Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Litany of Saints?

At my local Cathedral-Basilica parish, I currently act as head of the Guild of Altar Servers where I get the opportunity to not only serve at many Cathedral liturgies with our bishop, but also the diocesan liturgies.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve at one of the latter, for the occasion of the ordination of the first permanent deacons in the dicoese.

What struck me was nothing new under the sun. Interesting, as is typical, not a speck of Latin was to be found in the liturgy. Of course, there was no chant of any sort, English or otherwise, nor polyphony. Nor did the concelebrants all were chausables as they are instructed -- and they do have enough of them. Further, however, what I found of particular interest -- and I say this as one who suffers through this -- the musical selection was of course from the modern "canon" -- David Haas, Marty Haugen, and many other composers from the 1990's, whose style cannot be said to be organic with what came before in the area of sacred music. The communion hymn itself had a very horizontalized, social justice emphasis, rather defeating what could be a profound moment for meditation upon communion with Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrament.

However, my main reason for writing about this today is with regards a change that, sadly, began at Easter Vigil this past year, and now continues with this ordination. Namely, the traditional English version of the Litany of the Saints, which of course follows the plainchant melodies associated with the Latin version, has been replaced with a modern rendition. This rendition has a completely unfamiliar tune. Moreover, the ordering of the saints is changed, as they are paired up. The very word "saint" does not come up once, to my memory, in this version of the litany -- which is a bit strange and ironic if you think about it being a litany of saints that the word should be avoided, or at least absent.

What strikes me about this is two things.

One is the unbearable desire to change things for the sake of "trying something new and different". While change is not of itself a bad thing outright, change for its own sake is hardly productive in most cases, let alone ritual and liturgy, particularly when you are dealing with things that are near and dear to people and seldom used. What if we were to take beloved Christmas Carols like "O Come All Ye Faithful" and either decide to exclude them outright (as no longer being "fresh") or suggest that we would change the words and the melody to which it is sung to make it "new" and "different"? The comfort, the anticipation and the memory which repetition serves, and gives many things as these their power, becomes lost, which also has a tendency to distract us in our prayer. I believe the same can be said of the litany. At most, we usually get an opportunity to sing this once or twice a year -- Easter Vigil and Ordinations. I can't help but think as well of how much verbal participation is of importance to modern liturgists. By changing something that is not used very often, what they end up with is something which would have been robustly sung becoming a deflated, lesser participated moment within the sacred liturgy. It would seem that in these cases, novelty is of more importance as a principle to them than how they (improperly) define "active participation".

Second is the horizontalization that is subtle, yet nonetheless present in the removal of terms like "saint" and so on. For example, singing "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us" is much different, both theologically and catechetically, from singing "Mary and Joseph, pray for us." While in the latter case, we should of course know we are speaking of St. Mary and St. Joseph, nonetheless, the exclusion of "saint", and particularly the exclusion of theological definitions like "Mother of God" and even "Holy" can only be seen as an unncessary impoverishment and horizontolization of the litany of saints.

After it was all over, it was interesting to hear how many people wonder aloud why they felt the need to change and fiddle with such things.

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