Thursday, October 18, 2007

Making a Liturgical Desert Bloom

I’m sitting here at the priest-training seminar in Chicago (Missa in Cantu) as sponsored by the Church Music Association of America and St. John Cantius. There are about 50 priests here. The seminar cycles between classes, Masses, the sung Offices, meals, social hours, and back again and again.

The topic is one only: the sung Mass. We began with the collects and moved to prefaces, and today we cover the readings, which, as a layman, I’m particularly interested in, and then move to the Canon and through the end. In each session, faculty members William Mahrt and Scott Turkington teach the principles and then there is practice, and also breakout sessions, divided between beginners, intermediate, and advanced.

One point that strikes me first is how music so easily integrates the three forms covered here: ordinary form in English, ordinary form in Latin, and extraordinary form. There are very few musical differences between them in terms of what the celebrant sings.

The average age of the priest here is very young. Many are associate pastors who expect to become pastors soon, or pastors in their first year. So many are facing similar problems at their parish.

A modal description is as follows.

Their parishes have no established music programs of any quality. There is a piano player who tends to lead what music program they do have, and he or she is wedded to contemporary Christian music. Those who sing can’t read music. There is an organ but it is either unused or played poorly. There is no music library beyond the standard GIA/OCP material. There is no children’s choir apart from the annual Christmas screamfest.

There are two or three people who can sing, no one has sung a note of chant. Most people are interested in chant but have no idea where to begin. Meanwhile, there is a hardcore that is fanatically attached to music of the 1970s and fears even the slightest hint of solemnity, warning darkly that the new priest is going to take the parish into a new Dark Age.

There are no liturgical materials available in the parish. The vessels are glass or pottery, everything else having been tossed out. So there is no monstrance, no patens, and the tabernacle is buried somewhere where it can’t be seen. The available vestments are unworthy.

Then there is the belief infrastructure of the parish. People are out of the habit of confession, daily Mass, and spiritual reading. For the most part, people cannot defend the faith and are largely clueless about what the liturgy is intended beyond the need to gather Christians together for fellowship.

It is easy for priests to despair under these conditions. It is hard to know where to begin. You can just replace people because there is no one to take their place. You can’t just say that from now on, we will sing chant because no one knows what to sing or how. There is also the very important reality that it is unwise to enact a liturgical reconstruction insofar as people have no idea what is taking place or why.

There is where singing the Mass comes in. This is an improvement that celebrant can make on his own. He doesn’t have to ask the liturgy committee. He doesn’t need accompaniment. It requires no line in the budget. In fact, it will not upset anyone; in fact, it is a way that Father demonstrate that he truly cares about the liturgy, which has a way of flattering everyone.

It is a simple matter: what he once spoke, he now sings.

It has a dramatic impact. People listen to the words more intensely. It contributes a nobility to the liturgy. It is necessarily chant, and thereby acculturates people to the sound and feel of authentic liturgical music. It creates an expectation that that contemporary Christian music cannot satisfy and thereby lays the groundwork for developments later on.

So these priests who have come such a long way to learn to do this are to be commended. Sadly, it is not a skill that has been routinely taught in seminary, at least not until recently. Thus are these seminars necessary now and will continue to be for a long time.

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