“When ‘Guitar Masses’ became a chew toy between traditionalists and progressives

There is a smart and well-written article at The American Spectator on liturgical music by Patrick O’Hannigan, whom I have mentioned before.

The piece is longish, so here are a few bits to whet your appetite.

Can Liturgical Music Be Saved?

By PATRICK O’HANNIGAN on 6.17.13 @ 6:07AM

Reassessing the quarrel between the power ballad and the hymn.

Remember the power ballad? It was a subgenre of rock music pioneered by Boston in 1976 and Styx a year later. From near-symphonic beginnings in “More Than a Feeling” and “Come Sail Away,” the power ballad elbowed its way to prominence in the early Eighties.
Tom Scholz of Boston and Dennis DeYoung of Styx welded songwriting craftsmanship to imaginative orchestration and “wall of sound” microphone placements, mixing electric and acoustic guitars in tunes that did more than build to crescendos. Artists like Bonnie Tyler and REO Speedwagon then parlayed their own examples of the form into successful recording careers.
Power ballad pioneers play now in places like state fairs. But when the power ballad fell out of fashion, it found a home among the “praise bands” of “Christian Rock.Where power ballads go, praise bands follow. [!] That unabashedly Christian lyrics can be heard on FM radio is a good thing, but that power ballads also enabled praise bands to displace so many church choirs ought to give us pause. [Along with headaches and indigestion.] Power ballads are not hymns. That is precisely the problem with singing them during church services, even — perhaps especially— services aimed at younger people. [GRRR]
Praise bands replaced many traditional choirs in part because church musicians were not always conscious of their own assumptions. They listened to car radios while driving to rehearsals. Like everyone else, they smiled at the playful grunge of “Spirit in the Sky” and the crypto-Christian bonhomie of “Get Together.” Hook-laden songs on the FM dial were more fun to play than old-timey hymns that required little or no instrumental accompaniment, and so garage bands at every conceivable talent level reasoned that only cranks would be critical of Sunday services enlivened by rock, jazz, and reggae rhythms.

[… See where he is going? … I skip here…]

Praise bands took longer to find acceptance in Catholic parishes, but find it they did, when “Guitar Masses” became a chew toy in the perennial argument between traditionalists and progressives. [Great image.] The praise band influence might have been more decisive in the pews had it not been for a pair of distinctively Catholic attributes: First, the doctrine of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist emphasizes reverence in Catholic worship to a greater degree than is usually cultivated by Protestant assemblies. Second (and also by design), the Catholic Church is incapable of rapid change. Despite those constraints, praise band and power ballad influence made itself felt.
People who never used works like “immanence” and “transcendence” nevertheless realized that Jesus-among-us thinking had outpaced Jesus-beyond-us thinking, [I think I’ll steal that line.] and composers smitten with concepts like “inculturation” and the “spirit of Vatican II” did what they could to shoehorn new music into the liturgy of the church, with decidedly mixed results. What Anthony Esolen once called “the necessary hypocrisy of small talk” was raised to the status of a liturgical act. Meanwhile, among Christians of all confessions, advances in technology spawned by arena rock also created cheap amplifiers that could fill a room with sound.
Architecture was part of the same populist impulse.

[… must skip more…]

Motivation for excellence has seldom been phrased so pithily. [Guess who that would be?] Following that example and the pope’s ringing July 2007 reaffirmation of the continuing validity of the Mass in Latin, [Ooops. He put his foot slightly wrong here.  It isn’t just an affirmation of Mass in Latin, it is affirmation of a form of Mass that is in Latin.] Catholic writers are more willing to question the songs on Sunday morning playlists. Jeffrey Tucker wrote about the dangers of catering to musical fads. Marc Barnes regaled readers of his column with “Five Reasons to Kill Christian Music,” by which he meant not the work of Palestrina, but the power ballad dragooned into worship duty. The first reason that Barnes offered was all but unassailable in its logic: writing “Christian” songs has the regrettable effect of reducing Christianity to a modifying adjective. [!] Barnes was also caustic enough to say that “If your music is bad, and you’re praying that God will do something great with it, stop praying and make better music.” On an academic note, the University of Saint Anselmo created a master’s-level course in liturgical music, complete with kind words for Gregorian chant, earlier this year.


He even name-dropped the right people… with one notable omission, of course.

Fr Z Kudos.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Love this line:

    “If your music is bad, and you’re praying that God will do something great with it, stop praying and make better music.”

    Many Catholics and Catholic parishes are much too apathetic to acknowledge a failure even when it glares at them back in the mirror. Hair disheveled, cracked lips, and bags under the eyes appear to this type of Catholic as a glorious springtime of beauty that is just waiting to blossom – and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. This is evident when parishes and Catholics continue on with the status quo with progressive liturgies in the face of, for example, rapid decline in Church attendance, or in the face of a greater majority of Catholics voting for the radically anti-life and anti-Catholic politician when a strikingly better alternative candidate is available.

    If events such as declining Church attendance, boarding up church buildings or auctioning them off, dioceses filing for bankruptcy, and evidence of a majority of Catholic voters betraying the Faith doesn’t send a bellweather warning to parishes and American dioceses, then what will? What would it take for dioceses or parishes to work a little harder at better restoring the Holy Religion to its former prosperous self? All the latest trends that the Church has jumped onto the bandwagon with have turned out to be resounding failures, yet we still continue joining the zeitgeist expecting a better result. This is evidence of insanity.

  2. StJude says:

    My estranged husbands dad is a ‘non denominational” preacher.. nothing made me cringe more than seeing the rock band at Sunday service.

