Sunday, September 14, 2008

No More Roadblocks

This morning I heard from a friend who attended a new Extraordinary Form Mass in a place that hasn’t had one in forty years. (Specifics will be reported later but this same scenario has been repeated in many places.) They sang the full Gregorian propers with a new schola. And of course the entire experience was incredibly beautiful, with many people commenting how they felt like they experienced the Catholic Mass as it is supposed to be. The music in particular was the striking point. What a contrast with what several generations have known!

In this town with many Catholic parishes, this EF Mass is the one and only occasion where people can hear the music of the Church, and experience the solemnity of the Catholic Mass. Everywhere else in town—and this is true of all neighboring towns—Masses are all vernacular, facing the people, and the music is the usual hit parade. Instead of propers, there are hymns of various shapes and styles, and instead of a Gregorian ordinary, there is a peppy “Mass setting” in English.

If you go to the engine room in the choir practice area you will find a sheet that looks like this:

Setting: Creation
Pro: random hymn
Off: random hymn
Com: random hymn
Rec: random hymn

Even aside from this contrast, when the EF comes to town, particularly when it is a sung Mass, it an occasion for great celebration for anyone interested in quality liturgy. What is tragic is that for many people it feels as if Catholicism is back for the first time in 40 years. This is solely due to the shabbiness of ordinary form liturgies, and their tendency to exercise every option permitted in the rubrics except for the first and most preferred/normative option, namely, to sing the Mass setting and propers according to the Gregorian tones that are part of the structure of the Mass itself. In other words, that so many would find the EF so shocking and different is wholly unnecessary and really pathetic commentary on the culture that has arisen alongside the ordinary form of the Mass promulgated in 1970.

Anyone with experience in Catholic circles knows what is going on here. The battle for the soul of the Novus Ordo ends up being 10,000 mini-battles over the rendering of its individual parts. For example, let’s say you want to use an organ prelude and have the organ by the only instrument used at Mass. You first have to somehow deal with the guitarists, trumpeters, flutists, and many other instrumentalists who believe they have a right to perform. You must explain to them why they should just give it a rest. Then they complain to the pastor, who has to have a good answer as to why you are trying to “exclude” them, and, quite often, he just doesn’t want to fight this battle.

But let’s say you win this one. You move on to the Entrance. You want to sing the Gregorian Introit, the first preference of the General Instruction and the normative choice of the whole of Catholic history. One night expect that this should be a controversy. But then the road blocks appear again. What will the people sing during this time? What about our favorite hymn? What about the people who do find Gregorian chant to be welcoming enough? There are lots of people who don’t know Latin so they might feel alienated. The pastor gets another call and he again must explain why the Introit is actually the normative choice, and there is good reason to sing it.

The battles continue after that. You want to sing Kyrie, but won’t that make the opening rites too long, and should we save the sing for the Gloria? Also there is a deacon present and he wants to say the 2nd form, so the sung Kyrie has to go. As for a Latin Gloria, how can the people be part of this great celebratory hymn if they don’t know the words and don’t know the tune? In any case, this is a time for people to smile and feel great about themselves and each other, and droning on in ancient plainsong just doesn’t do it. The answer is that there are many wonderful Gregorian settings that don’t sound droning at all but quite the opposite. Moreover, most any congregation can learn these words in a matter of weeks.

Win or lose that one, the biggest problems are still ahead. The great Psalm battle is among the bloodiest of all. The Psalms in the missalette and Missale are different from the sung Gradual in the Church’s music books. They are shorter and designed so that people can repeat them back after the choir or cantor. If the schola wants to sing the Gregorian Gradual—the most glorious masterpieces among the whole repertoire and the very core of what is and has been Christian music since the apostolic times—it is going to face a daunting minefield of confusion. For one thing, one of the purposes of the Psalm is to inspire reflection on the scriptural readings, which is why they are long and melismatic and do not call on people to sing antiphonally. This is a time for prayer, not for call and response. But try convincing the liturgical team of that. It is a nearly impossible sell.

We have only begun to chronicle the practical problems in the ordinary form in attempting to use the normative music of the Church, the very music that the Second Vatican Council says must occupy the principal place at the Mass. The alleluia verse confronts the persistent impatience of ordinary form culture. The Offertory chants are virtually unknown since the text isn’t even printed in the Missal; the celebrant might not know there is prescribed music for the Offertory. Most people just assume that this is the intermission, the time for Mary Sue to sing a solo. If that is to change, all of this will very likely have to be explained to the pastor, and the mystery will persist as to why the Missale has no offertory text at all.

The Sanctus issue mostly concerns the polyphonic rendering, which has been part of the Church’s music for 1000 years. Some people proposed depreciating it at Vatican II but that was specifically ruled out by those who drafted Sacrosanctum Concilium. It permissibility was reinforced in Musicam Sacram in 1967. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote extensively in defense of the polyphonic sanctus. As Pope, he presides in many ordinary form Masses with a polyphonic sanctus. And yet if you suggest it in your parish, there will be a blizzard of objections, and someone at some point will cite the ambiguity in the General Instruction.

More issues are raised concerning the Mysterium Fidei, the “Great Amen,” the communion proper vs. “One Bread, One Body,” and so on, all the way to the end of the Mass. There are dozens of battles to fight and fight and fight, and hardly anyone has the stomach for all this. And yet this is what it takes in order to sing the music of the Church at the ordinary form Mass.

Is it any wonder that people take refuge in the extraordinary form, in which the music is more intimately prescribed and integrated at all levels? What is more important here is that the propers are not optional. Nor is there any option to replace the propers with “another appropriate song,” the definition of which ends up being decided by people whose musical consciences are not very well informed by our musical heritage. It is the argument of Laszlo Dobszay in his Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform that the provision to permit another songs to replace the propers needs to be completely stricken from the rubrics. The first time I read that I was shocked and wasn’t sure that he needed to make such an extreme argument. I’ve come to believe that he is right. The propers should be mandatory in the Ordinary Form. Musicians need these mandates and so do the clergy. Such a mandate would be an act of peace because it would quell all this interminable debate and fighting.

If you back away from the situation, it is very striking. Vatican II pushed the place of chant to the top. The commonality between the old form and the new form is precisely its musical dimension. And yet, because the options have become the norm and the norm has been marginalized in practice, people end up having to completely secede from the reformed liturgy if they want to hear and experience the Church’s music.

These are all the practical realities, and there is real tragedy here. But even without a change of legislation, there is a way around this problem. The answer is simple: remove all road blocks to the normative form. Stop objecting to it. Just let it happen. Encourage it. Then the musicians will respond with a new sense of duty. Pastors should purchase the Parish Book of Chant for their choirs and congregations. They should give the director of music a copy of the Gregorian Missal with a sticky note: “These are the propers of the Mass. Please use these as your ideal.”

I'll say again what I've said many times. Visit St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota, or St. John Cantius in Chicago, or St. John in Stamford, or St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto, among many other great parishes. Here there are ordinary form Masses that serve as models for the future.

Unless something is done soon to eliminate the road blocks to a well-sung Ordinary Form, it will lose the struggle for the Catholic soul.

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