What is the standard by which we should judge the music we hear or sing at liturgy? That’s a huge and controversial question, but a recent experience revealed to me something interesting. It suggest an answer that is completely different from what you hear from the defenders of pop music at Mass, especially when it is pushed as a way of appealing to teens.
Here’s the story. In preparing music for this past Sunday, the schola at my parish ran out of time to prepare the authentic Gregorian Introit. There is nothing wrong with that. We are all volunteers and there’s only so much practice time. Gregorian chant should be given “first place” at Mass but it is not always possible.
Plus, aside from this, we sang two pieces of Renaissance polyphony, the Gregorian communion, an English proper chant for Offertory, a Psalm and Alleluia, plus all the ordinary chants of the Mass and the dialogue chants. That is actually a gigantic amount of music for an amateur group that sings with no instruments. We’ve been working together more than ten years now, and this is the fruit of that long-term work.
The feast was Corpus Christi, and the liturgical books assign the entrance Cibavit Eos. I had to find a replacement for the procession. My first thought in finding one, after years of doing this and feeling rather comfortable with the genre nowadays, was: what does the real entrance sound like? There are many options out there today, thankfully, and to select among them requires that you have some grounding in the character of the ideal music of the Roman Rite.
At least, I can only say that I would no longer feel comfortable replacing a Gregorian chant without having some familiarity with the thing for which the replacement is substituting. It’s taken a long time but I feel like I’m finally getting and practicing what the Church has long taught, that the appointed chants are the standard by which we measure whatever we end up doing. I ended up choosing a simple choral number by the composer Richard Rice, very beautiful and stately with a clean presentation of the text.
The translation of Cibavit Eos, the original text of the introit for this day, reads as follows: “He fed them from the fullness of the wheat, alleluia. And sated them with honey from the rock, alleluia.” It’s hard to imagine a better text for the day. It’s the first thing you hear at Mass, and it should be just right. Fortunately, as Catholic singers, we don’t have to make up texts or choose among them. It is given to us right there in our music books for the Roman Rite and often even printed in the Missal itself.
I’m grateful for this. It keeps our singing grounded. It provides a challenge. And when we can’t do the Gregorian, or when we are seeking to introduce more variety in styles, we are at least in a position to choose some rooted alternative that is part of the structure of the liturgy itself. This doesn’t remove personal discretion entirely, but at least when we exercise our own judgment over something as important as an entrance song, it is tethered to tradition and expressive of the embedded liturgical Word itself.
The very day that I was going through these exercises in my mind, I bumped into the transcript of a speech by Fr. Robert Schreiner, who is a powerful voice in the Life Teen movement that recommends singing “praise and worship” music at Mass. The text is from a speech he gave in 2010. This speech has become the canonical defense used by the rock group in your parish, the one that sings music with repetitive words that have nothing to do with what’s in the liturgical books and accompanies that music with pop rhythms. You know the type, so I don’t need to go on with my description.
Fr. Schreiner begins with his bona fides. He understands Gregorian chant. He can read it and sing it. He plays piano and organ. He didn’t like Christian rock at first. He kept trying and still didn’t get it. Then finally he went to a Mass at which a popular Catholic singer was leading a band. Within 30 seconds, he says that he “got it.” “I became a convert…. And then the teens have been teaching me their culture. Life Teen has been introducing me to their culture.”
And so he underwent a subjective conversion based on one experience. Even based on his own account, and despite all his provisos about the need for music to be humble and holy, his final standard is not what the liturgy structure intrinsically asks of us but rather how he personally responded to what he was seeing and hearing. He then reports that he opened himself up and let the “teens” teach him “their culture.”
Based on this experience, he threw himself into the mainstream of Life Teen liturgical life. To be sure, such experiences can be powerful. Perhaps we’ve all been through something like this, a time when we thought we had all the answers only to observe with our own eyes how something completely different seems to be enormously successful. For example, I’ve had friends tell me of similar experiences when attending, for example, Eastern Rite parishes.
So how to justify this according to Church teaching? Fr. Schreiner wraps up the whole justification in one idea: inculturation.
