The Gathering Song

With interest, I’ve been following discussion on PrayTell that has branched off into the merits and problems of “Gather Us In” and “All Are Welcome” and “Sing a New Church” and other titles which are “gathering” hymns and songs. These would stand in contrast to other music less obvious about sticking us all together at the start of Mass. (Not to mention the Propers.) I’d like to sum up my own sense of this music, and poke a little into what I see happening with their more ardent defenders and bitter critics.

First, let me state that in an ideal faith community the time for gathering songs should be pretty much never. “Gathering” is indeed a function of liturgy, but according to the GIRM (47), it should already exist in the faith community celebrating Mass. Preferably as a given. At least by the time people are singing the processional music.

The attempt to “catechize” people into gathering by having them sing about it is a lame enterprise. Cooperators don’t need it; they’ve already done it. Obstructors will grow more stubborn having to sing about a “new church” in which they will be urged to join a community of one instead of being a single part of an accidental assembly. Besides, I’d rather encourage people to “open the celebration” and “foster (their) unity” and “introduce … the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity.” Gathering happens when a community is alive and loving and has many good reasons for being together on a Sunday. It starts long before the parking lot fills up for the first liturgy. It echoes long after the instruments have been shut down or packed up at the last Eucharist. So yes, while it’s all about God, it’s also about the incarnation because that’s the way human beings encounter God. Not to mention the way God reaches out to us.

That said, I will concede that entrance music is the most difficult piece I program. I’ve looked to the proper texts for years, but I don’t always find them satisfactory. These psalms aren’t always set to music. Sometimes they don’t really suit the readings, especially in ordinary time. I confess about six to eight times a year I will use a “gathering song” but almost always it’s the last thing to get slotted when I simply can’t find anything else.

And let me also concede that it’s not always a bad thing to sing about a reality that usually has happened anyway. “Gather Us In,” for a mature faith community, is less a challenge to do as the song says, and more a quasi-credal expression of what the assembly already does, already believes. So while I use them less and less these days, I’m not prepared to bad-mouth the gathering songs–only their overuse.

Now for the poke …

The reaction against these pieces of music is illustrative. For “bad music,” a whole lot of time is spent bad-mouthing Marty Haugen, Delores Dufner, James Hansen, and all. Enough so that I’d say there’s something more going on than a simple critique of the music. Or the composers.

Individualism still has a strong streak in American religion. Catholicism has no exemption. Some people resist singing about “us.” And sometimes it’s not because they’d rather sing about God. They just don’t like “us.” They may more or less like themselves. But they don’t always want to associate with a community or a parish. They want, in the words of Frank Sinatra, to do it “my way.” They will stand as an island of one in a sea of hundreds. To borrow from pop psychology, “I’m ok; you’re not ok.”

Many of my ministry colleagues want to make some headway on that. I usually counsel them not to get overheated about it. I know some people in my parish (and I hear from them) want the Mass to be more congruent to their expectations of individualism. I listen. I nod at the appropriate times. But if they want my advice, I start talking about sacrifice, metanoia, and other stuff. Christianity is a pilgrimage, and sometimes it’s time to move on.

I’d also tell my colleagues they’re wasting their time. They are not going to be successful, as my wife would put it, “doing Vatican II in a Vatican I way.” Some people simply won’t gather. And that’s ok, if you’ll pardon my transactionalism there. Ministers are porters, not an escort service. We open the door. We give opportunities. We can’t force people to encounter God or their sisters and brothers in faith if they don’t want to.

Summing up, a faith community needs to gather and it needs to happen before Mass. It’s the pastor’s job to see that occurs. Not the musicians. The Scriptures and especially the psalms are the best texts with which to open Mass, but I don’t get bent out of shape when the best I can muster on a given weekend is a gathering song. Any strong reaction to something of the liturgy is always worth looking at–maybe that is the time for a good self-examination.

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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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One Response to The Gathering Song

  1. Speaking personally, my issue with the gathering songs is that the focus usually seems to be “us,” rather than the other. Just as a guess, but I think many of the people who don’t like a lot of the gathering songs don’t have a problem with the text of, say, the Gloria or the Te Deum (or “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” based of course on the latter). There’s a lot of “we” in there, expressing a the sense of an already existing faith community. Even so, the focus (or the object) is God.

    I do agree that individualism can be a major problem. A good place to look for this in worship is in praise band music. While the texts of these songs are usually focused on God, the subject tends far too often to be an “I”. That makes it difficult (at least for me) to feel part of a gathered community when singing them.

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