  3. Gaetano says:

    I believe King of the Hill has made the authoritative declaration on Christian Rock:



    I apologize that I don’t know how to make the links appear.

  4. iPadre says:

    I went through that phase many years ago. Even played guitar at Mass in a few parishes and in the seminary. Guys labeled me a liberal because I strummed my guitar and others a conservative when they saw me in cassock. If they only know how much I hated the contemporary music. I loved the traditional hymns even then. The contemporary crap fades pretty fast. It’s all based on emotion and secular style. But, I understand where they are and hope / pray they are imbibed with the beauty of our tradition in the Roman Rite!

  5. Mike says:

    I tried to get our “minister” of music to give us some chant now and then. No way. He emailed me, saying four OUR parish, chant would interfere with full, active, and conscious participation, per…yes, you guessed it…the Spirit of Vatican II.

    Every Sunday, at 6:00 pm, we have a “Youth Mass”. Now and then, I end up there by circumstances beyond my control. Wow. It’s a maple syrup factory there, the singing is so sentimental. I wonder how Our Lord deals with it, and try to remember He can do anything…even reach hearts over lousy music.

  6. Mike says:

    Mike, fellow name-sharer, thank you for giving me a laugh: “a maple syrup factory”. Perfectly fitting description.

    I see “abusive” liturgies as indicative of two things: 1) How so very merciful Christ our Lord is, since He allows the Mass to be valid and gives us His Eucharistic presence even when we abuse the Mass in sometimes-indescribable ways; 2) How so very wicked man can be, who abuses the Mass despite how kind Our Lord is for giving it to us. In the meantime, all people like us can do is say, “Forgive them, O Lord, for they know not what they do” and pray that the Church takes greater action against liturgical abuse.

  7. VexillaRegis says:

    Oops! Two Mikes! (Mics?) I thought it was impossible to take an already taken name on here, but that’s obviously not the case. :-) Hmm.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    The Pope Emeritus had something to say about this a few years ago.


  9. Mike says:

    I guess I will be the “Mike” w/o an image.

    Quite right, Mike. (I like the sound of that!)

    I have to work against my choleric tendencies whenever I see a liturgy like this. The pastor at the parish that has a weekly TLM near me wrote on the parish website something like: “When I see a disedifying priest, I want to be a better priest than I am.”

    A good sentiment that works for laity too in regards to 70s-style liturgy: let my heart be a fitting dwelling place for You, O Lord!

  10. Ella says:

    I became “saved” when I was 21. I also was into heavy metal, rock, etc. but I did enjoy classical on occasion (thanks Grandma!). I was disgusted way back then with the music I heard when I got back to the U.S. in the megachurches. My sister was perplexed when she visited us in California; she said “Why don’t people out here listen to church music in church?” Fast forward twenty years and I was a Baptist Sunday school teacher for the young teens. We had a conversation about music because the older folks thought the teens were unhappy because that Baptist church was more conservative and didn’t play the happy-clappy crap some of the big Baptist churches did. The teens all said they didn’t go to church expecting to listen to the same music they listen to all the time at home, school, etc. One of my former pastors referred to the praise and worship songs as 7-11 music (same 7 words sung 11 times). I was in the back of one megachurch and they sang a P&W song and everyone was shaking their hips and pumping their arms; they then played a beautiful hymn and the same folks stood quietly and sang looking up to heaven. It was striking. My current parish had a “split” because the new Pastor got rid of the “folk” Mass and other such nonsense, thank God! We have been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.

  11. wolfeken says:

    The issue I see with a lot of novus ordo parishes is a belief that novelty and variety must exist in order to please everyone.

    This problem is only going to be solved when pastors and priests stop the cafeteria program of music at the typical parish. 9:30 a.m. Andrew Lloyd Webber cantor; 11 a.m. choral liturgy; 12:30 Gospel revival; 2 p.m. conga drum fiesta; 5 p.m. Peter, Paul and Mary novus ordo.

    The 11 a.m. program needs to be the standard heard throughout the day (or just organ for all but one liturgy if manpower is a challenge), which comes with the leadership of a pastor who actually believes traditional choral music ought to be the norm.

  12. Eraser says:

    The best name I ever heard was “Hallmark hymns”. Sappy, shallow, forgettable, just like a greeting card. Fortunately we have a music director with a real sacred music degree and refined classical tastes, although once in a great while he switches to the piano for a Hallmark hymn. It’s nothing like the next parish over – once I missed the last Mass at my church & went there for the later one, and by the time I got out of there I had a headache from sitting behind the 4 jangling guitars & wailing voices. However, generally in this area (Pittsburgh/southwestern PA) the “folk” trend is dying out.

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  14. Theodore says:

    My daughter who is an evangelical Christian and whose church has a rocking band chided me a bit for sending the American Spectator article to my parish musical director. She thought that while the article had a lot of good ideas that it was a bit harsh given my parish’s music (which she has experienced when she has visited me).

    I received an email from him today to the effect that he liked the article and he is trying to effect change. You never know what result you will get if you never try.

  15. Mike Morrow says:

    O’Hannigan writes: “Second (and also by design), the Catholic Church is incapable of rapid change.”

    That statement makes it appear that this man speaks from limited experience, in time at least. No thinking sentient being who observed the Church from 1965 to 1966 would fail to recognize the statement’s fundamental inaccuracy.

  16. Del says:

    My confession: I can tolerate guitar strumming, but I find piano to be so irritating that it actually interferes with my ability to fully and actively participate in the Mass.

    I have to avoid parishes that rely on a piano.

  17. moconnor says:

    Please! Your first line shouldn’t be so debatable. The power ballad existed before Boston. Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” are the real first successful power ballads. Gotta get it right if you want to be taken seriously!

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