Saturday, October 24, 2009

Music for the Masses

My wife is the organist for our little parish. She took over for my late Aunt Agnes who played more than sixty years until her retirement in the early 1990’s. The position is voluntary. The parish is too small to afford hiring a professional, although we do pay an organist from a neighboring parish to play one Mass on Sunday. The responsibility for selecting hymns each week falls on my wife’s shoulders, a task she has graciously delegated to me. Our parish entry in the diocesan register lists my wife and me, along with the hired organist as the parish music directors, a job for which I do not remember applying or volunteering. Nevertheless, I do my best to pick out hymns suited to the Sunday liturgies.

My liturgical music taste tends to be on the conservative side. Having grown up prior to Vatican II, I like traditional Catholic hymns, including some Latin occasionally. It came to my attention recently that some members of our parish Liturgy and Worship Committee thought our liturgical music needed to be a little more “uplifting”. At the same time, we were getting input from another person who wanted to teach chant at our parish. While I consider chant to be uplifting, I had the feeling that more chant was not what our Liturgy and Worship Committee had in mind.

Our pastor was doing his best to keep all factions happy, including my wife and me. I felt we were being pulled in two different directions, although confused over what exactly we were being asked to do. I thought it best to explain to the Liturgy and Worship Committee what we do each week in selecting the music for Mass. What follows is adapted from a letter I wrote for presentation to the committee. Part of it is taken from an earlier blog entry about Latin in the liturgy. I should add that this letter has not yet been presented to the Committee.

Music selection is not a job we particularly enjoy. Although it may seem like we sing the same stuff every week, the preparation is quite time consuming! Our parish currently uses the Breaking Bread Hymnal published by Oregon Catholic Press. As part of their service, they provide liturgy preparation for all Sundays, weekdays, Holydays, and special liturgies. This includes suggested hymns for each part of the Mass. Each week, we log onto their website and look at the suggested hymns. We also look at the Scripture readings for that Sunday. Using their suggestions and taking into consideration what we are capable of doing, we try to choose hymns appropriate for the day.

We have over 150 selections in the current repertoire. Many are seasonal, and some are better suited to certain parts of the Mass. For example, the Communion hymns generally have a Eucharistic lyric. The hymn at the Preparation of the Gifts needs to be short so we can finish before Father says the Offertory prayers. When all criteria are met, the choices are actually quite limited. We try to add a new hymn from time to time, but prefer doing this after we have had the opportunity to practice it with the choir.

Liturgical music selection is a controversial topic these days. Much has been written about various Church documents on music in the liturgy. It is my observation that liturgists are very opinionated and often in disagreement. In the past six months or so, we have been approached by a parishioner who wants to teach us Gregorian Chant, as well as others who want more contemporary music. At this time, we are pretty much limited to what is available in our hymnal. We have tried to choose music that is reverent, primarily God-centered, and compatible with the Gospel message for that Sunday.

Just because a hymn is published in a Catholic hymnal does not mean it is appropriate to sing during Mass. Some hymns contain lyrics that can be interpreted to convey a Protestant theology. Amazing Grace is a common example of a hymn that appears in many Catholic hymnals, but contains lyrics that may suggest a Calvinist belief. This doesn’t mean it can’t be sung at Mass, but some Catholics who are well catechized in the finer points of Church teaching on salvation find the lyrics problematic. Not long ago, we came across a Communion hymn worded in such a way to sound consubstantial (Lutheran), rather than transubstantial (Catholic). Though some criticisms may be subject to interpretation, we try to avoid such hymns out of respect to those sensitive to these issues.

We were asked why our music can’t be more uplifting. Uplifting means different things to different people, so I am not sure how to answer. Certainly there is a time and a place for various types of Catholic music. The Mass is the actual Sacrifice of Calvary made present, once and for all, outside the limits of space and time. At Mass, we witness a miracle that places us at the foot of the Cross. We are kneeling in the Real Live Presence of Jesus as He gives Himself up for us. In selecting appropriate music, we should consider where we are and what we are witnessing. While we can sing joyfully in gratitude for our salvation, music within the Sacrifice of the Mass should be reverent and contemplative. In this sense, uplifting does not mean upbeat and lively to me. Nonetheless, Father has asked us to look for some contemporary music that might be appropriate for use at Mass. Suggestions would be welcomed.

Some parishioners are questioning the increased use of Latin in the liturgy, and I would like to address this at some length. Are we caving in to traditional Catholics who want to return the Church to pre-Vatican II liturgies? The answer is no. Vatican II reaffirmed that Gregorian Chant is especially suited to the Roman Liturgy, but also said other kinds of sacred music must not be excluded. The operative word here is “sacred”. In the years following Vatican II, the Latin chants fell into disuse, and sacred hymns were replaced with praise songs deemed more popular for congregational singing. Some refer to this period as the “protestantization” of the Catholic liturgy.

I recently came across an Internet blog on liturgical music written by Father Mark (I don’t know his surname) from the Diocese of Tulsa. He said, “The way we sing at Mass effectively shapes one's understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of the Church, of the priesthood, and of the hierarchical ordering of the liturgical assembly. A protestantized approach to music at Mass will inevitably engender a protestantized ecclesiology.” This makes sense to me, and I believe it contributes to some of the loss of reverence for the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Mass attendance has certainly decreased in the past few decades. Hardly anyone comes to Eucharistic adoration on Sunday mornings, and our pastor often mentions how few confessions he hears. These are all opportunities to receive graces in ways unavailable to our Protestant brothers and sisters. Yet, many Catholics no longer take advantage of them.

