Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Hidden Politics of Liturgical Commentary

I share the conviction with many that liturgy should not be politicized in any respect. It is a holy enterprise and matters of political ideology do not belong, and this is for one simple reason: the liturgical gaze strives to leave temporality. It is an act of giving unto God what is God's, in the words of our Lord.

In this way, liturgy makes a radical claim that both the ancient world and modern world reject as futile and dangerouss, namely the claim there is something real in the universe, and something that demands primacy, that draws its strength not from civic associations but from all eternity.

And yet, it is always a struggle to purge liturgical analytics of political categories, and there are some commentators who, like the "teachers of the law" who questioned Jesus about who owns the money, seem unable ever to leave politics behind.

For example, I recall some years ago watching a film on the history of the Mass that rendered all events through the eyes of a post-Hegelian dialectic: the people versus the clergy, the peasants versus the elites, the exploited proletariat versus the exploitative bourgeoisie. All change in a direction of which the film approved was seen as the fulfillment of a rising class consciousness to take back the Mass from the usurpers.

In this version of events, bliss was the dawn to be alive in 1970 when polyphony and chant were overthrown for "people's music" and the clergy on the right side of history became the vanguard of the proletarian dictatorship.

This model of looking at liturgical history is more common that one might think. I'm looking now at a column by Elaine Rendler from Winter 2009 issue of Today's Liturgy , pp. 68,70. She begins her riff with the Gospel of the day, which concerns Jesus's healing of the leper. Similarly, she says, Benedict XVI is a Pope who is trying to embrace everyone, including those who believe that our heritage was unjustly abandoned "after the Second Vatican Council."

She then begins to instruct "young readers" in the truth of what happened. In response to Sacrosanctum Concilium's call for "full, conscious, and active participation," there was "an all-out effort to write music in English."

Already, this is not precisely correct. The endlessly quoted passages about participation appear in the document in a section devoted to instruction (section II). The idea is that people and clergy should be taught and instructed about liturgy, not mainly that the rite must be changed to accommodate the demand. Further, the rise of English was a response to the permission granted to the national conferences to use the vernacular for "readings and directives" and "to some of the prayers and chants." The rationale was simply to further the cause of liturgical cognition. There was no revolution intended here, no grave class conflict that needed to be resolved, no attempt to expropriate the expropriators.

Professor Rendler, however, has been glossing over these issues for so long that she no longer sense the burden to even defend her thesis, which she fills out in greater detail in the following.

"Lest we forget, only the choir sang the chant of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, and it was beautiful when beautifully performed. But it was performed for us, that is, the congregation just listened, and in some cases it wasn't all that beautiful. Chant and polyphony—our heritage—belong to specialists, people who knew how to sing it, namely trained choirs. They are the caretakers of that musical treasury, not the assembly."

Hold on a minute. The Gregorian repertory does contain music designed for specialists, which is another way of saying that if you want to sing them, you are going to have to spend time on it and work hard. You have to take your responsibilities seriously. This is a bit different from those who sing and play under the theory that "good enough for Mass" means just showing up and strumming away on whatever strikes your fancy.

Not all Gregorian music requires this level of commitment. Take a look at the Mass ordinaries. They can all be learned by rote. And millions and millions of people for 1000 plus years have learned them through repeated singing at Mass. This was true in most all places and ages. They are specifically structured as easier chants precisely for accessibility. In other words, chant is not homogenous. There is a range of ability and time required. Further, it is just false to say that the people in preconciliar times didn’t sing chant. Many sang the ordinary chants.

To her credit, she grants that "chant and polyphony are part of our music heritage" and she has no problem with its promotion. However: "the error is the assumption that chant and polyphony are the only worthy music in the Church."

Now, this is really a caricature. Who is claiming that only chant and polyphony are worthy? What many have realized—and this is a point underscored by Sacrosanctum—is that they represent ideal types: a standard against which all other music should measured. That doesn't mean that other forms of music must be somehow prohibited. Mass settings by Schubert or Mozart are not polyphonic but I know of no one who would somehow ban them. The same is true of many hymns sung as recessionals or postcommunions.

I've never understand why this is such a difficult point to grasp. The Christian faith is all about establishing ideals, and yet these have been decidedly lacking in the musical area for a long time. What the sacred music community seeks to do is reestablish them, not with the goal of making black and white lists but with the hope that ideals will inspire musicians to take their jobs more seriously.

Now, comes from the political part of her article, though it is not overtly presented as such. She urges us not to "underestimate the contribution" made by composers of "contemporary" music after Vatican II. Their song are "attractive and accessible." It is because of them that we are "able to understand the text." "If you can understand the words sung during the sprinkling rite, thank a post-Vatican II composer."

Well, you know, there are only two texts for the sprinkling rite. There is Asperges me: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor, Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. In English, Sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be clean, Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Then there is Vidi Aquam for the Easter season: Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia. In English: I saw water coming out from the temple, from the right side, alleluia.

One of these two is sung every Sunday at the principle Mass of the day. Are we really supposed to believe that people are unable to grasp these texts after hearing them every week for their entire lives? I dare say that many people understood these texts in the old days. Indeed, people can grasp them today with simple worship programs. It takes only a few weeks and people might indeed be singing along.

It is beyond me how it is that Rendler cannot see this simple point. But here is a theory. She and many like her have a fixed model of how they understand the world. The old days, in this view, was the era of the elites, who walled themselves off from the people of God so as to perform their music in a foreign tongue that no one understood. Vatican II, however, ushered in the "era of the laity" in which the people took back their Church from the elites and demanded popular music written in a language they do understand.

This is a revolutionary dogma that no amount of contrary evidence seems to be able to overthrow. This is because it serves as the fixed starting point for liturgical commentary, a kind of frozen caste of mind that is unshaken by any reality. It is a dialectical worldview shaped by political categories that are deeply entrenched in a ideological-mental apparatus characteristic of a certain generation.

Because of certain mental blocks, they see the people of God singing chant with joy and don't know how to deal with it. Maybe these people are possessed by "false consciousness" or perhaps they are unwitting dupes of the elites who seek to rob the masses of their liturgical project?

If we are going to see the way forward out of the fog, we are going to have to remove our political lenses and come to grips with the reality that people love and need their traditions, and there is in fact a great deal of resentment against what happened after 1970. Even in the absence of such resentment, there is a just and praiseworthy desire on the part of many to be true to the Catholic faith and stop using it as a plaything in a politically driven morality play.

All Catholics, whether specialists or people in the pews, have good reason to become caretakers of our heritage and the treasury of sacred music. In this project, we can all cooperate toward the common goal of experiencing the impossible miracle of the Mass, presented in a way that is true to itself.

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