It was suggested in the thread on Judgments that the term “pastoral” has outlived its usefulness, at least for a generation. My flip reply was to retire “orthodoxy” as part of a trade-off. I don’t think either proposal will be or should be taken seriously.

As an adjective connected with ministers or ministry, the term alludes to a desired quality of the spiritual leader or the leading. Originally, it was part of Jesus’ self-identification. It came to be associated with the office of bishop, then of pastor.

It’s often applied to lay people who presumably possess a sensitivity to the needs of the people in their care. For musicians to adopt the term it has a few important implications:

First, we identify with the mission and ministry of the Church and of its leadership. We acknowledge that people we serve have needs beyond that of just the musical notes and the production of sound.

I remember when one of my choir members came into my office, closed the door, and started to weep about how her marriage was falling apart. Internally, I protested that I was trained for liturgy and music. Why wasn’t she going to the pastor? The reason: she trusted me. My leadership with parish music indicated I would treat her and her concern in the same way I treated her as a choir member. That it was about more than the music. It was about prayer. It was about a focus on Christ. It was about the needs of others. It’s a singular honor and a grave responsibility to have another human being pour their life out to you. I never take that trust for granted. And while I might wonder about how and why I’ve been selected for such outpourings, when they come, I accept the responsibility as a listener, a friend, and a minister.

The sense of the word implies that one’s associates are sheep. Jesus used the term, and to a degree, large groups of people act like sheep: sometimes passive, sometimes unruly, sometimes unsure of a single direction, but ready to embrace them all. The implication is that sometimes a leader must effect a kick in the pants, a steering with a staff, a change of direction for the benefit of all. I’m cautious about considering that as an everyday method. But a pastoral person must sometimes do the unpopular thing.

Generally, pastoral musicians in the true sense of the word realize it’s not about themselves. Given the realities of musical training and the emphasis on performance, I think musicians have a particular responsibility to cultivate an awareness, a sense of sacrifice, a sense of the world beyond the notes and even the liturgy. And like the guiding hand of a shepherd, convince and lead people to do music they wouldn’t have considered or chosen on their own. hopefully avoiding a sense of “it’s for your own good” and other similar sensibilities of superiority.

I confess a degree of pride in calling myself and being called a pastoral musician, a pastoral liturgist, or a pastoral minister. I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to have that adjective pinned on them.

That said, it is true that the adjective is misused or misconstrued to mean something different. In a way, my response would be to say, “Too bad.” I know a few people who claim the title of “musician,” but clearly lack the skills. I know a few people who enjoy the title of “priest,” but clearly do not facilitate the relationship of God with people. Retire a term because human beings fail, or they misunderstand? I think it to be extreme.

People confuse the verbs lay and lie all the time. Nobody suggests we retire one or both words.

I too have encountered people who wanted to avoid confrontation or ugliness. Maybe they avoided the right decision in doing so and called it “pastoral.” Whatever. Poor call certainly, and more often, such a person damages herself or himself more than they damage a word used for the justification of cowardice.

It’s clear that nearly every critic of MCW hasn’t bothered to read the document, in some time, if not ever. That seems a little more cause for concern than the occasional misuse of an otherwise helpful, descriptive, and traditional adjective.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Pastoral

  1. Liam says:

    I see the similarity to the argument that “man” still retains its non-gender-exclusive meaning even if some people mistakenly think it doesn’t.

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    Your post reminds me of comments I heard years ago from a celebrated choral conductor who was also music director at a prestigious Episcopal church. He said “I refuse to call myself a ‘minister.’ That’s only a way of saying I’m not a serious musician.” Interestingly, in churches with polished music programs (sadly, more often Protestant than Catholic)the designation ‘pastoral musician’ is in fact rarely used. A negative connotation abides because too few parish music directors are qualified in an academic-performance understanding of the term.

    At issue is the degree faith plays in liturgical music. We all know of first order musicians like Brahms,Saint-Saens, and Faure who created transcendent religious music yet were agnostics. And the deep faith of lesser composers does not disguise their lack of technical mastery. Faith, however, does presume treating others, particularly those who do not share our point of view, with charity and forbearance. That too often is the missing component in our discussions about liturgical music.

  3. Tony says:

    Whenever someone uses the term “pastoral” with me, I cringe. The reason is, that over the years, the word pastoral (at least to me) has come to mean “giving the people what they want” instead of “giving the people what they need.

    It seems to have been the catchphrase to justify all sorts of liturgical abuse from self-intinction to clown masses (I had to say that, Todd ;)).

    Pastors who behave this way seem to do so out of a number of motivations:

    1. They have an agenda to follow the “spirit ” of Vatican II rather than the letter, and have a group of like minded parishioners. Or alternately, they have an agenda to promote the extraordinary use while eliminating the ordinary.

    2. They really have no clue as to what their congregation needs, because they have been placed/promoted without the appropriate training.

    3. They are just tired, and it’s easier to give in to the cry babies than take a stand.

    And this applies to both cry baby progressives and cry baby traditionalists.

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