Every weekend or so, some name composer of mainstream Catholic music is out and about giving a workshop in a parish somewhere. I’ve been to enough of these to pretty much know what they are going to say in advance.
They stand in front of parish musicians and repeatedly tell them that the most important job is to engage the congregation to the point that people feel like singing, and that means catchy tunes and simple words.
And how to decide between the hundreds of such songs in the mainstream pew resources? The answer, we are told, is to look at the theme of the week, which is given by the readings. Flip through the book and find a song that seems to match in some way. Check out the theme index. Then consider and anticipate the congregation’s reactions to the pieces of your choosing and give it your best shot.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Sadly, nearly everything about this is wrong. In this model, the musicians are being charged with making the liturgy happen on a week-to-week basis. The Church struggles to provide liturgical books with deep roots in history, but the musicians show up and put five minutes of thought into making decisions about styles and texts that have a gigantic effect on the overall liturgical ethos. It is too much responsibility to put on their shoulders, and no one is competent to pull it off.
What is restraining and constraining the musician’s range of play in this model? Only their own subjective view of what’s right and what works. In practice, this is no restraint at all. In the same way that unstructured worship gatherings from evangelicals are open-ended and reflect nothing more than the desires of the worship leaders, the musicians dominating Catholic Mass today pretty much do what they want to do.
The liturgy itself is being held hostage to a few people’s on-the-spot views of what the message should be and what should take place. A major aspect of the Mass, one that can make or break the entire point of the ritual, is being put in the hands of people who have little or no substantive guidance or basis for their decision-making. Moreover, their hymnals and magazines and liturgy publications encourage that very attitude.
To be sure, it is flattering for the musicians to hear that they have this power. When the workshop leader comes and tell them this, their egos get a boost. Most aren’t paid and most aren’t really trained either, so this kind of responsibility can be welcome in lieu of material reward. It is to accept a job that is almost priestly, but without the trouble of six years of training and ordination. But the truth is that no actor in the liturgical world should have this level of power and discretion, and it is wrong to expect this of anyone.
What’s more, from what I can observe from parishes I visit, it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal. What happens is that people feel as if the musicians are overreaching and asking something of the congregation that the people don’t feel the need to give. Mandatory enthusiasm for someone else’s project doesn’t go over well in any aspect of life, especially not in music. Many just sit there vaguely and habitually protesting in their minds. So the musicians end up with a feeling of failure and confusion. Or they blame others and end up getting mad about the people and their refusal to go with the program.
What, then, is the constraint? Where are the boundaries? Where are the guidelines? The second Vatican Council plainly stated: Gregorian chant is to have first place at Mass (Sacrosactum Concilium). This statement has profound significance if you understand something of the structure of the liturgy and the purpose and applicability of Gregorian chant within it.
The trouble is that hardly anyone does understand this. Most everyone today think that Gregorian chant is a style or a genre, one marked by a monkish solemnity. They figure that, given that, it is enough to sing Pange Lingua on Holy Thursday, or sprinkle in a bit of Latin during Lent. Surely that is enough.
But this characterization completely misses the point. Gregorian chant’s distinct contribution is that it is the most complete and robust body of music for the ritual of the Roman Rite that elevates and ennobles the word of God in the liturgy itself. The point is not to sing chant but to sing the liturgy itself, meaning the text that is assigned to be sung at the place in the Mass where this particular text is intended to be sung. The notes are important but secondary to the word, which is the word of God.
In other words, it is not our job to discern themes of the day and take over the job from the Church of pushing texts that we find appropriate. The texts for singing at Mass are already given to us. There is an entrance text, a Psalm text, an offertory text, and a communion text. These are in the liturgical books. The counsel to pick and choose whatever you want amounts to a counsel to ignore the liturgy of the Church and substitute something of your own making.
So we can see that the Council’s embrace of chant was not about some old men who wanted to hear old-style music rather than new music. People who ignore chant and diminish its place in liturgy like to think this is true, but personal or generational preference has nothing to do with it. Nor is tradition the whole story. The embrace of chant is really the embrace of the liturgical text that is to be sung, and a drawing attention to the most complete and ideal musical model for presenting that text.
Of course musicians do not know that they are throwing out whole parts of the liturgy that have been integral to the musical experience of the Mass dating as far back as documentary history. Nor do the workshop leaders intend to do violence to the liturgy in this way. Most just don’t know about Mass propers and the role of the choir. Or if they do know, they find the project of singing propers to be unviable because…well…the project really hasn’t been picked up much over these last fifty years.
To be sure, this last point has been a serious problem. Musicians have not really had any means of singing Mass propers. They are not in the hymnbooks. Bishops haven’t really insisted on them. Confusion about these points has been everywhere. The official chant books of the Church, to the extent anyone knows about them at all, seem forbidding. And as self justification for not following any guidelines, people could always point to the can-of-worms-opening clause in the General Instruction that permits “another suitable song” to replace propers when necessary.
But thanks mostly to the efforts of the Church Music Association of America, we now have the beginnings of a growing repertoire of music that is both accessible to parishes and seeks to do what the Church intends with regard to the liturgy, which is to say that these new resources set the liturgical word to music. There are new books of sung propers appearing every few months, books such as the Simple English Propers (2011) and the Parish Book of Psalms (2012).
The idea is to provide a bridge to the ideal, to re-root the singing at Mass in a coherent framework, to restrain the wandering power of the subjective imagination of musicians, and to unleash a new kind of beauty that comes with following both the letter and spirit of the liturgy itself.
For most Church musicians, this is a completely new way of thinking. It is an amazing thing to discover. It also comes with a new mandate, not to rule but to serve, not to invent but to re-discover what is, not to impose but to submit in humility to what is bigger and greater than ourselves. To discover Mass propers as the musical mandate is also a liberating experience because it frees us from implausible and unworkable tasks and gives us a means of truly contributing to the life of the liturgy.
Author’s Note: If you want to know more about the proper role of music in the liturgy, there is no better source than William Mahrt’s The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (CMAA, 2012). Here is the full presentation of the bracing but uplifting reality.