Friday, April 18, 2008

Catholic Music: Hope or Despair?

I’ve spoken to many priests and laypeople who seem to have been plunged into despair after watching, and especially after listening to, the Papal Mass at the Nationals Stadium. If you watch a youtube clip or just happen to turn on the radio, you could be forgiven for thinking that the end times must have arrived and there is no hope at all. Surely no Papal Mass would sound or look like this. As a friend, a Baptist who has never been to Mass, said to me after he saw a few minutes on the news: “Jeffrey, what the **** has happened to the Catholic Church!?”

It’s not only about evangelization. It is about the appearance of dashed hopes in the days following Summorum Pontificum which called for the ordinary form to draw from the traditions of the extraordinary form, during the times when the greatest champion of great liturgy and great music—probably the world’s most cultured and educated person—is the Pope and yet and his own Mass, we were presented not liturgical music but a Dionysian calamity.

Take a step back and realize that if you turned down the volume, this liturgy appeared to be one of the most reverent in modern times. The altar was beautifully decorated. The vestments were outstanding. The attention to rubrics was highly commendable. Shawn posted on this already. Here is real progress, given that it was Mass in a stadium. There is no question that it was this aspect of the liturgy that the Vatican team focused most heavily on.

As regards the music, reports say that the Vatican insisted on some chant. So Tu Es Petrus was sung as the Pope arrived. The Gloria, which the Pope seemed to expect to intone before he was stepped on, was vaguely based on the Gregorian tone, but how was the Vatican to know that the music team on the ground would so deeply bowdlerize it?

So what happened here? I just received a call for a prominent Catholic choral director who found the whole scene to be tragically funny – and I suppose it is a good sign that he could laugh about it amidst all the tears. From his point of view, this is what happens when you trust the abilities and judgment of people who have neither. Meanwhile local ordinaries in Virginia and Maryland are frantically denying any responsibility, and rightly so.

The problem essentially comes down to the office of the Archbishop of Washington, who has a long tradition of hostility to good music. To plan the liturgy, he tapped an old friend who is a parish music director, who is probably a good man but one who knows essentially nothing about the musical dictates of the Roman Rite. His only reference point is his connection with well-heeled publishers of Catholic popular music, and a quid pro quo quickly emerged: you sing our stuff, which will sell our stuff, and we’ll all proclaim it fitting for a Pope.

In other words, it is wrong to read too much into this. The appearance and the reality was a fright, but what we are really seeing is not a commentary on American culture or the state of Catholic music or some grand eschatological statement about our times. In the selection of music for the Mass, we are talking about a tiny group of people backed by a marketing apparatus. Its control is actually quite thin, like dust on a table.

And the core problem here is not so much evil at work but a deep and abiding arrogance combined with a radical unfamiliarity with the core of the true Catholic repertoire. The problem is that these empowered folks are professional musicians working in the Catholic world, and yet most of them could not stand in front of you and present a compelling rendering of this Sunday’s introit from the Graduale. They know this, but they don’t want you to know this.

This is a problem of attitude and education above all else. Some of the more humble of the “Catholic musicians” who are working within the prevailing establishment have sent themselves to workshops and training camps to get up to speed with the demands of today’s liturgy. They are changing course. Most, however, feel they are above that, so they don’t bother. It has to be said: they are old and unteachable.

Once you blow the dust off the table, what do you see? You see Gregorian workshops all over the country. There are hundreds of parishes working to achieve ideals. There are cathedrals raising up great choirs to reverse the mistakes of the past. Colleges and universities are host to ever more small scholas serving their chapels. Young priests are crying out for help with the task of re-enchanting the liturgy.

What should you do? If you have musical talent, the Catholic world needs you now more than ever. It is deeply important that you get involved. There is no parish in this country that doesn’t need help. There are hundreds of people coming to the CMAA Colloquium this summer. Others are studying at the Chant Intensive. Both are run by the Church Music Association of America, which was formed in 1965 and charged by the Vatican to oversee music development in the US after the Council. It didn’t turn out that way during this brief parenthesis of history.

This Mass in Washington might just turn out to be the closing bracket. So much depends on the lesson we learn and how we respond. But look at the theme of the Pope's visit: Christ our Hope. Hope is a primary Christian virtue. To despair is to believe an illusion.

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