Monday, September 24, 2007

The formation of the musical conscience

A rather alarming conversation occurred yesterday morning after Mass, one that underscores the limits of accommodating the aesthetic preferences of the people in the need to call forth participation from them.

A woman and her husband, visiting from another town down south, came up after Mass and said: “Where was the music today? I heard lots of singing [sangin’] but no music.”

Of course this view that singing is not music is common, and one that bugs me, since the voice is the primary musical instrument of Mass, which I quickly explained. But then she went further:

“Yesterday at the football game, a 300-piece band played at halftime. They were great! Why can’t we get music like that here?”

Well, needless to say, I was dumbfounded.

So rather than just get upset, I tried a different approach.

“At this Mass, we sing Gregorian chant, which is the music that the Second Vatican Council says is of inestimable value. This music is integral to the Roman Rite, and yet we’ve lost touch with it. We are working to recapture its beauty and prayerfulness in this parish. Is your parish singing chant?”

“Yes, more and more of it all the time.”

“That’s wonderful. Be sure to congratulate your director of music. It is difficult music, but it makes a great contribution to the solemnity of Mass.”

By now, the husband was nodding his head vigorously, which gave me encouragement to go on, which I did. By the end of the conversation, they both seemed happy and they thank me for doing the music at Mass that morning, and off they went.

I’ve thought a lot about this conversation, because it illustrates a point about the “people.” They are not some amorphous blob that needs to be accommodated in every respect, whose judgment on aesthetics is infallible, whose expectations ought to be catered to in all ways. The people need to have their musical consciences informed by Catholic teaching, just as with doctrine and morals.

It would be absurd to say that the morals taught during the homily should be taught in a way that pleases people the most, and that any objection to what is being taught should be a signal that the moral doctrine needs to change. Yes, there is an urgency to teach in a way that reaches people in the most effective way, but that is different from saying that the teaching itself much change.

The same is true for liturgy. People need instruction, direction, information, and they need to be given guidance in how to appreciate chant in a way that assists their prayer life and draws them more deeply into the sacraments.

Yes, people should be active participants in the liturgy, but not one of their own creation and not one that meets the expectations of the secular world but rather one that offers something completely different.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: