On Hearing the Greatest Hits at Mass

imageI’m pretty sure most people are aware that after Vatican II a great many changes, and some abuses, were inflicted on the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Some of these changes were more or less in accord with the documents promulgated by the Council, for instance, the development of the liturgy in the vernacular (more on that in a future post). Other things happened, though, that had nothing to do with the intentions of the council: priests dressed in clown costumes, “liturgical dance”, rubrics changed by personal whim of both liturgist and priest alike, are just a few examples. I am thankful that under the careful guidance of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, most of these abuses were corrected.

There’s one reform instituted by the Council and fastened on to with rather more abandon than thought, that now seems impervious to correction, liturgical music. Yes, that jarring, saccharine, banal and completely bereft of any taste what so ever music played in most parishes every Sunday was, you might say, an unintended consequence of Vatican II. I believe, rather, that the Church has always desired an element of beauty in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. The Council’s document on the liturgy, Sancrosanctum Concilicium (SC) states:

“Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.”(#112)

I would submit that without beauty, sacred music does not “add . . .delight to prayer, foster unity of minds, or confer greater solemnity”, instead it fosters distaste, mental upset and the sense of being at a folk rock concert featuring the Smothers Brothers. The music is vaguely upbeat and often performed with instrumental accompaniment, the relentless guitars of various sorts, even electric guitars, piano, fiddle, whatever comes to hand, with the odd tambourine thrown in, just to enhance the mood. For me, it does everything but promote prayer and contemplation.

As I said above, I can’t believe this cacophony was ever the intent of the Church for music at liturgical celebrations. For example, the Council also states,

“All artists who, prompted by their talents, desire to serve God’s glory in holy Church, should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, to edify the faithful, and to foster their piety and their religious formation.”

Does the music you hear on Sunday do any of that? Does it edify, foster piety or your religious formation? I can’t say, based on my own experience, that it does.

So, you may ask, what does the Council recommend?

Well, the choice given “pride of place” among liturgical music is Gregorian Chant.

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.” (SC #116)

Other forms may be used, “so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” To my mind, music such as Gather Us In fails this test miserably. Chant, on the other hand, offers the multiple advantages of being simple, dignified, reverent, and beautiful. I know that many of our liturgists would argue that people today wouldn’t take to chant because it’s antiquated and they’re unfamiliar with its notation, etc. It’s so passé don’t you know? In response, I’d ask, did you ever hear of the hit album Chant — Music for the Soul, by the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heilegenkreuz? According to Amazon, this is still the #11 best selling album in the category of Sacred & Religious classical music; pretty good for an album released in 2008. So much for acceptance; it’s obvious a lot of people are quite willing to pay good money to hear chant. It turns out, the greatest hits of the 6th century are still among the greatest hits of the 21st.

If you were attending Mass, wouldn’t you rather listen to some of the best selling, most beautiful, music of our time, or second hand stuff that no one would sit still for, much less pay for, unless forced to by the parish music director? The answer seems like a no-brainer to me.






The Cutting of Bread

tumblr_mun303qvSZ1qb597yo1_1280I love reading old diaries and today I came across this excerpt from the diary of Katherine Mansfield, a writer from early in the 20th century.

10 January. Dreamed I was back in New Zealand.

Got up to-day. It was fine. The sun shone and melted the last trace of snow from the trees. All the morning big drops fell from the trees, from the roof. The drops were not like rain-drops, but bigger, softer. More exquisite. They made one realize how one loves the fertile earth and hates this snow-bound cold substitute.

The men worked outside on the snowy road, trying to raise the telegraph pole. Before they began they had lunch out of a paper. Sitting astride the pole. It is very beautiful to see people sharing food. Cutting bread and passing the loaf, especially cutting bread in that age-old way with a clasp-knife. Afterwards one got up in a tree and sat among the branches working from there, while the other lifted. The one in the tree turned into a kind of bird, as all people do in trees – chuckled, laughed out, peered from among the branches. Careless. At-tend! Ar-ret! Al-lez!

I love that description of the very ordinary event of the putting up of a telegraph wire.  I wonder if she intended the Eucharistic allusion?  That excerpt was written in 1922,  who writes like that anymore?  It’s just magnificent.  I think Miss Mansfield must have loved words.