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What do young people want? My recent choir tour might provide an answer

The portal door at Zamora Cathedral (Max Pixel)

A tour of Spain with the wonderful Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School affords a brief break from news media.

No internet means a break from the abuse scandals and the deliberations of the youth synod. But both are in the back of my mind, inevitably, when travelling with a group of young people.

A kind of hyper-vigilance now feels necessary around children that precludes doing perfectly harmless things which I would once have thought nothing of doing – like bringing a camera on these trips, so magnificent is the architecture and so photogenic the sight of a robed choir against the carved choir stalls of Zamora Cathedral. Now I wouldn’t dream of being seen with a camera in such situations, lest it give rise to misinterpretation.

It is impossible not to contrast the magnificent architecture of the cathedrals of northern Spain, beautifully restored and preserved, with the liturgy which inhabits them, which seems to be minimalist and utterly horizontal in its focus. The absence of silence and the paring to a minimum of ritual gestures reveal the painful truth that, for all its talk of simplification, the reformed liturgy is actually an exercise in prolixity.

So unsuccessful has this reform been, even according to its own lights, that it is now deemed necessary to add elements, such as someone coming on to the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass to explain what the “theme” of today’s Mass is, lest the 40 minutes or so of readings, sermon, bidding prayers and notices in the vernacular are not enough to give you a clue. Similarly the impoverishment of gesture has backfired.

More and more one witnesses the embarrassing spectacle of a congregation of elderly people who have abandoned immemorial customs of their ancestors, like kneeling or genuflecting, only to substitute these for standing with upturned hands outstretched or joined during the Our Father.

Here at Zamora we no longer raise our eyes to the magnificent reredos, with its scenes from salvation history or its panoply of saints and angels thronging the sacrifice. Instead we focus on the president’s plush velvet chair, which now takes pride of place in the centre, opposite the congregation.

If architecture can be described as frozen music, then the architecture of cathedrals may be said to be frozen prayer. Their builders wanted people literally to raise their eyes, to recognise that our worship joins us to the worship of the Church Triumphant and that the supernatural plane is the true horizon where beauty and comfort are to be found.

CS Lewis says that the spiritual appetite, like the bodily, will be served, and people have voted with their feet with regard to the reformed liturgy as we presently have it in most places. It is no exaggeration to say that I didn’t see a single person under the age of 50 at the two Sunday Masses in different places on our tour. Yet if young people gravitate towards the Extraordinary Form they are characterised as suspect and rigid, even though all they are doing is experiencing something which satisfies a hunger. To characterise them thus is as absurd as saying that if you object to Zamora Cathedral being knocked down and replaced with something simpler you must have psychological issues.

Anyone who has had anything to do with young people knows that the most toe-curling thing they can imagine is people older than them trying to be à la mode. In the liturgical battles which followed the Council the losses have been so catastrophic that it is a wise man who wants to fall back on a tried and tested position. The psychological rigidity which insists that, despite massive casualties, we haven’t advanced nearly far enough seems far more dangerous to me.

The music of the Schola shines another kind of light on these buildings and the liturgy as presently constituted. The elderly congregation are absolutely transported by the beauties of their musical heritage, beautifully sung. But tragically, their reaction is to take out their phones to record it, and when the boys finish singing at the end of Mass the congregation applauds.

It is well meant, but a further example of the impoverishment of the liturgical reform, that we imagine that such beauty is directed towards our entertainment or cultural enrichment. The idea that such beauty might be for God, or indeed of him, seems to be at best a secondary consideration.