Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Our "differing needs" are not all that matter

Elaine Rendler-McQueeney, music professor at George Mason University, is one of the most influential liturgical writers in this country – but not because she has written a great treatise or has inspired many students or manages liturgy in a great Church. Instead, she writes what is probably widely read but still inauspicious liturgical column in a publication called Today's Liturgy published by the Oregon Catholic Press.

It is received and read by music directors in as many as two-thirds of American parishes. The bulk of the publication consists of planning guides for music on Sundays. Musicians use this guide to pick their four hymns from OCP materials every week. It's remarkable to think how influential this magazine is, and yet most pastors know nothing about it. It comes in the mail and is just handed on to the specialists.

In any case, each page contains a little callout box with about 300 words of instruction for the day, a chatty little sermon written by Rendler-McQueeney. It is just long enough to get her point across but not too long such that it taxes the time of the director who does the hymn picking.

Rendler-McQueeney has a special talent for talking to parish musicians in way that connects directly their jobs. She is part theologian and part counselor, giving tips and reminders. That she is able to produce 52 columns each year dedicated to the week—same subject every time with a strict word limit—is an incredible feat in some ways. I really do marvel that she is able to do this. It must weigh on her personally, since she covers the same ground week after week and yet must write something compelling and helpful.

Most of what she writes is not objectionable in any way, and sometimes it is genuinely helpful. Sometimes, however, she offers opinions that are unsound and highly misleading – and it is these moments when she provides an insight into the sheer shallowness of a certain school of liturgical thinking, if it can be called that. Here is an example from her entry for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 25, 2009:

"You just have to love those Corinthians! They remind me so much of our Church today. They get into all kinds of liturgical intramurals, just like us. For example, in this time of transition in our Church, some are disappointed in the Church's implementation of Vatican II directives and bemoan the loss of Church tradition, particularly in music. Others perceive a trend toward the past and feel the Church has disappointed them. It's time for everyone to stand back and realize that it's a big, big Church, and people have differing needs. Live and let live. Let the Spirit lead. In the end, all that matters is how we've treated one another in Jesus's name anyway."

Well, how can I put this? How we've treated one another does matter, but is not all that matters. It also matters how we treat our time of community prayer at the liturgy and how we manage ourselves in the presence of the Holy Sacrifice. If God is truly present, how we manage ourselves at the liturgy is of utmost importance. To attempt to push that aside as something that doesn't matter, and to claim that interpersonal relationships are the only consideration, really amounts to a kind of pro-Jesus atheism. We end up behaving as if God has left us to our own devices and that no reality other than our "differing needs" exists at all.

As for the claim that some of us might be "disappointed" in the "loss of tradition" following Vatican II, I'm struck by the present tense of her claim, as if all of this happened last week. In fact, the span of time that separates this generation from the close of Vatican II is the same as that which separates the close of the Council from the age of speakeasies and flappers. In other words, it was long ago. Most Catholics today have never known anything but the reformed Mass and the unfortunate musical trends that washed into our parishes along with it.

But for some people who write in the way of Rendler-McQueeney, the past is the present. It was the defining event of their whole Catholic lives. It was a heady time of liturgical reconstruction when a certain take on ritual music swept all before it and came to dominate the Mass. That movement is now tired and aging, lacking in intellectual and artistic inspiration. In a sign of their increasingly reactionary posture, they assume that anyone who doesn't like their jingles is seething with anger about events that most Catholics in the pews never knew and never experienced. What they need to realize is that not everyone who is tired of "Table of Plenty" is longing to refight the liturgy wars. Mostly, they just find this music trite and are ready to move on.

It is also not the case that our "differing needs" are what should dictate what music is chosen for Mass. The music of the Mass is part of the structure of the Mass itself, not merely the refection of a community's values. It is indeed a "big, big Church" and that gives rise to a need not to get used to a infinite multiplicity of styles, so that each parish becomes a mini-Tower of Babel, but rather a universal musical language, one that has developed from the earliest centuries up to our own time, which is to say that all music in Mass needs to have the same grounding in the universal solemnity of chant.

So, no, it is not enough just to brush away the problem with the slogan "live and let live." Each liturgy must reflect a decisive choice. Even if that choice is to provide a sampling of all styles—chant, rock, jazz, rumba—there is still a total picture that emerges, and this diversity of styles yields nothing but incoherence. A painting or sonata or living room with all styles crammed in—something to meet all our "differing needs"—would not communicate anything but a sense of chaos and confusion. It suggests loss of belief in anything at all.

Moving on to her suggestion that many are disappointed in the Church because of the growing trend toward tradition, I've heard this many times. It is becoming a standard reflex among certain circles to bemoan what is happening under the Pope Benedict XVI, to the point that it has become a presumption that is taken for granted in all polite Catholic company. It's sort of like living in a community with a losing football team. Every time the topic comes up, everyone just sort of stands around gloomy faced and regretting the course of events.

The trouble is that it is not a reasonable expectation that the Catholic Church is going to cease once and for all to be like the Catholic Church, nor is this a desirable expectation. The excesses and departures from tradition have destabilized Catholic teaching and liturgy in massively destructive ways. That we are slowly entering into a period of recovery is something for which we should be deeply grateful. Indeed, it is an answer to prayer.

Those who feel "hurt" by such transitions toward stability need to reflect on what this feeling suggests about their own expectations. There comes a time when the Church should not "meet people where they are"; rather it falls to us to rise to the level that the Church is asking us to be. We must not trust that our subjective desires are what should prevail. We need to put aside those desires and look to universals. To quote St. Paul writing to the Corinthians: "Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor." To quote Rendler-McQueeney, sometimes we need just to "let the Spirit lead."

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