Sixty years ago this year, over 90 million people watched on television as Walt Disney opened his very first theme park, Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif.
Ad copy to the contrary, the Magic Kingdom on that day was definitely not “the happiest place on Earth.” A flood of counterfeit tickets had over 28,000 people trying to get in. Because of daytime temperatures well above 100 degrees, the just-poured asphalt on Main Street USA was still so soft in places that high heels sank in. Some rides broke down almost immediately, and a gas leak closed three “lands” by the afternoon.
These days, if Disneyland has just one such problem, it makes the national news. The Disney Company has made an art out of building welcoming spaces where families can escape the drama of ordinary life and reconnect with the wonder of childhood. From Uncle Walt to its present-day Imagineers, Disney has conceived of the parks as immersive experiences in which guests are invited to be active, creative participants in the stories of their youth.
Catholicism understands liturgy in a similar way. The Mass too is meant to be an immersive experience in which we enter into a story, the history of salvation. And Catholics are also invited to be active participants. Whether making the sign of the cross, participating in the eucharistic prayer’s Last Supper/Passover re-enactment or receiving Communion, worshippers bring the story of Jesus to life and make it their own.
Obviously, Disneyland and liturgy have much that is not shared. Still, three of Disney’s core ideas suggest some interesting questions for us.
With every choice,remember the story. For Walt Disney, what made an experience truly immersive and satisfying was the rich accumulation of details. “The story” was built in a ride’s twists and turns, but also in its light fixtures, in the layout of its waiting area, in the material used for its seats. In designing new attractions today, Disney Imagineers ask of every element: Does this choice help tell the story?
Our liturgical experience of the story of salvation is also built in the specifics—the translations of the readings and prayers, the preaching and music, but also the artwork in the church, the arrangement and kinds of seating, the choice of missal and songbook.
If we were to walk through our churches from time to time considering every element, what might we discover? What are the stories that our church, our worship are telling?
Embrace the humanity. As much as Walt Disney prided himself on the calm and cleanliness of Disneyland, he also wanted it to be a place where all would feel welcome.
In fact, he believed that it was only through the presence of one another that guests could fully enter into and relish the Disney experience. The fireworks are more beautiful for the glow we see them cast across the upturned faces of strangers, and the rides are more entertaining for the horrified squeals of the grandparents behind us.
Whether through the quiet spectacle of a frail elder reaching for Communion, the meeting of eyes and the touch of hands at the Sign of Peace or the buoyant embrace of the voices around us lifted in song, we too understand one another as sacramental, a source of grace.
And yet for reasons of solemnity, propriety or beauty, worship can also sometimes become inhospitable to aspects of our humanity. We might ask ourselves, does our liturgy accommodate a certain amount of human spontaneity? Are mistakes O.K. (or even potential occasions of grace)? And are there any groups not present? Have our expectations written anyone out of the story?
In our history lies our treasure. For Disney one’s past was a place of forgotten gifts. And nostalgia was a positive force, the gentle gravity that could draw people back, help them rediscover that wealth. In considering changes to his parks, it was always paramount to Disney that nothing undermine guests’ communion with past experiences there.
Catholicism is an incarnated faith, our experience of church deeply tied to our history of experiences in our parish. When a parish staff makes changes, does it proceed in a way that supports that history? More intriguingly, what if within each parish’s traditions lie the materials for its own renewal? What if we’re each capable of our own Vatican II-like resourcement?