The question of inculturation is a non-negotiable and for us who are reaching out to teenagers, the question is absolutely predicated on this. Do teens have a culture of their own or not? If they don’t, then we really need to pack up and go home.
By way of review, this notion of inculturation is not something that Fr. Schreiner is making up. It has a real meaning in the documents (a point I owe to Adam Bartlett). St. Pius the X spoke to the matter more than one hundred years ago, and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments addressed the topic in an entire document released in 1994. Varietates Legitimae said that authentic inculturation introduces the idea of a “double movement.” In this, the Church can assimilate values of local cultures and, at the same time, introduce peoples into the broader church community. This is an essential aspect of evangelism. The consummate example of inculturation is named in this document: “the translation of the Bible into Greek introduced the word of God into a world that had been closed to it and caused, under divine inspiration, an enrichment of the Scriptures.”
But there is an important proviso here. These features of the culture to be assimilated, according to the document, must be “permanent values of a culture, rather than their transient expressions.”
This proviso relates to liturgy in particular here. There is no real problem outside of liturgy but the central question is whether Christian pop music marketed to teenagers really is part of the “permanent” value of a culture or whether it is a mere “transient expression.” The question is crucial, writes Varietates Legitimae, because “the inculturation of the Christian life and of liturgical celebrations must be the fruit of a progressive maturity in the faith of the people.”
It strikes me as obviously true that Christian pop is part of the transient culture and not permanent. Therefore, it doesn’t in any way qualify as something that can be snuck in under the inculturation label. In fact, rather than encourage progressive maturity, pop music at liturgy entrenches and prolongs an immature stage of life. It fails to prepare kids for mature faith.
Pop music, even when the text is Christian in its intent, is transient in two fundamental ways.
First, the music itself comes and goes like fashion. This is what it is supposed to do. This is its character. Everyone in the pop world is interested in the new hit whereas hits from the past that last are relegated to the oldies status. Perhaps only a few make it more than a decade. Just think of any performance act that features music of the 1970s. There is a good chance that you could name 3 or 4 of the hits that would necessarily be included.
Second—and this is so obvious that it hardly needs to be pointed out but I will do it anyway—youth itself is transient. The young get old, new groups of young replace them, and so on. And people always grow up and look back and ask, “What was I thinking?”
This pattern has repeated since, oh, the beginning of time. But it is especially true in our time when no real responsibilities are expected of young people. They don’t have to provide for themselves. They have no meaningful work to do unless it is created for them. They sit at desks most of the day, hang out mostly with their peers, and are not responsible to adults in a way that is integral to their daily life activities.
So yes, many young people today might imagine that they occupy a sub-culture of their own, something self-sustaining and insulated from the rest of the world. That such impressions exist at all is living proof that adults in our world have not done their job to prepare young people for life. So it’s no wonder that we see so many post-college meltdowns among those who have never actually encountered an authentic adult world before and cannot navigate it or even understand it.
The question is whether this sub-culture has any relevance whatsoever for the important choices we make concerning music at liturgy. The answer, I believe, is that it does not. To treat it as if it did is really to cheat young people of the rich liturgical traditions of the Catholic faith. And this is why never before in the whole history of the Roman Rite until fairly recently has there been anything like a musical culture specifically designed for teens.
This all changed in the 1960s when the demographics of parish life had come to shift so dramatically after the postwar baby boom. Suddenly the teens seemed to outnumber the adults. And the adults caved in and actually worked to create this sub-culture. We began to hear about the “generation gap” and “never trust anyone over 30,” and so on. With that came the “folk Mass” and the wholesale abandonment of the musical tradition of the Roman Rite. This was not a good thing.
This period was a calamity we are still trying to repair. It left us with what is today the mainstream music in Catholic parishes, which to today’s young people sounds very much like easy-listening music from the 1980s with religious words. They are not drawn to that and so they seek out something new and probably just as transient.
This pop takeover of service music—and the cultivation of a distinct youth subculture—has been the norm for many decades. In my youth, growing up Baptist, I can recall how much I winced at the whole spectacle. There was no “youth culture” anywhere when I was very young. Then in the mid-1970s some adults showed up to cobble one together. I had sung in the choir as a young child—we sang actual serious music—but suddenly some adult emerged teach us a new way. We got goofy new uniforms (white suits with big bells, as I recall) and were made to look and sing like members of the Partridge Family.
