Have you ever seen those obnoxious ads online that promise to provide the “one simple step” to cut your waistline in half, or cure your bad breath, or whatever other problem ails you? Well, I believe I can provide the “one simple step” to improve (by a lot) many modern Masses: replace the musical ditties we must endure with chant.
And, in 2022, with the possibility of the Traditional Latin Mass going from a rare to an extremely rare alternative, 99.5 percent of Catholics are going to be going to Novus Ordo services to fulfill their Sunday obligation and should take seriously how to help improve those Masses.
Let me start by admitting I am not an expert on liturgical music or music in general. I learned (and forgot) how to read music at a very basic level three times, played guitar in (terrible) alternative and punk bands in middle and high school, wrote some simple songs in young adulthood, and continue to love music of most genres. While none of that makes me any kind of trained expert, I do feel like I have a musical “ear” for what works.
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But people with ears of any kind can hardly disagree with my very basic assertion that the short, impossibly complex songs—let’s call them ditties—played during modern Catholic Masses are a major distraction to the solemn, prayerful state of mind we should aim to enter. Thankfully, the parish I go to now does not do much of this, but many other parishes I have visited or attended across the country consistently do.
If I need to be clearer in what I’m talking about, there are a number of places during the Mass where words are often forced into a melody where none is likely possible. It can sound like someone making up a song on the spot from their stream of consciousness. If one were asked one second after it was over to repeat the tune, I doubt even a few in attendance could. The specific places where they are most often employed are in the reading of the Psalm, in the Gloria, in the Our Father and in the responses around the consecration.
I’ve heard even the best musicians struggle to pull these ditties off because the very busy piano work paired with the chaotic singing has a degree of difficulty no amount of musical training can likely prepare them for. Even when they are performed as well as they can be, they still do not fit the moment. The Mass parts around the consecration can be especially rough, as some will try to jazz this part up with Gospel-style or Broadway-style flair rather than fading to the background as much as possible to allow quiet preparation for receiving the Body and Blood.
In the pews, feeling the disconnect, people either hang their heads and wait for it to be over or look around with pained looks on their faces. Regardless, the “participation” that these were intended to inspire drops off a cliff. Even if those in attendance wanted to join in with the song, maybe just to try to save the music director some embarrassment, they wouldn’t know where to begin.
But I’ve noticed something. Sometimes, in these same services, there will be some part of the service that is chanted, often the Our Father. When this happens, these cringing faces and hanging heads will uncringe and raise, and nearly everyone will confidently and reverently recite the responses.
This is no accident. The tradition of chant actually solves this exact problem of singing prose. If I handed an expert in chant a copy of Moby Dick and asked them to chant the entire thing, they would be able to do it. And if we had the patience to actually listen to the whole thing, it would probably sound pretty nice. The expert cantor wouldn’t need any special knowledge of what words were coming on the next page either. If even the greatest master of Catholic Mass ditties, however, were to try to turn the exact words of Moby Dick into song, it would undoubtedly be 635 pages of chaos.
Paragraph 30 of Sacrosanctum Concilium (which is the Church’s constitution on liturgy drafted during Vatican II) says that “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.”
Many modern liturgists and music directors were trained to have this “active participation” foremost in their minds. And the attempt at creating real songs out of the responses was a well-intentioned attempt to do this. But if participation is the goal, then at some point it needs to be acknowledged that the Mass ditties are not achieving this end.
There is no reason to despair, though, because the solution is largely laid out in the same document. Sacrosanctum Concilium actually suggests continuing the tradition of chant, which can take these sentences—generally written without regard to rhyme or meter—and make them possible to sing. Contrary to popular belief, this chant tradition was not done away with by Vatican II. On the contrary, the council reserved a “privileged” “pride of place” in the liturgy for it.
In paragraph 116, Sacrosanctum Concilium says, “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.”
It also says that in addition to Gregorian-chant books for large-church choirs, “It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.”
While it does say that “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,” the document frequently calls for “simple” music over complexity.
Simple hymns that the congregation can remember and participate in are vital, but it is even more vital that words in prayers, which were not constructed to be sung, be simple. And chant is perfect for these instances. One doesn’t even have to be able to read music or follow complex melodies to participate.
Gregorian chant tends to describe specifically Latin chant, but there is also English chant that is derived from it and adapted to the rhythms of the English language. And just switching to English chant as a happy medium would certainly be more in the “spirit of Vatican II,” as far as my reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium goes, than the ditties.
I greatly respect anyone who can get up week after week and perform music that helps make the Mass beautiful. So, we should avoid just being the “peanut gallery,” scoffing but offering no help. These music directors probably get hit by complaints constantly from every side. And I hate to add to that number, but I think simple chant would be a win-win. It’ll be easier for them to play, and it will make it easier for those attending the Mass to get into a reverent state. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say this is a way to “improve your modern Mass in one simple step.”
[Image Credit: Unsplash]