Wandering In A Musical Wilderness

On the Chant Cafe I noticed an earnest and heartfelt essay from the viewpoint of the organ bench and choir loft. I really feel for people who seem to be in anguish about church music. I think one problem, a really significant one, is the misdiagnosis of post-conciliar liturgical reform:

A few weeks ago in some comments here I was working out my thoughts on why so many younger people seem to express at least some preference for liturgy that is received rather than invented.

I don’t think the perception of reform2 is any less “invention” than received. Probably more accurate would be to say that in varying degrees, people in both pre-concilar and post-conciliar Catholicism had areas of both reception and invention.

I would say that the realm of assembly participation at Mass is very definitely a post-conciliar reception. And choir-only music for the key moments of the Mass is very much an invention of many people I read who align with the CMAA. There are both liturgical and pastoral reasons why I think this emphasis is wrong. And I’ve stated them here and there many times.

This assessment I agree with:

But by now … culture and Christianity are less entwined than ever before in modern history. Maybe for some that’s great. For others it may be a terrible loss. But it occurs to me that for a Christian it shouldn’t matter much. After all, Christianity was at its founding countercultural, and perhaps we can acknowledge that some aspects of it work better that way.

But in this next part, I lose Mr Skirpan’s connection. I recognize that he’s making a bridge to a certain unease about Church as community. On one hand, he recognizes the cultural and social underpinnings of Catholic parishes, especially ethnic parishes are gone. But as long as the Mass remains the Mass, and people attending have the freedom to choose to attend, participate, watch, come late, leave early, or whatever, the emphasis–the invitation to go deeper–remains as it always have been. Let’s read it:

As a result, it seems a lot of my generation don’t want to think of church as a meeting or a convention or going to hear a speaker (even though all of those are part of it) – we want church to feel like church. As a Catholic, I want to call it the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass – maybe not exclusively, but at least more often. It never stopped being that, even if other aspects gained emphasis.

I think I’d prefer to see it in another way. I’d like to think that if Mr Skirpan and I shared a parish that his life after Mass would reflect a reformed ecclesiology and mine reflected a Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, even if politically, he and I didn’t share the same lingo. In other words, can we be satisfied that the Mass is assisting good Catholics to become better Catholics? Can we be satisfied that other believers are growing and developing in grace, even if we don’t understand or even agree with how it happens?

I think earnest opinions can be scuttled by exaggeration:

And a lot of us don’t want church music to always feel like a Disney soundtrack or what we hear on the radio or the muzak in the mall (even though there are sacred texts set to all of those) – we want church to sound like church.

Quite frankly, church musicians aren’t good enough to pull this off. I think many critics don’t listen to the radio or to Disney musicals. First off, most church music composers have a better craft than almost all popular music and many movie composers. And second, I don’t think reform2 people listen very much at all to the church music they criticize.

An accurate assessment, not only of the last generation, but of the one before that:

Many of my parents’ generation are completely confused. They think we’re trying to undo what they worked so hard to accomplish.

Some reform2 activists are trying to do just that. I think many have very poor personal experiences with church music. I am sure their experience of parish music may well include material in the realm of total flop, inappropriate, clueless, unskilled, unrehearsed, tired, and old.

Church music is a human effort. And as such, it will always be colored by the talents and skills of the people involved. It will also stumble as people’s flaws come to the fore. It will be supported or not by leadership in a parish. It will be affected by local politics of a particular faith community. And it will struggle against the American inclination against the arts.

There is no easy answer. Especially if one starts from the soap box of misdiagnosis.

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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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