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Where Have We Been?

by Gary Penkala

Two rather disparate sources had me thinking the other day about the state of Catholic church music in the United States — fortunately, an increasingly more pleasant thought. I was listening to my car radio, to the Sirius/XM Catholic Channel show, The Catholics Next Door. In a segment on Catholic church music, one of the co-hosts, Greg Willits, made a profound and perceptive appraisal of how we got into the state we're in. Later in the day, while browsing a great coffee-table book, A Cook's Guide to Italian Ingredients, I came upon a line by author Kate Whiteman that has surprising relevance to our present church music scene.

The "Folk Mass" Mess

Pete Seeger Greg Willits started out the radio segment by admitting that church music was a distinctly contentious topic, and, along with politics and religion, perhaps not to be discussed in polite company. He mentioned that there was one Mass time at the Willits' Atlanta parish, and particularly the choir that sang at that Mass, that has become "distracting" to him. Mind you, this is from a father of five, including a very active 2-year-old — now that's distracting. For a few minutes, he tried to be vague about the music at this Mass, hoping not to alienate friends at the parish, but the ensuing conversation between him and his wife, Jennifer, disclosed the details.

This was the "Folk Mass," or as he put it, the "Tambourine Mass," because that's all he hears. Greg's perceptive comment that struck me was this: In the musical turmoil that followed the introduction of the vernacular liturgy in the late 60s and 70s, the musicians, liturgists, priests and bishops of the United States bought whole-heartedly into the culture of the times. They eschewed anything that smacked of tradition and continuity and opened the Mass to the music that was flooding the radios, TVs and concert halls of the time. And that music was folk music.

Think Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie. Their style, and quite often, their very music, replaced not only the Propers of the Mass, not only the Latin Gregorian chants, but also the venerable hymns of the Protestant tradition, which had been borrowed to fill the "void" in a new vernacular liturgy. At Mass, we were singing "Kumbaya" along with Joan Baez, and "This Little Light of Mine" along with Odetta, and even "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" along with Pete Seeger. The times they were a-changin', and the "stuffy" music that used to waft from the choir loft became the "groovy" music that was broadcast from sound systems. There's where we were in the 60s and 70s — the Church had fully embraced the musical culture, in the false assumption that people would now "flock" to the sheep-fold. Oops!

And we haven't learned very much since then. Priests and bishops ordained in those "revolutionary" times are still so severely stuck in ruts of relevancy that they are absolutely blinded to current common sense, to revised rubrics, to gentle instruction from Rome. "Dang it — we've always sung these songs, and people like 'em. They make the assembly feel good!" Funny, isn't it, how the "progressives" are now rallying around the status quo.

But Greg Willits made another eye-opening comment. What if the Church today should make the same mistake? Would a Rap Mass be cool? How about Hip-Hop Hosanna music? And then we could sing the Kyrie Electronica or the Grunge Gloria. If these ideas seem ridiculous to us now (and, pray God, I hope they do), why didn't "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore" have that effect in 1970? And why, for forty years, have we not learned that there is a sacred style; that there is music (think chant, polyphony, even hymns) that aims minds — even secular, Hollywood minds — directly toward God? Why is this music not filling our churches? Why are we still looking for entertainment and emotions over inspiration and worship?

The Carbonara Connection

Spaghetti alla Carbonara In her culinary book on Italian ingredients, Kate Whiteman discusses the importance of regional Italian cooking. Italy, as a unified country, has existed only since 1861. Before then, the various regions, city-states and territories had not only political autonomy, but trade and cultural singularities as well. Indigenous ingredients from one area were championed in its cuisine and rarely crossed the border. This brought about a fiercely parochial sense of dining, and the currently "avant-garde" notion of regional shopping and local sourcing actually had its origins in the Italian peninsula.

The quote that struck me was this. That by local sourcing,

Italians regard quality and freshness as more important than diversity and innovation.

Doesn't this reverberate in the vast spaces of our American churches today? In some minds, music must be relevant to absolutely every group in the parish, if not the country! So we sing a hand-clapping, hootenany "Gathering Song," an Alleluia with an Irish lilt, a driving, syncopated Sanctus, a Caribbean-flavored Lord's Prayer, an Agnus Dei set as a moody ballad, and of course the ubiquitous raise-the-rafters, rock-begotten "Sending-Forth" Song.

What are we doing? We've turned the Mass into a Variety Show — wouldn't Ed Sullivan be pleased! We're touting diversity to the point of disunity. Witness the less-than-fulfilling music at the papal Mass in Washington DC a few years back, all chosen from a diverse, American perspective.

Then there's "innovation," the buzz-word of the contemporary intellectual crowd. "Let's hook people with how creative we can be with Mass!" We've been changing the words of the Ordinary of the Mass, lest we "offend" any liberated groups. Man becomes "humanity" or "us" and God is never "he" or "him." And so we've spawned parishes who say:

He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became human.

... for the praise and glory of God's name, for our good, and the good of all God's church.

It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Perhaps this abusive practice will end with the new English translation — but don't hold your breath. There are still plenty of 1970s pastors around.

Rather than fixating on diversity and innovation in our music and liturgy, we could do well to emmulate the Italians and promote freshness and quality in our worship of Almighty God. Pope Benedict has spoken and written unceasingly for decades about the importance of quality music. These ideas have been part of his official pronouncements, but also part of his "off-the-cuff" remarks at the close of each Classical music concert that is presented for him at the Vatican. This style of music lifts man's heart to God and has value in the New Evangelization.

All right — maybe that argument holds true for quality, but how can Gregorian chant be considered "fresh"? Even though it's centuries old, chant has a characteristic that takes it out of antiquity. Chant, in its pure, unmetered, unaccompanied form, transcends the ages — it's veritably timeless, not only in the sense of being "unmeasured," but also in its bow to universality. It cannot be claimed by any culture, because its origin is in the Hebrew cantillation that even preceded the Christian faith. It is no more or less "relevant" to the elementary school student learning an Alleluia, to the college-age schola learning an Introit, to the parent struggling with a Sanctus, than it is to the senior fondly recalling the Pange lingua. If we're looking for quality music that's "fresh," we can find it in chant. And I submit that Latin and Gregorian chant are the perfect media for uniting parishes with diverse populations.

As we progress in our understanding of how we should approach Catholic music, we can learn from radio show hosts and coffee-table cookbooks. Stop looking at society's influences (relevancy, feelings, diversity, innovation) and look to the Church herself. What she's given us is more than sufficient to direct us on an orthodox path toward proper music. May the horizontal efforts to "Gather Us In" give way to the vertical praise of Deus admirabilis (an "Awesome God").

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