Sunday, December 28, 2008

Music Without Borders

The New York Times is devoting a major 3-part story to the changing demographics of the American priesthood. The core of the story deals with the priest shortage in the United States, and the ways that dioceses are dealing with it by drawing from the surplus of priests in Africa and Latin America. One of six diocesan priests now serving in the United States came from abroad.

For now, only part one has been printed, and it may yet deal with the problem of music, for this is a major issue that these new priests face. Music in all times and places is a major contributor to helping us identify aspects of home wherever we happen to be. This is a factor in the spread of digital MP3 players; they permit us to bring our preferred surroundings to us whether we happen to be in the subway, the car, an airport, or wherever.

The music of the Roman Rite—itself a universal liturgy—has a universal music that permits priests from all over the world to have a sense of “home” when celebrating it in all places. That is not to say that there are not local variations. The music at Mass in Uganda is going to have a different character from Masses celebrated in Utah, and national variations in incidental music are legendary.

However, there is a foundational music of the Roman Rite that has been the same in all times and places. The ordinary settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus are world-wide settings in which no national culture in particular is embedded in its sound and feel. They were put together as part of a body of music overtly structured with a multicultural demand that no one language group of demographic prevail over any other. The Mass and its artistic setting must transcend not only time but also place and even the cultural character of the gathered people.

This is also true of the propers of the Mass (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion), which are of the same plainchant style as the ordinary settings but more musically complicated and designed for singers who have studied and are engaged in continual practice. The Sequences are the same all over the world, provided we are using the prescribed melodies.

Finally, there are the chant hymns such as those gather in the Parish Book of Chant, and they have a universal quality as well. At Masses where there is an international gathering of people, chant hymns are what unite people from all over the world in song. They convey a sense that no matter what your national origin, the Catholic Church is your home, and it is a home that you share with the faithful from all over the world.

I don’t think it often occurs to American Catholic just how provincial and national in character the music at our Masses has become over the years. Of course this was also true in the 19tth and early 20th century, when the favorite songs of Irish and Italian immigrants became standard fare. But underneath them, there was still a constant strain of music that united the immigrants groups, and that was the chant tradition.

What is different today is that this chant tradition has been nearly entirely displaced by new tunes written in the 1970s and continue to be written today, and their source of inspiration was not the universal music of the Roman Rite but the localized, national, and contemporary trends of secular and evangelical culture. Our Masses take on a sensibility that strikes foreign people as predictably “white bread,” and provincial as hot dogs.

The result is that our liturgy often sounds distinctly American in a way that is distinctly unCatholic. I noted this years ago when I attended a Mass at the North American College in Rome prior to its more recent effort to revive and universalize the music used at the seminary. I was struck at how the Mass seemed no different from what one would hear in your local parish. Yes, it made one feel “at home” but only in the sense that Americans feel at home only with American things.

In this sense, we should have some strong sympathies with “progressive” Catholic liturgists who complain about the alienation that is felt by ethnic minorities in our parishes, and how the music that is dominate doesn’t really connect with their own history.

Not that music at Mass must necessarily connect with any particular national tradition but neither should it be so tied to a national genre as to indicate exclusivity. The chant, on the other hand, takes us to a new level in which we are neither catering to majority interests nor pandering to minority demands. It calls us all to leave such selfish concerns at the door and discover timeless truth.

What we need in our parishes is a form of music that emphasizes the universal unity of all people in Christ. On a practical level, this means that the African priest should be able to step into any parish in America and be part of a repertoire of music that is familiar and known, illustrating how any Catholic parish is a home to any Catholic priest anywhere in the world. It is an undeniable truth that there is only one musical genre that fulfills this demand, and it so happens that it is the same music that has been specifically named by the Church as that which is to have primacy of place at Mass.

Reflect on the wisdom of those who see chant as the universal music of the Mass. It means that all Catholics can have a sense of belonging. The Marian antiphon for the season is the same in all parts of the world, even if we are struck but subtle local variations.

My own parish had a visiting priest from Africa last year, and it was the chant that provided that deep connection between himself and our local parish. He was so grateful that he brought with him, in his heart and heart, this music. This gave our local parish a grander appreciation for the chant and its capacity to unite us all. And he left with a burning desire to learn even more and singing ever more in his own country, as a way of underscoring the mystical connection between parishioners here and there.

It is enough that priests from abroad must struggle with language issues and adjustments to our national traditions like Thanksgiving and our peculiar ways in matters of politics and material things. Amidst all these differences, if we can find areas of commonality, that is all to the good. The Rite itself we have in common. The music of the rite too should be a source not of division but of unity.

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