Singing That New Song


Some of us insiders have known about it for months. Rock mentions more work ahead for bishops and liturgy geeks, including a revision of the USCCB documents Music in Catholic Worship (1972) and Liturgical Music Today (1982).

My conservative/traditionalist colleagues routinely dismiss these documents for various reasons: their assessment we don’t take Vatican documents on liturgical music seriously, the bishops didn’t write MCW or LMT or vote on them, they are not “legal” documents in a canonical or ecclesiastical sense, they conflict with other church or conservatory wisdom, etc..

The authority issues people raise don’t hold much weight with me. Liturgists, clergy, and bishops of the early 70’s knew they were in a difficult spot: virtual mission territory, in fact. Pastors and church musicians were not well-placed to implement unified reform in a majority of parishes, even assuming they could agree on a coherent plan. Clergy still dictated what happened along the lines of personal ideology. And full-time music directors were almost as rare as plainsong.

The backdrop of LMT was a little brighter, but still not ideal. In my home diocese of Rochester, singing the responsorial psalm wasn’t vigorously pursued as a priority till the 80’s. When I left town in 1988, only two parishes had full-time liturgy/music directors. The blogosphere thinks of Rochester as flaming liberal because the bishop there isn’t a curia lackey. I think liturgically backward because reform was slow in coming.

Simply put, the conventional wisdom was that only a minority of parishes were prepared to inclined to implement a juridical document. Why issue an authoritative document when there was no vehicle to command compliance? And then of course there were Catholics in those early post-conciliar days who just wanted to be done with authoritarianism.

Despite a clandestine network of Vatican tattletales, more legislation from Rome, and the advent of the internet, I’m still not convinced we have anything approaching a uniformity the backtrackers would seem to wish for.

All that said, I’ve seen sections of some of the proposed revisions. There’s still a lot of work ahead, but at the end of the story, these are my predictions on what we’ll see:

- A music document that will be vote-approved by the USCCB and implemented more or less seriously by your local bishop and/or your diocesan liturgy office.
– The document will heavily reference Vatican instruction on liturgy and music, especially the period of 1963-date, but it will also contain significant aspects somewhat particular to various American needs.
– The document will emphasize a pastoral tone and continue to give parishes great leeway on how music ministry is approached. Progressive Catholics are deeply imbedded in the consulting process, not because the Bugnini Cabal is alive and well in the USA, but mainly because many conservative Catholic musicians have taken themselves out of the picture over the past three to four decades.
– As Built of Living Stones did with architecture and art, the new document will not be totally satisfactory to Catholic conservatives. It will not condemn enough. It will maintain many of the guiding principles that progressive liturgists have supported: singing the Mass, not singing at Mass, active participation in the pews, musical quality regardless of genre, and the like.
– It will not be a panacea. Authentic implementation will remain in the hands of your parish leaders: the pastors who care, the paid and volunteer musicians, and the people in the pews themselves. Apathy will continue unbounded in parishes large and small. We’re only human.

Once I get material I’m not honor-bound to keep private, I’ll present it here for your edification and commentary. Meanwhile, keep singing that new song.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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