Are Catholics uncaring of organ repertoire as suggested here? Katharine Harmon speculates:

I was asked by a student today, “I just don’t understand why we need to have organ repertoire.  When would you ever use it?”  I stared at the student, confounded, dumbfounded.  And then I had an intense moment of Catholic soul-searching.

(T)his student did not care, and could not fathom why anyone might care about liturgical organ repertoire.  But I say, how could anyone say that liturgical music didn’t matter?

Such questions conjure up for many of us Thomas Day’s classic text, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Crossroad, 1992).  But, in the case of organ repertoire, I feel our title should be: Why Catholics Don’t Care.  This absolute lack of “care” or understanding as to why music might elevate and complement a liturgical experience is deeply troubling to me.

The matter is complicated by a dizzying array of local practices and reasons behind them.

  • Most American parishes do not have a music director with a personal history of performing instrumental repertoire.
  • Most of today’s music leaders came into service during a time when the emphasis was on expanding the sung repertoire of people in the pews.
  • In one parish I served, I inherited a “tradition” of the music ministry singing a prelude. That might be rare, but it is not unheard of.
  • Some communities insist on silence before Mass–no distractions.
  • Many contemporary groups are unaware of the possibilities for playing an instrumental piece before Mass.

There is a repertoire out there. And interestingly, a lot of instrumentalists in contemporary ensembles are at least as prepared to improvise as church organists are. What’s the deal? Maybe it’s just one more thing for a group of musicians to worry about. Or maybe a single organist has an easier time getting ready three minutes before Mass.

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Not For Lilies Only

I heard a few parishioner comments in favor of multiple angiosperm species being used for interior decoration this Easter season. Not just lilies. Art & Environment isn’t under my purview at my parish, but I like this notion all the same.

I remember asking an AE team that I did supervise why they insisted on using lilies, and nothing but. It seemed like a lot of work for plants that were leaves and shriveled flowers on the floor by Good Shepherd Sunday. Plus, pinching off those pollen stems. When asked for my idea I said anything that maintained the look and feel of Easter Sunday all the way to Pentecost. They looked at me like I was from Mars.

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CDCN: The Challenges of Renewal

The statement Cantate Domino Canticum Novum, in their third point considering “The Current Situation,” looks to the problem of “a ‘renewal’ that does not reflect Church teaching but rather serves their own agenda, worldview, and interests.”

I would say that these church musicians come into conflict at times with agendas other than their own. Not all of them are personal. Some may be in agreement with the Church’s views on liturgy. Some may be misinterpretations, either by opponents or by the musicians themselves. And let’s be clear: musicians at liturgy function as part of a team. Not all clergy see eye to eye on matters. And all sides make mistakes and errors from time to time. After all, we are only human. Which is why I find statements such as this an unfortunate misdiagnosis:

These groups have members in key leadership positions from which they put into practice their plans, their idea of culture, and the way we have to deal with contemporary issues. In some countries powerful lobbies have contributed to the de facto replacement of liturgical repertoires faithful to the directives of Vatican II with low-quality repertoires.

The truth is that most parishes never had a “faithful” repertoire to begin with. And also that new music, much despised, can be criticized more for its performance, and not so much the content. If this statement conceded the positive fruits of post-conciliar liturgical music, of renewal accomplished within the bounds of the Council, I would be inclined to take its valid criticisms more seriously. The truth is that post-conciliar contemporary music, even that of the praise and worship variety, is much more attuned to and based on Scripture than pre-conciliar Low Mass hymnody. The failure to recognize that church musicians do not and should not always get “their way,” suggests to me there’s a bit too much narcissism underlying the intent of this document.

More on Gregorian chant:

Today this “supreme model” (of Gregorian chant) is often discarded, if not despised.

There are three significant reasons why this might appear to be so. One, chant was done poorly before the Council, to the point where any decent music decently done was seen as an improvement. Two, chant wasn’t sung by parishioners in most parishes, and the post-conciliar emphasis was to follow the directives of the Roman Missal, that the people would sing at certain moments in the Mass appropriate to them. Three, there was a certain ambivalence among some church musicians in the late 60s and early 70s, in that they were slow to adapt to the reformed liturgy. So-called folk music was not. Neither were organ/choir rooted musicians and composers such as Proulx, Peloquin, Kreutz, Hughes, Carroll, Batastini, and others. These people didn’t ignore chant, but they also emphasized hymnody. And if one criticizes their like for not emphasizing chant enough, you can’t call the output of these leading post-conciliar composers as “low-quality.”

