Five Problems, Five Solutions
by Jeffrey Tucker
After years of observing the Catholic music scene, particular as it affects the liturgical life of the Church, I think I can narrow down the most pressing problems of our time. The good news is that all five problem have answers that are readily at hand. For this reason, we all have cause for being extremely hopeful.
1. Musicians do not have a model, much less ideals, in mind. Catholic musicians are very sincere people who aspire to do research so that they can do their jobs well. They order book after book and read many official documents. And yet even after this, the music they sing in Mass seems like a big blur. They pick a Mass setting, some hymns, and slog their way through various small bits but otherwise have little understanding of the structure of what they are doing.
The best solution for these people is to break down all the things they sing during the course of a Mass and classify them as: ordinary, propers, and dialogues. They need to come to recognize that their hymns are substitutes for propers, that they need a stable and predictable model for dealing with dialogues, and that the ordinary of the Mass, which is changing, involves only a narrow set of music. Understanding this would go a long way toward stabilizing and eventually solemnizing the liturgy.
As a second step, musicians need to come to realize that in every case, there are ideal solutions to all these musical questions. That ideal is found in the chant tradition in general and the Roman Gradual in particular. Many musicians would be amazed to discover that they are singing nothing but substitutes for the music that the Church has given us long ago to sing at Mass! This understanding would be a major step in the right direction.
2. The music resources in the typical parish are nothing short of pathetic. Every weeks, I'm reminded of this when I attempt to sing a regular hymn and discover that the words in the missalette are different from the choral books from which the choir is singing. Sometimes whole verses are missing. The Psalms that mainstream Catholic publishers are pushing are a mere shadow of genuine Christian Psalm singing. The arrangements range from bad to ghastly, pointlessly changed from traditional arrangements only so that the music can be recopyrighted. The missalettes even leave out sequences and important chants for Holy Week. Believe me, this short summary only scratches the surface. The resources available today for Catholic musicians are a grave embarrassment. The worst nightmare of any Catholic musician is to have a Presbyterian or Episcopal friend visit the loft and see what we are using!
Here I can only praise the glories of digital media. On the internet, we can find all that we need to displace and replace the whole of this garbage cluttering up the pews and the loft. There are Psalms. There are free propers in English and Latin. There are free settings for the ordinary chants in English and Latin. There are tens of thousands of motets and other pieces. There are tutorials and sound files and more. It is all 100% freed. It is really incredible. Now, to be sure, you have to know something of what you are doing to make your way around the resources. We are all working together now to make all this material more accessible. The time will come. In any case, this is the source of our salvation.
3. The musical competence within the typical parish is shockingly low. Many parishes of 500 families have only a few people who know how to read music at all. Among them, very few are willing to commit to singing every week or volunteering to direct. As a result, many parishes lack even the personnel to begin a serious sacred music program.
I can't speak to how matters were before the great meltdown of the 1960s but it is fact, undeniable, that musical competence was depreciated after the Council. Many people came to believe, during the great folk movement, that competence was a bad thing that prevented people from creating art from the heart. You know the old story. Anyway, we are stuck with the results. The mass of Catholics can't find their way around a four-part hymn. Musical notation is Greek to them.
Fortunately, chant can be sung without formal training in musical notation. Often it is best sung by amateurs who care. Above all, sacred music requires a king of humility. People without training are more adept at humility simply because they have spirits that are more teachable. It's not that a lack of technical competence is a good thing, but I do think that Catholic music is not thereby shut off to them. In fact, to begin in ignorance is not necessarily a disaster. We can work around this and turn it to an advantage.
Another important element here: children's choirs. This must never be overlooked.
4. Catholics lack of a universal song. This problem shows up not just between countries but between parishes and even within parishes. The early morning Mass is traditional. The mid-morning Mass is adult contemporary. The evening Masses are divided between student populations. And so on. And none use the music you hear at any other Mass. It is the Tower of Babel. We are divided and fractured, and sometimes out of necessity to keep the peace.
But clearly this will not do for the long term. We need a universal Catholic song, and the answer here is clear: there is only one viable body of music to claim this mantle and that is chant. It is the music that can brings us all together. It is the music of the rite itself, and its style knows no demographic or period of time. It has lasted and lasted, as much as a thousand years with a tradition that stretches back perhaps three thousand years. It will be around long after we are all dead. By singing it, we are becoming part of something larger than our own generation. We help link the past with the future. It makes our musical efforts mean something. Then we can actually come together as a parish or even as Catholics from all nations and sing together.
5. The final problem involves orientation and I do not just mean the orientation of the altar, though that is a symptom. We need to make a decision here. Is Mass by and for the people or is Mass by and for God? There is a crucial difference here. If we are properly oriented to God, turning toward the Lord must be a pervasive action and activity not only of the celebrant but of everyone and everything. We become less demanding that our needs are met by happy clappy music. With a proper orientation, the people will demand music for prayer, and prayer will become our main need. This, after all, is what liturgy is all about: removing us from our mundane fixation on our earthly needs to prepare us for an eternal encounter. If all we do is demand more of what we can get outside of Church, we will never really find fulfillment in liturgy.
Perhaps this last point is the most serious of all, and there only way to address it is through pastoral leadership. We need people like Moses who will condemn our Golden Calfs made from our own possessions and lead us to higher goals. Once our orientation is right, the rest follows. We will find our voices, find our song, find the resources, and develop our knowledge and talents.