Sacred liturgical music is NOT an add-on in worship. It is – and must therefore be treated as – an integrating part (pars integrans) of liturgical worship, since it is prayer, liturgical music must be both sacred and also art.
The texts must be sacred texts and appropriate for the moment they are chosen. Moreover, the idiom of the music must be a sacred idiom, or at least not opposed to the sacred.
And, as should be obvious but clearly isn’t in 90% places you will visit, the music must be good, that is, well-composed, of high artistic value, and it must be performed well.
Music for liturgical worship must be sacred and it must be art.
If the music does not fulfill those criteria, it does not belong in the Mass.
The music itself becomes prayer within the liturgical setting. People pray also by listening to true sacred liturgical music. It is prayer.
Some people object that “artistic” music distracts from “prayer” (or what they think is prayer). Wrong. You cannot be distracted from prayer by prayer. The key is learning how to engage is authentic active participation, which is primarily willed, active, interior receptivity.
We cannot go wrong when we stick to the texts actually assigned by the Church for each Mass or office. We cannot go wrong when we use Gregorian chant and polyphony and the pipe organ, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council established as having the first place among all genres of music for sacred worship.
The problem of bad music in our churches is huge. It is central to much of the crisis of identity we are facing. The dumbing-down of everything Catholic over the last few decades as been devastating. Music is such a powerful influence on us. The massacre of music has been catastrophic.
In the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald, there is a piece by Damian Thompson on bad church music (BCM).
“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” says a character in a Noël Coward play. And it’s true. Even in church. A morbid Victorian hymn or a Christmas carol can reduce even the most cynical atheist to tears.
But even more potent, I’d argue, is church music that isn’t so much cheap as embarrassingly bad.
I can’t speak for other denominations, but I’m convinced that the distinctive awfulness of the music in many Catholic parishes helps explain why Mass attendance has fallen off a cliff since the 1970s.
Bad Catholic Music (BCM for short) is uniquely inauthentic. It doesn’t sound like any other sort of music. Whether “inspired” by folk, jazz or chant, BCM has the knack of always sounding more or less the same.
There’s no precedent in the history of church music for such a clumsy cobbling together of musical ideas and styles.
He goes on to name names of some of the decomposers we have all suffered from (Joncas, Haugan, Inwood) and includes on the brilliant lines from Thomas Day’s nearly classic book Why Catholics Can’t Sing:
The “moaning and self-caressing quality of the music”, writes Day, “indicates that the real topic of the words is not the comforting Lord but ‘me’ and the comforts of my personal faith”.
Damian is not optimistic.
That was in 2007, when Benedict XVI was in his prime. Anti-BCM choirmasters were reintroducing chant and polyphony to Catholic parishes – but quietly, because there was always the risk of being shopped to the diocesan authorities.
Eight years on, how much progress have they made? In the south-east of England and certain university towns, quite a lot. Young, middle-class practising Catholics take a counter-cultural delight in traditional worship. They’ll travel a long way to avoid what Thomas Day calls the “studied whimsy” of BCM, whose elevator-music harmonies sound quaint to anyone born after 1990. Some of them will join choirs to sing Byrd and Victoria; there are a surprising number on Facebook.
But, in the end, I’m sceptical of conservative musicians’ claims that Catholic music will recover as soon as congregations discover the simple joys of of plainchant, whether in Latin or English.
We face a lot of problems in improving the qualities of music used in church (to make it truly sacred and artistic).
First, it costs money to hire good musicians. We have to be willing to stick the crowbar in and pry loose some cash.
Next, priests tend not to know much about music. I know a few priests who are exceptions, of course, but a) they are few and b) they are not young. Priests don’t get any real training in music in seminary. I’d say 90% of priests ordained in the last 10 years couldn’t name 5 serious composers of real Catholic sacred music. They’ve never heard it. They know – sort of – what Gregorian chant is, because it remains a point of contention and it was being revived in places during the pontificate (parenthesis) of Benedict XVI. But, for the most part, priests don’t know music.
Furthermore, the young guys don’t know Latin. It’s not their fault, of course. But – and this is a big hurdle – having been denied Latin (which law required be taught to them and the people who didn’t are, in my opinion criminally negligent) they don’t even know what they don’t know. The loss of Latin means that the doors to the vast treasury of truly sacred and artistic Church music were slammed on them. They don’t even know the treasury is there much less how to unlock it.
Also, priests know that to change the music means having fights. The good ones already have fights to eliminate the gross abuses left from their aging-hippy predecessors and the entrenched aging-hippy liturgy team and now geriatric hippy pop-combo that likes to be watched up in front. It is hard to want to start something that they know will provoke another stream of bitchy letters from women with short gray hair to the bishop about how he is trying to “turn the clock back”, and how they want their “traditional” songs like “Gather Us In”. Of course there is nothing traditional or liturgical about “songs” at Mass and the ditties they think are traditional are laughably bad.
What is needed not just a priest who understands music, or understands that he doesn’t understand music but knows he has to find the right people, and not just willingness to spend money (and raise it, if needed), and not just willingness to fight the fights that will surely follow. No. What is also needed is a bishop who doesn’t suffer from the same ignorance and reticence to fight (or cowardice). Bishops have to take this matter in hand. Instead, bishops are distracted into a hundred other drainpipes and rabbit holes which we are now convinced are “really important”. I, however, contend that no fancy initiative we undertake in the Church will succeed unless and until we revitalize our sacred liturgical worship. That means that that is where the time, talent and treasure have to go! Revitalization of our sacred worship!
We have to be willing to have the fight. We must be willing to have the civil war and the moaning, carping letters with their threats and tears and half-baked notions of the “spirit of the Council”. No… now it’s of Francis!
We have to be willing to convert people to Catholicism and, therefore, risk having them walk away from us because our message is toooo haaaard.
Our architecture for our churches reflects who and what we believe the Church to be. Our vessels and vestments and other Church appointments both reveals and reinforces what we believe happens at Holy Mass.
So does our liturgical music.
A constant stream of shallow, crappy music that was bad even when it was new, will by now have eroded the faithful into something bloodless, weak and shapeless. Compound that will a church – rather, worship space – that looks like a municipal airport cum movie theatre, cheap vessels, lack of decorum, egalitarian notions of “ministry”, pointless abstract windows, constant yakking and distractions and… over, say, 40 years you will wind up with… what?
The Catholic Faith? The Catholic Faith that can help people get to heaven while withstanding the assault of the world, the flesh and the Devil?
A couple generations are gone now. Are we going to ruin yet another?
You know what I think we have to do.
Is it too late to correct this?
Thus endeth the rant.