The entire Magisterium of the Church has reminded us of the importance of adhering to this important model, not as way of limiting creativity but as a foundation on which inspiration can flourish. If we desire that people look for Jesus, we need to prepare the house with the best that the Church can offer. We will not invite people to our house, the Church, to give them a by-product of music and art, when they can find a much better pop music style outside the Church. Liturgy is a limen, a threshold that allows us to step from our daily existence to the worship of the angels: Et ídeo cum Angelis et Archángelis, cum Thronis et Dominatiónibus, cumque omni milítia cæléstis exércitus, hymnum glóriæ tuæ cánimus, sine fine dicéntes…

I can’t disagree with the notion we should prepare music that is the very best. But I would differ with my colleagues in suggesting that inculturation, contemporary genres, and at times, a setting aside of what of tradition does not work, is often needed.

Comments from you readers?

The full document may be found here.

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Earth From Apollo 17

The iconic image from the last astronauts to return from the moon.

Reminds me of this song from Missa Gaia.

And the great medieval saint, Hildegard of Bingen:

Glance at the sun.
See the moon and the stars.
Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings.
Now, think.
What delight God gives to us with all these things.

Earth, may be. But we are part of a larger system.

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CDCN: Secularism, Commercialism, Anthropocentrism

More from the statement Cantate Domino Canticum Novum. In their second of six analyses ofThe Current Situation,” the concerned musicians level criticism at aspects of the liturgy they believe has adopted too much of the qualities of contemporary culture.

The flaw in the argument is that the Church has always adopted secular elements into liturgy. Basilicas were originally Roman public buildings. When Constantine legalized Christianity, believers didn’t just maintain house churches. They moved into the big structures of their town, embracing secular architecture for their own purposes–public worship on a large scale.

But let’s read:

2. This loss of liturgical and theological understanding goes hand-in-hand with an embrace of secularism. The secularism of popular musical styles has contributed to a desacralization of the liturgy, while the secularism of profit-based commercialism has reinforced the imposition of mediocre collections of music upon parishes.

We might expect the accumulated repertoire of a millennium to have a leg up on a vernacular repertoire cobbled from catechetical songs, Low Mass refugees, and Protestant hymnody. But this music, plainsong, polyphony, and other western classics, were not the usual fare in most parishes. The market force in the Catholic church was with those who addressed the problem most parishes had: How to get people in the pews, not just the choir, to sing the new liturgy.

If the presumption was that liturgical and Biblical texts addressed the matter of praying to God, then the emphasis on the people’s song wasn’t a concern. Except in CDCN in an appeal to “human-centered” worship:

It has encouraged an anthropocentrism in the liturgy that undermines its very nature.

According to the Church, one of the two main purposes of the liturgy is the sanctification of people. Christians at worship do not “minister” to God. But worship leaders do minister to people through their leadership. The earthly manifestation of liturgy is “anthropocentered” by its nature and definition.

In vast sectors of the Church nowadays there is an incorrect relationship with culture, which can be seen as a “web of connections.” With the actual situation of our liturgical music (and of the liturgy itself, because the two are intertwined), we have broken this web of connection with our past and tried to connect with a future that has no meaning without its past. Today, the Church is not actively using her cultural riches to evangelize, but is mostly used by a prevalent secular culture, born in opposition to Christianity, which destabilizes the sense of adoration that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Is the Church being used by secular culture? I’d say there are efforts where church leaders adopt and adapt aspects of communication, art, technology to further the Gospel mission. As with anything, the internet, psychology, keyboard instruments, and the printing press can be abused for sinful or ill-conceived ends.

Let’s pick up on that notion of adoration:

Pope Francis, in his homily for the feast of Corpus Christi on June 4, 2015, has spoken of “the Church’s amazement at this reality [of the Most Holy Eucharist]. . . An astonishment which always feeds contemplation, adoration, and memory.” In many of our Churches around the world, where is this sense of contemplation, this adoration, this astonishment for the mystery of the Eucharist? It is lost because we are living a sort of spiritual Alzheimer’s, a disease that is taking our spiritual, theological, artistic, musical and cultural memories away from us. It has been said that we need to bring the culture of every people into the liturgy. This may be right if correctly understood, but not in the sense that the liturgy (and the music) becomes the place where we have to exalt a secular culture. It is the place where the culture, every culture, is brought to another level and purified.

My sense is that this charge is a matter of a narrow perspective. It is also entwined with a cultural reluctance to engage the emotional life of human beings. As offspring of the Enlightenment, we want reason to win the day. It is why many Catholics embrace such tools as the catechism, canon law, apologetics, and other aspects of the human intellect.

Pope Francis is appealing to “astonishment,” which, I would submit, is a matter of more than reason. We do not adore God because we are told to do so. We do so because we have connected on a new, or better, on multiple levels at once.