I think Father Mark is referring to a type of music quite prevalent in our diocese. While we have consciously attempted to avoid this pitfall, I suppose some of the songs we sing fall into this category. The problem is that many people like these songs even though they would hardly be considered sacred music. Under Pope Benedict, the Church is experiencing a renewed interest in tapping into our rich musical history. Are we gradually going back to all Latin? No. Father asked us to do Mass settings in Latin during Lent and we gladly obliged. From time to time, we will sing a traditional Latin hymn during Communion, and use Latin Mass settings seasonally or on special occasions.

There are good reasons for singing and praying in Latin. Two of the four marks of the Church are catholic, meaning universal, and one, indicating unity. If we are truly united, we must share the same mind and spirit, as Paul tells us. Maintaining our unity in the mind of the Church that exists all over the world is not an easy task. Prior to Vatican II when all Masses were universally celebrated in Latin, Catholics all over the world were hearing and saying the same things. Translating the mind of the Church into all the languages of the world presents challenges. Any time a translation is made, the meaning is filtered through the mind of the translator.

Several years ago, we were sitting in a restaurant on a Lenten Friday trying to find meatless dishes to order. My son asked why it was permissible to eat fish, but not other types of meat. I didn’t have a good answer at the time, but I found one courtesy of Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin on his web page. ( He explained that all Church law is written in Latin. On Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, we are required to abstain from eating carnis, which we translate as meat in English. In Latin, carnis literally means a land-dwelling, warm-blooded animal. Fish are neither land-dwelling nor warm-blooded, so they are not considered carnis. All carnis is meat, but not all meat is carnis. Therefore, under Church law, it is acceptable to eat fish on days of abstinence even if one considers fish to be meat. By strict definition, one could also eat turtle or frog legs if so inclined. When we translate the Latin into English, the message is slightly distorted.

Our English language undergoes subtle changes over time, sometimes called semantic drift. This happens in many different ways through every day usage. Words take on new meanings or connotations. Catholic apologists occasionally have to explain that they are so called because they explain and defend certain positions or doctrines of the Church. This type of apology has nothing to do with expressing regret as we commonly use the word today. That same apologist may also find it necessary to explain that when we pray to saints, we are simply asking for their intercession. The word pray originally meant to ask, and that is the way Catholics use it. Prayer in that sense is not a form of worship as many non-Catholics believe.

Changes in the language may seem insignificant, but variations in the way we communicate happen more rapidly than one might think. Our parents used expressions that would seem dated or even nonsensical today. Our children sometimes communicate in slang we do not understand. Find a hundred year-old newspaper and see how much writing styles have changed in a century. Now imagine the challenge facing a two thousand year-old Church in accurately passing down revelation to everyone living today.

That is one of the beauties of Latin. Being a dead language, it is not subject to semantic drift the way other languages are. After Vatican II, the Mass had to be translated into every language of the world. Vernacular translations employ dynamic equivalence, meaning the literal language is translated to convey the intended message. The translator must interpret the mind of the Church and choose words that best represent that idea. When sacred hymns are translated, the English is often changed even more to make the lyrics rhyme.

For most of this decade, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has been working on a new English translation of the liturgy that more accurately expresses the original Latin. Wording of the Gloria, Sanctus and some of the responses will be revised, making our current Mass settings obsolete. The Commission had a very difficult time coming up with wording the majority of Bishops could agree on. Missals will have to be reprinted and music re-written to reflect the changes. The Church hierarchy deems all this trouble necessary because our current translation does not always express the original Latin as accurately as it should.

When we pray and sing in Latin, none of these distractions come into play. Latin expresses Catholicism in its pristine historical form, a form universal (i.e. catholic) to the Church in its fullness and entirety. It is our faith expressed free of a Commission’s debated interpretation. At that moment, we are entrusting the unaltered mind of the Church to express our love for God in words that we may not even understand. It’s not something we would necessarily want to do exclusively because its also good to know what we are saying, but there exists a certain beauty in honoring our Church heritage by praying and singing in her native language.

With all the different ideas out there, pleasing everyone won’t happen. Please understand that no matter what music we choose, somebody ain’t gonna like it. Anytime we try to introduce something new, something old or something different, people will think we are pushing a certain agenda, which really isn’t the case. We are not trying to be conservative or liberal, just orthodox. If you hear a lively praise band in other parishes, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing things right and we are stuck in the middle ages. I hope some people will appreciate our efforts to maintain our ties to Rome and our history, but we don’t pretend to have all the answers, so please bear with us. I just read a comment by someone on an Internet forum who said, “The difference between a choir leader and a Somali pirate is you can negotiate with a Somali pirate.” We want to be receptive to suggestions and will try to accommodate as best we can. Perhaps the Liturgy and Worship Committee could go through our hymnal and pick out some songs they would like to try. If we can work them into the liturgy, we will. If we can’t, we will try to explain why. Feel free to come to choir practice anytime and join in.