Then they hired a “youth minister” who was this “cool” guy who wore jeans and curried favor with the biggest jerks in the youth community. This “minister” had made the classic error that adults make in trying to navigate teen subculture. He had confused notoriety with respect. The kid who suddenly sat atop the social ladder, with the permission and encouragement of our new “minister,” was actually the sassiest jerk among the whole lot, the one who was actually working to corrupt everyone as much as possible. He was the very guy that we all worked to avoid. This new minister, whose job it was to “relate” to the young,” was drawn to him and inadvertently made this guy the model and ideal.
I was still young but my older brother experienced the full brunt of this shift. Drum sets were on the altar. Music was being distributed on sheets stuck into the hymnal. We were supposed to clap and yell in services. I recall feeling a slight sense of pride in this music mainly because my parents didn’t like it and I thought it was fine, for a while, until it became boring and embarrassing.
Mostly, I recall a dramatic cultural shift in the life of the worship community. The youth sub-culture came to dominate, and the standard ended up being: how can we please these people? How can we meet them where they are? The youth were very aware of this, and in losing respect for the adult leadership, they became more unruly than ever. Fracturing and isolation and eventual rebellion became the norm—as the adults just sat and cried with their heads in their hands.
That approach is very different from the more responsible approach, which is: how can we help these people to mature? How can we draw their spiritual imaginations to a place where they are not now but wish to be? I would submit that the best way to achieve this is through a humble recognition that our subjective likes and dislikes may not be the best standard by which to select our music.
After my conversion to Catholicism, it was very strange to me to find the same debate taking place in the Catholic world. Catholics went from the “folk Mass” to “glory and praise” to “praise and worship” to whatever is on the cutting edge today—all the while overlooking the timeless music of the ritual itself.
Fortunately, Catholics are not in a position to become completely unhinged from rubrics and clear standards, so there is probably more hope for reform here than anywhere in Christendom.
On the matter of music in particular, Gregorian chant—especially in the Mass propers—remains the standard of measurement. But of course substitutions are permitted. When we do substitute, we need to familiarize ourselves with the standard so that we can make sound judgments. “What does the Church intend?” is a better question to ask than “What is going to connect with this sub-culture?”
Think of the Mass proper for Corpus Christi as drawn from the words of the Psalmist: “He fed them from the fullness of the wheat, alleluia. And sated them with honey from the rock, alleluia.” This is what God promised in response to obedience, a promise that is fulfilled from following the law rather than our own transient wishes of youth.
There are many wholly legitimate debates about music and there is no final arbiter over what is or isn’t an appropriate replacement for the musical structure that is an organic part of the Roman Rite, and such replacements will always be necessary. But we cannot get anywhere with these debates so long as the essential liturgical orientation remains in dispute. The place to look to evaluate our efforts is not to demographics and pop culture but to the core of the liturgy itself.
We should not be seeking to create, cultivate, or cater to transient subcultures of musical expression in which the tastes and style come from a sector of life that has nothing to do with the liturgy. And yet that is precisely what we have habitually done for decades. The Life Teen approach is nothing new; it is a continuation of the old errors in a different form, even as the authentic ritual song of the liturgy remains neglected.
It’s been my privilege to be asked to give some private seminars to some leaders within the Life Teen world, and introduce them to the beauty of chanted propers. In every case, I’ve seen nothing but huge success. This generation really is open to rediscovering the authentic thing, the musical prayer of the Roman Rite. It only takes one experience in singing it, and you just know in your heart that it is right.
Life Teen is actually a great venue to push this reform. But it cannot take place so long as adults (and priests) pretend as if our goal should be to be instructed by immature and mostly uninformed efforts to update liturgical music according to currently popular fashions.
To realize that teens do not constitute a culture for the liturgy to emulate is not a good reason to “pack up and go home,” as Fr. Schreiner suggests. It is a good reason to come home to the deeper, richer, and more truthful culture of the liturgy itself.
Editor’s note: The painting above entitled “Musical Angel” was painted by Rosso Fiorentino Giovanni Battista di Jacopo in 1521.