Sunday, February 22, 2009

What does it mean to sing like a Catholic?

Several readers have already taken offense at the title of my new book Sing Like a Catholic. This doesn’t surprise me, since even the core assumption is widely disputed that there is anything in music that is distinctively appropriate for Catholic liturgy.

For several generations, what was originally permission to sing “other suitable songs” apart from the ritual itself has mutated into a kind of musical nihilism that denies that anything should be called universally appropriate or inappropriate. It is widely believed that so long as people more or less like it, it can and should be sung or played.

What this has led to is not universal satisfaction with music at Mass—as one might except in the abstract—but rather the opposite. One never knows for sure what one will get at Mass. Catholics are good sports, so they do their best to make a game out of it. Will it be the aging hippy Mass, the breathy teen pop Mass, the pseudo-broadway Mass, the lone cantor plus guitar Mass, the ethnic parade? The instability of it all becomes a kind of point of bonding between us.

The fun lasts a while but inside Catholics have become terribly despairing about the subject. The nearly universal reactions you can expect from talking to any practicing Catholic about music at the parish are rolled eyes, shrugged shoulders, and waves of the hand if to say “it’s a disaster but what can I do?”

The musicians seem to take themselves very seriously as performers, but what precisely are they attempting to achieve besides badgering people to like the same music they like and getting people to affirm their musical selections by joining in?

The thesis of my book is that what is missing here is a lack direction and a lack of any fixed ideals.

I recently received an email that said the following:

“I’m a musician who has been asked by the pastor to lead the music in my parish. I’m a Catholic but I find that I’m thoroughly confused about what to do, and the more I look, the less I seem to know. What hymns should I program and how do I know what is right? Which of these Mass settings is suitable? Other people in the parish tell me they want to play instruments. Should we do this? What is allowed and what isn’t? What parts should be sung and what parts spoken? I’ve asked the pastor, but he is unclear too, and he seems to be looking to me for guidance. I look forward to any information you can provide.”

There is no sense in being amazed at the confusion here, since the only thing distinctive about the note is that the person is sincere and seeking answers.

I’m looking now at the latest issues of the most widely circulated music publications designed for Catholic parishes, and there are essentially no answers to be found in here. If you followed the advice herein, you would be establishing drum corps, unleashing electric guitars, investing in overhead projectors, spending many thousands on the latest goop from the mainline publishers, and flitting around from thing to thing until the end of time.

Speaking bluntly, this is the blind leading the blind—except that there does seem to be a consistent theme to all this floundering around. Those who are giving the advice are also selling music, and they are strongly recommended their music. This isn’t so much a conspiracy but a working out of capitalist marketing techniques, and there is nothing necessarily unethical about it within certain parameters. The problem is that the parameters have been lost, and the marketing has become completely unhinged from the overarching purpose of the liturgy itself. These companies could serve the Church very well by drawing attention to the music that is part of the structure of the ritual itself, and by encouraging creativity within that framework.

Let’s say you took at class on Catholic theology, expecting a detailed explanation of the Catechism and Creed, the faith and morals that define the parameters of the Catholic religion. You sign up and instead you find that the professor never mentions the Creeds or Catechism or morals known from all ages. Instead, he encourages the students to make up their own religion based on their own subjective preferences, interests, likes and dislikes, and lifestyle. Once one is completed, another begins, since one of the rules is that nothing must ever be fixed. The most important determinate of right and wrong is whether people like the results.

Would you really be learning anything? Or would you feel ripped off?

This is the problem with Catholic music today: a loss of fixed ideals. And, yes, people feel ripped off, and rightly so. What’s remarkable to me is that this is wholly unnecessary. The music of the Roman Rite has been part of the structure of the Mass for as long as 1,500 years, and the roots trace to Apostolic times. It still would be part of our practice were it not for the fact that we have lived through one of those periodic ruptures that afflict the Church. The disorientation is palpable and the confusion is ubiquitous.

However, there is no reason for it to last. The beginnings of clarity come from looking at the actual music attached to the Mass, which you can do by looking at the Gregorian Missal. You can see the Mass settings and hymns and receive guidance for how to sing them from resources like the Parish Book of Chant. This is the starting point, the foundation, the first round of parameters.

From there elaboration is encouraged. This is essentially the message of the Second Vatican Council that said that Gregorian chant has primacy of place. This has been the consistent message of Popes through all ages, reiterated again and again by Pope Benedict XVI most recently. We need only have ears to hear, and then we must believe.

In my own view, resistance to this idea is not as strong as people suspect. Most people feel a sense of relief, because chant means the end of feeling manipulated. The real problem is not so much intense opposition but rather a rather plain but pervasive lack of understanding.

I also received another message from an old-timer in the Catholic music world, who was aghast that I would write a book the essential point of which is that the core music of Mass is in the Graduale. He told me that he thought this was a waste of time and a waste of everyone’s time.

I would agree with this if this knowledge were widely known and understood, but, so far as I can tell, it is known only by a small fraction of Catholic musicians. Hence the hope of my book Sing Like a Catholic is to draw attention to old truths. It’s true that I have contributed nothing to the body of knowledge of the ages. I hope it makes some contribution to bringing that knowledge to a new generation.