Saturday, July 25, 2009

Media and the Reform Movement

Technology and its associated media have presented a serious challenge to the current generation of Catholics, with much unwelcome content invading homes and lives in many ways. Everyone is struggling to come to terms with the strange reality that everything and anything is now instantaneously available, mostly for free, and there is no longer any hope for putting a lid on it. What precisely comes our way is largely a matter of human choice, a reflection of both the macro-culture we do not chose ourselves and the micro-culture that reflects our own values.

It has been the same way in every period of technological advance in media. The lowest forms of culture gain new traction to influence society. At the same time, the highest forms of cultural expression have new opportunities as well.

Two decades before the turn of the twentieth century, the costs of printing and distribution fell to unprecedented lows, with mass marketed books available to all people for the first time in human history. It was another period of tehno-media revolution.

The liturgical movement took advantage of this opportunity to push for the universal distribution of hand missals with translations. Prayer manuals were everywhere. Catechetical guides achieved best-seller status in the Catholic world.

And music became available, with hymnals and choral motets going out to every parish. The monks of Solesmes were in the midst of restoring the Church's chant books to their pre-Trent authenticity, reversing 500 years of errors in prevailing editions.

The monks saw the opportunities that the new technology afforded them and they seized on them. They shopped for the lowest printing prices. They acquired the best and most advanced typesetting machines. They looked for paper and binding that was affordable and durable. They used every mode of communication to enhance their distribution reach.

By the time that the new editions were ready for prime time in the early twentieth century, the monks were ready. The Graduale Romanum and other chants books flooded the world. Technology plus scholarship plus the evangelistic drive combined to dramatically change the musical culture in the Catholic Church for the better.

The upswing latest until about World War II, but the destruction and displacement associated with war led to the undoing of progress. You can see the discouragement enter in the pages of Sacred Music. Editorials became increasingly despairing in the 1950s leading up to the Second Vatican Council.

The Council's words on music attempted to reinvigorate the movement with the most sweeping call for chant and sacred music ever issued by a Council of the Church. But when it came time to implement the liturgical changes in the late sixties, the forces of sacred music were no longer on the techno-media cutting edge, with chant books living in the prison of copyright and with publishers facing difficult economic times.

The biggest problem was cultural. Consider that the Mass of Paul VI was released the same year as Woodstock, the same year that the drug culture defined what was chic, the same year as go-go boots and widen plaid ties defined the fashion sense. The musical Hair, and its Age of Aquarius theme, was the rage on Broadway.

In the midst of this, the only hope that decorum in liturgy had was to hold the line. But a major switch from Latin to the vernacular, and a complete and unprecedented reorganization of the calendar (think: French Revolution), combined with a gutting of major feasts and prayers, sent the message that all old things had passed away. Whatever the future would look like, it was be nothing like the past.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with the brilliant virtuoso organist Lee Gwozdz of the Corpus Christi Cathedral. He is the son of Feliks Gwozdz, who was a major activist with the Church Music Association of America in the old days. His father died in 1979 at the age of 58. Lee described the incredible despair that his father felt at the end of his life, as he looked around the Catholic world to see amazing destruction. It was like the darkness had completely descended. People who were around in those days know the feeling.

Here we are thirty years later with an opportunity to start fresh. The old view that the past has been abolished has been overturned by Papal intervention. The older form of the Mass has been liberalized, with every priest having been granted the right to learn and say Mass and the office according to the historic books.

Meanwhile, the thrill that comes with 1970s-style iconoclasm is no more. The music of that period, originally distributed for free and without copyright protection, lives in the cage of intellectual property, with publishers coming to depend on legislatively imposed means of extracting revenue from the Catholics in the pews.

Most of all, we have today the incredible power of the internet at our disposal. It has become the means by which all the old chant editions are distributed. Digital media is being produced every day to put on display the greatest music ever sung. Online videos are used for tutorials, for forums and blogs, for advertising conferences and taking registrations, for explaining the rationale behind sacred music and its use in Catholic liturgy.

In other words, the sacred music movement is using technology today in the same way as the monks of Solesmes in the old days, but with a special and intense commitment to universal distribution unprotected with legislated restrictions. This method has become a major advantage for sacred music because it replicates the methods of the early Christians, sharing the good news in every way possible.

Conferences on sacred music, with attendees signing up to experience great music, are growing and multiplying month by month. Scholas are starting in parishes around the country. Hardly a day goes by when I don't receive an email or two from a young singer who wants to get involved. The reason is that the news is everywhere on the internet. Humble organizations like the CMAA, with hardly any budget but loaded with dedicated activists, are making major headway.

We have every reason for hope and optimism, thanks largely to the combined forces of media technology and human dedication and payer. As we adjust to the new age of digital technology and universal distribution of ideas, remember that its not only about spreading the lowest form of culture but also about the opportunities for universal distribution of the highest that we have to offer.

I think often of what the old monks of Solesmes would think. Thanks to the conversation I had with Lee Gwozdz, I think too of his father and his work for all that is beautiful and holy. Let us all remember that we might not be fortunate enough to live to see the fruits of our efforts, but what we do in our lives will echo for generations to come.