Using Stadium Culture

Regarding my commentary on U2, Jim McK wonders:

Do you feel the same way about liturgy taking over popular performance formats, as when a million people turn out as a stadium because a popular priest, ie the Pope, is celebrant?

Perhaps this is something of the megaliturgy stadium events we see with the pope. I’m not really sure Catholicism has any other events on this scale. Maybe someone could shed some light and tell us when the first Mass was celebrated with more than ten thousand in the assembly. I’d feel pretty sure the first with more than 100,000 would have been with Pope John Paul II.

I’ve participated in one liturgy with more than 10,000 people. In observance of the Jubilee year 2000, my home diocese celebrated a Pentecost Day Mass in a mid-sized domed stadium. I recall the attendance was around 16,000. There was no Big Draw other than Jesus Christ and a special feast on his purported two-thousandth birthday. There was a pilgrimage-like atmosphere, which I’m sure is part of any megaliturgy event. Of course, there is also a pilgrimage atmosphere when one attends a big-time sporting event, like an NFL game or NASCAR, or a major concert … like U2.

The largest crowd I was ever in was at an NFL football stadium, not for a game, but for the Rolling Stones. There was a certain pilgrimage quality to it: a long drive, a long walk to the venue, pouring rain, vendors, a certain surreal quality not often repeated, at least in my life. George Thorogood performed in the pouring rain, an intriguing mix of precipitation and electricity, which fortunately didn’t coincide on his person or his band. Journey stayed within a bandshell, playing tight, but out of the rain. By the time the Stones were onstage, the rain had ended, the sun was coming out, and while I’ve never been a huge fan of the band, the three-hour set was entertaining. And it was my little brother’s first rock concert.

Did I include the ringing in my ears after the event?

The last two popes have used the secular medium of the Big Stadium Event to celebrate Mass. There are good pragmatic reasons. More people get to “see” and “celebrate” with the Holy Father. More is better, right? Media coverage is high. And media coverage — positive media coverage is good, right? A large metro area gets to show off its culture and talents. That must be good, right?

I have my own preferences, though.

When I go on pilgrimage, I like to go to the location, the event. I joined my mother’s pilgrimages to French Canada many times, and I enjoyed both the religious and cultural aspects. When I go on retreat, most often I travel a few hours’ drive from home. There’s a pilgrim quality about the journey, both to and from. I would love to go to Europe, though I suspect that pilgrimage won’t be part of my life.

I’ve known many people who have gone to see the pope on his American and Canadian mega-events. I don’t doubt their religious sincerity or their largely positive experiences. But it is undeniable that not unlike the churches that have drafted U2 liturgies, or who coopted the secular folk songs of the 60’s for the early vernacular liturgies, the popes’ appearances in these stadium events are really very much like the secular concert experience.

Sure, the music is more or less appropriate. The reverence is mostly there. The sacrament is validly and licitly celebrated. I would expect nothing less.

The churches that might celebrate U2’s music are also within bounds on their own version of orthodoxy. Christ is worshipped, not Bono. The Scriptures are still proclaimed. The church building is utilized. The spoken prayers are likely familiar. Just one element is substituted. Just like the million-person Mass with the pontiff.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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