Monday, February 09, 2009

Why Are the People the Only Focus?

Over the weekend, I enjoyed an interesting interview with a reporter from a national Catholic publication. The reporter was professional and thorough, and we covered many important issues on the topic of musical transitions in parish life. The idea was to cover the rationale and methods for moving from what is the status quo to something more in keeping with the tradition of the Roman Rite.

It was only after I got off the phone--the interview lasted about an hour--that something struck me. The interviewer and I were speaking two different languages. It didn't prevent us from communicating but there was certainly a gap throughout the entire conversation.

Let me give you a feel for this.

His questions mostly involved the people's response to change. How will the people respond to chant? Can the people sing Latin? Will people feel alienated by Latin? Do people have the capacity to make the Gregorian tradition their own? Will people miss their favorite groovy tunes from the 1970s? Will people feel that they are leaving behind something important to them? Will the people eventually warm up to plainchant? Do our parishes have the people necessary to sing polyphonic music and play the organ?

And so on.

These are all important questions. But are they the only questions?

In retrospect, I realize that while I answered these issues, I was continually returning to a slightly different focus. The chant is tied to the liturgy in an intimate way. It is about singing the Mass rather than some exogenous text. Plainchant has an upward lift the points out out time rather than a metric that keeps us grounded. Chant and its polyphonic elaboration is most fitting to the holy action at the altar, and makes the liturgical project true to itself. The focus of sacred music is always toward prayer and transcendent concerns. The Church recommends chant and grants it primacy among all music for a reason. The liturgical purpose of the chant is revealed in the music. It is the universal music of the Church so that our aesthetic is shared across time and space.

And so on.

Do you see the difference in the way we approached these questions? I don't doubt that the "pastoral" dimension here is an important one. What happens at liturgy must indeed connect with people and assist in the formation of community. But sometimes the sole focus on what is pastoral can blind us to larger truths. Is pleasing the people the a primary aim or a secondary effect of integrity in the liturgical art?

In this writings, Benedict XVI has continually emphasized that to focus on the gathered community at the expense of the transcendent amounts to a distortion of the purpose of Catholic liturgy, the primary aim of which is not to foster a people-centered sense of unity. It is instead of lead a procession out of time and assist the prayerful encounter with the sacred. It is Christ who unites us, and Christ that must remain the center of our reform efforts.

No, I didn't make these points in the interview, though I should have. I found myself distracted by all the demands that the "reform the reform" camp come up with strategies that have popular appeal. I don't doubt that this is possible and necessary. But I question the single-minded focus on the anthropocentric aspect of the reform as if it is all that matters.

We've all attended religious gatherings in which we have felt a strong sense of community unity, and yet discover a certain lack of spiritual fulfillment in that idea alone. What precisely is the purpose of the unity? Or is this a goal that serves as the end point?

If we are to approach this subject with a true Catholic sense, we have to redirect our concern beyond earthly goals and look with humility and obedience to a higher purpose. Our faith makes a strong claim for the Mass and for our community prayerlife: in some ways, it is an impossible claim to believe so long as our hearts and minds are bound by practical and temporal concerns alone.

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