During the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 1967, after seeing a demonstration of the proposed new Mass, Cardinal Heenan told the Synod: “At home [in England] it is not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men who come regularly to Mass. If we were to offer them the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday in the Sistine Chapel we would soon be left with a congregation mostly of women and children”.I don’t know precisely what happened in the Sistine Chapel that morning, but I do see that the Church today is bereft of men and being bereft men in the last generation is now bereft of families in this generation.
As I type this there photographs around me from the 1930s and 40s of members of the parish and there are huge numbers of young men in them, similar photographs today would show a preponderance of older women, and few young men, especially English young men.
What has brought about the change? It could indeed be the liturgy but maybe more likely the liturgy which frames a particular ecclesiology, theology and piety.
I had a conversation recently with a man in his mid-thirties, he had been lapsed for ages and had just started to come back to Church, I’ll call him John. John’s big problem was that he couldn’t understand how to feel love for Jesus, not only did he not feel it but he didn’t want to either. He had been in the army, as a child he had served Mass, even thought about becoming a priest, but as adolescence dawned so did a real difficulty about, “loving Jesus”.
I think that this is real problem for many men especially if “love” is seen in touchy feely terms. Fine for women, fine for gay men; but for most men, I think it is a real hurdle. It is a real difficulty, especially when it is put forward in terms of sentimentality, and modern touchy feely charismatic piety. For John, as an ex-soldier, he knew what patriotism, love of country was, he knew what obedience was, as a father he knew what it was to protect and safeguard his wife and children was, he knew what tenderness towards them was. He knew what camaraderie was, he had risked his life for his mates on several occasions, and on one of them received a medal for his bravery.
He was the type of man who would have died for the faith in a previous age but today feels alienated from it. I tried to tell John that “feeling love” wasn’t that important, far less important than keeping Christ’s commandments, “If you love, me keep my commandments”. That is the only sign that Jesus wants to demonstrate our love; feelings are irrelevant, I told him. Defending and protecting Christ’s bride the Church was important too, being willing to lay down one’s life for them was actually what was expected of him.
I do think that we really do men a serious disservice if we expect something from them which is over and above what scripture and the tradition of the Church expects. Demanding “feelings” of love or affection seems to be something new in the devotional life of the Church, if it was there in the past, such touchy feeliness seems to have been direct to the Blessed Virgin outside of the formal liturgy of the Church.
Looking at the photographs of the Traditional Masses that have been on the web lately I am surprised at the number of young men present. Despite the amounts of lace present, the old rite has a complete absence of mawkish sentimentality.
Maybe we might start to think about how we can involve men in the life of the Church, and develop a spirituality that does not alienate them.
Congregation after a Traditional Mass celebrated by Card. Catrillon de Hoyos in Versailles