Monday, July 13, 2015

Is the Youth of Today Necessarily “Modern Man”?

One of many choirs at this year's Colloquium
Recently my son and I participated in the Sacred Music Colloquium XXV of the Church Music Association of America, held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. As with the Sacra Liturgia 2015 Conference, a large portion of the participants were young adults who love beautiful music that is obviously sacred in its stylistic qualities, cultural associations, and avowed liturgical purpose.

People from my generation (born in the 1970s) and younger know, without need for much explanation, that Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and post-Renaissance choral works of grand and intimate scale are the music of the Catholic liturgy.[1] Such music says “Catholic” the moment you hear it, which is why Hollywood always reaches for it when depicting anything Catholic. This vast repertoire, “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112) was written expressly for ecclesiastical ceremonies. At its best, it is not trying to compete with or emulate popular styles of music; it is not serving two masters; it is not a multi-purpose Swiss Army knife. It is church music, sacred music, pure and simple, and that is why it is so singularly effective and lovable. We admire what is pure and simple, because it fits its function to a T. It works. What isn’t broken doesn’t need to be fixed.

In connection with the Colloquium, I would like to develop an idea I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the following paragraph in the FIUV Position Paper n. 25, “The Extraordinary Form and Sub-Saharan Africa.”
This conflict between the traditional principles of African spirituality and Western cultural influence creates an unfamiliar context for many liturgical progressives, who have often explicitly seen their proposals as attempts to come to terms with the triumph of post-Enlightenment culture, a triumph which, in their view, can no longer be contested. However we might assess this project in the context of the developed world, the proposal to make concessions to Rationalism, for example, by excluding silence and complex ceremonial from the liturgy, or to make concessions to Romanticism, by promoting informality and spontaneity, take on very different appearance in the African context. There is a real danger of such tendencies assisting the neo-colonial attack on indigenous African spirituality.
This observation certainly seems like a persuasive argument in regard to Africa (or, for that matter, any non-Western society that has its own native religious traditions). But what intrigues me is the general claim that Rationalism and Romanticism — the two great counterforces of modernity, each an extreme reacting against the other — are the two slave-drivers behind the liturgical reform.[2]

Rationalism cracks the whip and shouts: “No silence! Everything must be SAID and UNDERSTOOD! No complexity! Stop all that intricate symbolic stuff! Stop all that lugubrious chanting! Modern man has no patience, no time, no ability, no need for it! It promotes an aristocracy of clerics! Let the light of objective reason shine!” But then Romanticism sneaks in, elbows an unsuspecting Rationalism aside, and, with a voice all the more poisonous for seeming friendly: “Relax! Go with the flow! You are too formal, uptight, rigid, and cerebral! Let go of the rubrics, find your inner child, feel it in your bones, be yourself! Everything’s about YOU, your feelings, your neediness — this is your moment!” Each struggles for supremacy; in a weird sort of way, they are codependent and collaborative. They stop at nothing to eviscerate the tradition that precedes them, until all that is left is a disembodied reason of empty structures and a derationalized self-indulgent sentimentalism.

Be that as it may, what we see at work in the liturgical reform is a peculiarly self-centered assumption that the preoccupations of modern Western man — rationalism and romanticism being characteristic -isms of an imbalanced worldview and an inadequate philosophy — are the preoccupations of all of humanity, including Africa and Asia and the poor of other countries, not to mention all generations. As a result, the new liturgy is going to be imposed on every nation, every people, every culture, and every generation, regardless of whether or not they meet the hyper-modern Eurocentric criteria on the basis of which it was designed. The absurdity of such an assumption is obvious, but it becomes even more obvious when one considers generational shifts.

It seems to me that just as there is a problem with assuming that African Catholics need the new Mass when the old Mass was and is, in fact, more suited to their culture, there is an analogous problem with assuming that today’s young Catholics, especially those who have been raised in a more traditional manner and homeschooled, automatically carry the same modernist or postmodernist burdens that the rest of Western society bears. Of course, we’re all moderns in a whole host of subtle and obvious ways, but since a good deal of the modern mentality is a flight from reality and a sort of self-invited neurosis, it seems distinctly possible — and my decades of experience as a student and then as an undergraduate and graduate-level teacher have confirmed this over and over — that young people today might actually be free of a lot of the existential baggage of their elders. The problems of the sixties and seventies are just not the same as our problems. And young faithful Catholics have not necessarily problematized their existence, or the concept of tradition, or the concept of authority, or the concept of the sacred and the mystical.

We are still struggling with the fallout of rationalism and romanticism, but we are not as naïvely optimistic about the power of human reason and of sincere feelings to lead us into an Edenic new world of human brotherhood. That strikes us as pretty vomitous, and we are looking for something a lot more serious, something real and realistic, which, paradoxically, we know will have to be something very different and, I would dare to say, transcendent. Otherwise it is fake; it is looking at a mirror and falling in love with our own image. We are looking for the original, the One from whom we come and to whom we are going.

At Sacra Liturgia 2015 and Colloquium XXV, one sees ample evidence that we are turning a corner. The rebels of yesteryear look embarrassingly old-fashioned, and the youth who still want to practice their Faith need more, desire more, and deserve more than the Church’s hierarchy has been willing (or even able?) to give them until now. And these young men and women are figuring out how to find their way back to the Tradition, in spite of all obstacles, detours, traps, and poor signage. This movement—this hunger for Catholic Tradition—cannot be stopped. But it can be somewhat delayed by obstructionists or actively promoted by shepherds who care for the eternal destiny of their sheep. I am reminded in this connection of a butler's speech from a P. G. Wodehouse novel:
It is my experience that opposition in matters of the ’eart is useless, feedin’, as it so to speak does, the flame. Young people, your lordship, if I may be pardoned for employing the expression in the present case, are naturally romantic and if you keep ’em away from a thing they sit and pity themselves and want it all the more. And in the end you may be sure they get it. There’s no way of stoppin’ them.[3]
Indeed: the traditional movement is not going away. Meanwhile, our shepherds stand to gain glory or shame, depending on how they react to this impetus of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray for them daily.


[1] The CD Benedicta of the Monks of Norcia made it right to the top of the classical billboard, showing once again that the prayerful yearning for peace and transcendence expressed by Gregorian chant is not a passing fad but a constant need of our society. It would be helpful if prelates and pastors would pay attention to actual cultural trends like this one, instead of paying attention to what seemed to be trends several decades ago.

[2] The position paper states this explicitly elsewhere: “the Novus Ordo reflects the passage through European thinking of Rationalism and Romanticism.”

[3] P. G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress, Collector's Wodehouse ed., p. 238.

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