Sunday, June 15, 2008

Silly Songs with Father

Current liturgical conventions at Catholic Churches are as much a puzzle to me as anyone, and so I’m ever curious about what goes on and why. There is always insight to be gained by attending a random parish liturgy, as I did today in the Chicago metropolitan area.

The days of tearing up the pea patch are over, and there is no question that the priest, cantors, instrumentalists, choir, and servers were striving to do something of some of import, affecting a kind of solemn pose. There were hints of the goofiness of yesteryear here of course: glass vessels, bare altar, and the like. But for the most part, there was nothing here that smacked of deconstructionism at work.

In the end, however, the liturgy seemed unimportant, drab, and largely banal, despite the unending attempts by the homilist and musicians to somehow get the congregation involved and inspired. The problem here is not that anything outrageous or heretical happened. It was just deadly dull and seemingly unimportant.

A major problem was the music. In fact, it was the music that defined this event. One might describe the whole Mass as an hour-long ritual of 11 short, unintegrated commercial jingles interrupted by periods of talking about something.

The music was all composed and presented with the goal of having the people participate. To that end, they covered a small range, moved in predictable, formulaic ways and all were backed by a swing-and-sway rhythmic structure. They were all designed to be vaguely memorable like songs used to be used to accompany commercials on television. Beyond that, they had very little in common.

We began with a song called “A Fire is Meant for Burning,” with text by Ruth Duck and music from a Sacred Harp song. I was struck by the suggestion in the lyrics that our missionary work is “not to preach our creeds or customs but to build a bridge of care.” It’s hard to imagine St. Paul expressing such sentiments.

On the third verse we sang that the “mid earth’s peoples” are “many hued.” I conjured up an image of mutant people living underground somewhere, as in some sci-fi movie. As for the tune, Sacred Harp is nice but not liturgical, and there is no precedent in Catholic history for this type of music. So immediately with the entrance processional we find ourselves uprooted.

Next we moved on to the Gloria from “A New Mass for Congregations” by Carroll Andrews. It is tuneful in some way but predictable, trite, and dated. It’s really hard to take the Gloria too seriously when you sing it something so insubstantial.

Then came the Responsorial Psalm by David Haas, which was in three and had this gauzy lilt to it. The cantor was outstanding but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t infuse this evaporative piece with anything meaningful. I think the congregation must have sung the “antiphon” nine times. Then it ended abruptly and everyone felt a bit ridiculous. By then the text and meaning of the first reading was long gone from our memories.

The Alleluia followed the next reading, this time by Michael Joncas, and surely not his best work. It sounded childish—truly like a song for nursery school. It ended soon after it started.

Following the homily, there was the great Catholic intermission, a.k.a. the offertory song. The piece, called “The Summons,” had the same tune as the Belly Button song from the Veggies Tales series. I’m not sure which came first, but someone could sue for copyright infringement here. The fourth verse was the oddest: “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?” I’m not really sure how to answer that question, and I’m not entirely sure that I’ve been hiding the me that’s me, but whatever.

The Sanctus was from the People’s Mass by Jan Vermulst and mercifully short. It navigated from the tonic to the third to the fifth and back again and that was about it. Hard to believe that a hymn as glorious as Sanctus could be reduced to such a trifle.

From here on, the musical pieces became every shorter in length. There was a great explosion of organ for the “Danish Memorial Acclamation” but it lasted only 12 seconds. So too with the “Danish Amen,” which lasted 6 seconds, its length highly disproportionate to the pretend drama of that number. Then came a prosaic and predictable Angus Dei, which by Richard Proulx. Maybe it lasted 20 seconds.

Then came the big communion number called Bread of Life by James V. Mavchionda, which was another swing-and-sway piece in 9/8. The melody barely moved at all, with lots of tied notes and repetition. “Jesus, Jesus, bread of life, Jesus, Jesus, Saving Cup, Jesus, Jesus, live in us, we believe, we believe.” The biggest problem here was its repetitive, light rock quality and complete absence of anything audibly interesting.

We ended with the best tune of all by Ralph Vaughn Williams: Sine Nomine. But instead of the traditional lyrics (“For All the Saints”) we sang some words added in 1991 that just left my scratching my head.

And then the Catholic people scurried out the door and that was it. What were left with? Not much really. They received communion but nothing about the experience suggested that there was anything important to that. I doubt that any of the tunes stuck in their heads. Everything was disconnected from everything else. It was just one silly song after another.

I don’t blame the musicians, who were quite competent. It’s just that they don’t have much to work with. They are stuck in a rut that 80% of most parishes are stuck in. They have closets full of music for which they paid the big bucks though nothing would be lost if a fire came and burned every scrap of it.

What they need is an integrated style, with a text that comes from the liturgy itself. And the music they sing needs to have an integral relationship to Catholic history and worship. They need less discretion and they need more of a challenge. They need music that is solemn and suitable. They need to discover Gregorian chant.