The Examined Life
Though the pop hits of U2 may not be coming to a Catholic church near you,the latest eucharistic fad still has a lesson to offer.
On this Pentecost eve anglican bishop Timothy Ellis of Grantham will preside at a U2charist—and, no, that’s not a misspelling. The U2charist—where the songs of the Irish rock band U2 replace the customary liturgical repertoire—is the brainchild of a U.S. Episcopal priest, the Rev. Paige Blair, who created it to draw attention to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, aimed at eradicating the most extreme forms of poverty by 2015. Bono, U2’s lead singer, is well known for his advocacy for the poor, which is inspired by his Christian faith. In this effort he even met in 2005 with Pope John Paul II, when he offered his signature shades to the Holy Father.
Of course, in Catholic circles, the U2charist is likely to elicit groans. After all, since Vatican II we Catholics have tried every permutation of “relevant” liturgy: home Masses, folk Masses, rock Masses, jazz Masses, gym Masses, family Masses, teaching Masses—you name it, we’ve done it.
At the same time there is something refreshing about going out on a liturgical limb, especially since our current major Catholic liturgical disputes center on just exactly how arcane our new English translation of the Mass is going to be. And there is plenty of precedent in Christian tradition for pop-music importation: Martin Luther adapted German folk (even bar) songs for liturgy (“Why should the devil have all the good music?” he asked), and the Anglican founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, also reached the masses through music.
But beyond the merely liturgical, U2charist boosters are making no bones about why they’re going to be singing “Mysterious Ways” and “Beautiful Day” at church—and spending almost $20,000 to stage and record it for the BBC: They’re trying to get young people back to church.
Enter Bono, a man simultaneously the epitome of cool and the embodiment of how to make good use of great fame in our culture of celebrity. From Project RED, a corporate partnership that sells everything from T-shirts to mobile phones to benefit African charities (and make a profit for sellers), to Vanity Fair’s July issue on Africa featuring Bono as guest editor, to a 2005 meeting with President George W. Bush—when Bono scoured the Bible for a passage he thought might stir the president’s evangelical heart—Bono has poured himself into drawing attention to the plight of the world’s poor. Add to this the fact that U2’s music has since the 1980s spoken to the spiritual longings of Generation X and beyond, and perhaps it’s not surprising that an enterprising clergyperson thought to bring it to church.
Bono explained his religious motivation in a 2004 interview: “Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean?... Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor.... As much as I respond in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion.” How’s that for a pop star?
Of course, the U2charist will most likely last only as long as Bono’s celebrity, after which it will be relegated to the liturgical fad-heap along with its predecessors. But at least in the short term, it will try to do something that many of us, Catholics included, have been failing at: telling the story of Jesus in a compelling way for this generation, speaking a language that resonates with the still-haven’t-found-what-I’m-looking-for hearts of Western youth and young adults. And rather than blaming those folks for our failure to reach them, the U2charist at least puts the evangelical duty squarely where it belongs: on the backs of believers.
And that, indeed, is the charge we must accept. If today’s young people aren’t inspired by the gospel, it’s probably not because the message that has inspired millions for 2,000 years has suddenly lost its appeal. It’s far more likely that we’ve either forgotten how to tell it well or are simply unwilling to tell it in a new way.
Instead of seeking the return of Gregorian chant, perhaps we Catholics might risk something a little more daring. After all, when Bono offered John Paul II his shades, the late pope, always attentive to the moment, did put them on.
Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the May 2007 (Volume 72, Number 5; page 50) issue of U.S. Catholic