My suggestion is that the culture we encounter can be used for the purposes of the mission of Christ. Adding new music that assists in this is not an enslavement to secular culture. But if done with excellence, is indeed where human aspects can be brought to that new level.

The full document may be found here.

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On My Bookshelf: SF That Often Doesn’t Get Finished

I’ve had a particularly difficult time reading science fiction these days. A few days ago someone in real life asked me for a recommendation, and I struggled to think of one.

I remember a passage in a recent novel of a fairly prolific sf author. He mentioned a crescent moon rising. This can happen if one is up just before dawn. Alas, this sight was enjoyed by people having dinner after a long working day. It was on the planet Earth, where the full moon can be seen rising in the early evening. The evening crescent moon sets in the west a bit after sundown.

I read a first novel earlier this year. A crew was on a long-duration mission in the solar system, and on their way home. There were flashbacks to their exploration of Jupiter and its moons, where they spent two weeks. There were circumstances driving the book’s plot suggesting this wasn’t unusual. Problem is: Jupiter is a fairly big system. And it’s also a long way from Earth. These astronauts would have needed a minimum of a month to explore the way they described. And if you’re going to spend a year or two round-tripping to Jupiter and back, you might as well spend several months when you get there. Not a biggie in terms of the story, but that just made the whole thing more distracting and needless.

That other novel I finished this week, Sirius: I found no howlers to distract me. Good editor there.

I know that established authors sometimes get a pass from their editors. Editors unfamiliar with science fiction let a lot of silly errors pass. Is it just me or have novels gotten sloppier these days?

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CDCN: Singing The Mass

Continuing our look at Cantate Domino Canticum Novum, the concerned church musicians outline the first of six concerns. They write of “a loss of understanding of the ‘musical shape of the liturgy,’ that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God.” But I’m not sure this is a loss so much as a partially missed opportunity.

The bullet points are mine, but the musicians prescribe:

We are not merely to sing at Mass, but to sing the Mass. Hence, as Musicam Sacram itself reminded us,

  • the priest’s parts should be chanted to the tones given in the Missal, with the people making the responses;
  • the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass in Gregorian chant or music inspired by it should be encouraged;
  • and the Propers of the Mass, too, should be given the pride of place that befits their historical prominence, their liturgical function, and their theological depth.

“Singing the Mass” is indeed the goal, and it has been stated as such since the early post-conciliar period. For most US parishes, the pre-conciliar norm was to insert up to four hymns into the Latin Low Mass. That heritage carried over into the late 60s. The challenges of that system were multiple. My observations:

  • What the priest does at Mass was considered by far the most essential. The congregation is irrelevant to the validity and efficacy of Mass. Since the rubrics for the Low Mass of 1962 and 1970 Missals do not require or demand singing of the priest, the first CDCN point above was mostly ignored.
  • It was a less-than-common occurence for a priest trained in the pre-conciliar liturgy to emphasize his own singing, certainly at Low Mass. Singing of the people was seen as the priority
  • The first expansion of the Four-Hymn sandwich I experienced were the gradual introduction of the Mass Ordinary in the 70s, and the Responsorial Psalm in the early 80s. I don’t think conteporary composers lagged far behind organists in this implementation. In many parishes, they spearheaded it.

Laudable point here:

Similar points apply to the singing of the Divine Office.

And an unfortunate point of fixed helpfulness:

It is an exhibition of the vice of “liturgical sloth” to refuse to sing the liturgy, to use “utility music” rather than sacred music, to refuse to educate oneself or others about the Church’s tradition and wishes, and to put little or no effort and resources into the building up of a sacred music program.

Among clergy, there is often a reserve about singing the dialogues. Some priests and eacons simply don’t have the natural talent, nor the time to devote to singing. For nearly every priest I’ve known, I’d prefer a good homily over a good chanting voice. I know: these two aren’t mutually exclusive. But poll pew Catholics: if they could choose one upgrade for their parish priest, better preaching or better singing, what would they prefer?

I think the division of music into “utility” and “sacred” begs the question that has yet to be developed so far in this document: what do these terms mean? Does utility mean non-sacred? Does it mean non-musical? Does it mean non-liturgical?

I often cringe when I see “program” attached to something of faith, religion, and especially liturgy. I know what the authors mean. But the aspirations for sacred music in the liturgy are much higher than what one can read and develop as a didactic exercise of implementing musical excellence. I think of a program as a means of acquiring a set of handbells, for example. But a group of people must be formed as a choir of excellence to perform music and present and assist at the liturgy.

Bottom line: sacred music is a ministry. More than a program. Much more. I know: many of my musical colleagues are skeptical of the term. Only priests do ministry, in their view. Keep to that mindset, and precious little progress will be made.


The full document may be found here.

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