is impoverished and very soon turns into hollow ritualism if it is not based on serious knowledge of the meaning of the sacraments, and catechesis becomes intellectualized if it fails to come alive in the sacramental practice.” Liturgy gives the congregation the amazing opportunity to experience how Truth comes alive. If the liturgy just seems like flat words and prayers, we are not doing our job.
Or perhaps the reframing invites the participant to think outside the box of “hollow ritualism.” Growing up, I always attended mass in a church. Little did I know that mass can be celebrated virtually anywhere, as long as you have a priest, bread, and wine. Now, I’ve attended mass in a barn, an apartment, and the forest. And on my bucket list is to attend mass in the snow with an ice altar, as people from Iowa did a couple years back when they were stuck in a snowstorm along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Regardless of where I stand when I receive Jesus in Communion, the Truth that is spoken from thinking outside of the normal church context is that Christ can be celebrated wherever you are. He is here, whenever two or more are gathered in His name.
Two summers ago I had the privilege to be a summer missionary at Camp Covecrest, a Catholic summer camp in the North Georgia mountains. Our days as missionaries consisted mostly of actively journeying with high school students during various activities—high ropes, low ropes, small groups, white water rafting, and messy games.
Before Covecrest, I had never been to a religious summer camp. I fell in love with the activities and the simple truth that Jesus takes us as we are. During the first day when a new rotation of kids from different parishes would roll in, we would break the ice with the campers by taking them on a messy-game obstacle course. This meant falling in a lake, crawling Army-style through mud, and smiling through it all. At the end of the course we were met by a huge bonfire and lots of singing, from Taylor Swift to popular Christian songs. It was all in preparation for the highlight of the night: Adoration of the Eucharist.
In Catholicism, Adoration is the worship of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. I especially love Adoration because it is where I had my first intimate encounter with Christ. After that encounter, I fell in love with Christ and His Church.
What was special about this portion of camp was the Truth that was spoken in the otherwise chaotic two hours that this whole event occurred: Jesus comes to us in our messiness. He doesn’t care if we’re drenched in sin, or if we somehow avoided the mud slide. He loves you no matter what. That is the beauty of ritual: it communicates the Truth in ways that words cannot always explain—in a way that will never change.
When I sat down to watch The Rite, I was prepared for jump scares and nightmares. I was pleasantly surprised to not have been appalled by all the supernatural phenomena. Now, don’t get me wrong, demons and possession are scary things. But, what was interesting was that since I knew the significance of the framework of the ritual—holy water, prayers, a priest, a crucifix—the act of exorcism did not jump out as a frightening idea, but rather a way of healing someone. It was through knowing the framework that I was able to appreciate the beauty of the ritual.
Ritual framed with depth and meaning creates a beautiful experience where everyone—even young adults—can attend to the living God who is indeed present in these “old,” traditional rituals. In the hustle and bustle of life, perhaps we are all seeking the stability and consistency of tradition—of an ever-present God who is and was, and will be—forever.