Monday, April 13, 2009

Getting from Here to There

A vast chasm separates the current practice of music in Catholic parishes from the Roman Rite ideal. In the typical case—which you can discover by wandering into any random American parish mid morning on Sunday—you find untrained volunteers doing what large music publishers are instructing them to do week after week, which amounts to belting out four songs (processional, offertory, communion, and recessional) that have no precedent in the history of the Roman Rite, either stylistically or textually.

These songs are interrupted by a second set of jingles that set the text of the Gloria, Psalm, and the dialogues. I admit that I find the whole package intolerably annoying. Others write to tell me that they find this music touching in some way. I don't doubt their word on this, for there is no accounting for taste. But what is indisputable here is that this music has nothing to do with the ritual structure or stylistic demand of the Roman Rite as it has been understood at any point in our 2000-year history.

On those grounds alone, we desperately need to leap beyond the status quo and toward the ideal, which is found in the actual music books of the Roman Rite: the Graduale for the choir, the Kyriale and Latin hymns for the people, and the chanted Mass from the celebrant with the music found in the Missal.

Sung readings would also be a welcome addition, along with good settings of the Psalms as found on Even better: let's embrace the real Psalms of David from the chant books and leave the "Responsorial Psalm" altogether.

As for the silly songs we sing, material I find insipid but others report to find touching and moving, it doesn't have to go away completely but it should be kept out of Mass. It should be relegated to CDs and concerts. If parishioners just can't stand to go a season without hearing "Table of Plenty" and "Gather Us In," let the praise band play them in the social hall instead of counting on the captive audience of Mass goers to be their audience.

We can see here that the distance between the current practice and the ideal practice is so large as to be unfathomable. How can we get from here to there? One step at a time. If changes are made toward the ideal, they should be celebrated. Even small changes can make a huge difference, as I argue in my book Sing Like a Catholic (CMAA, 2009).

Here is a short list of small steps:

  • Move the cantor from the front to the back; people don't need to be directed as if it were a protestant revival meeting
  • Keep the choir out of sight because it is not a concert; a loft or loft-like posture fulfills the hope that the music comes from within the community
  • Turn down the volume on the microphones and instruments; Mass should be a time of prayer
  • Use English plainchant for the Gloria and get rid of all metrical settings of this piece
  • Sing Kyrie eleison every week; it is part of the rite, an homage to the East and essential for our spiritual comportment
  • Use an Alleluia from the Parish Book of Chant and stop with these four-square numbers that have been beat to death
  • Sing the actual Offertory antiphon, in English or Latin, and stop using this time of Mass as the intermission for the choir to perform its "special music" of the day
  • Stop the pointless repetition of the sung Gospel Acclamation and Amen; just use plaintchant
  • Do not attempt force the people to sing while receiving communion; if there must be a people's hymn, leave it for after communion
  • Sing the Creed in plainchant
  • Sing the Our Father
  • Sing the readings; it's not as hard as you think
  • Cut out the rousing recessional and let the music reflect the idea that we should "go in peace"
  • Try singing without any instruments for a few weeks in a row, and see how it actually improves people's willingness to make a joyful noise, for instruments can often crowd out voices
  • In every Mass, find a way to sing at least one Latin song; it could be the Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus, or some one of many dozens of hymns available to us from the treasury of sacred music
  • Do not fear silence; you might find that it is more beautiful than any music

Even implementing all these suggestions still keeps us far from the music ideal but it takes us much closer to the ideal than the existing practice. The Mass will feel more like the Roman Rite, whose structure resists the attempt to bend and twist it into the revival meeting that it is not. Musicians should consider why the experiments of the last decades are nearly universally regarded as failures. We've been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The answer is to turn toward the actual music of the Roman Rite and let that be our guide.

The newest document from the US Bishops ("Sing to the Lord") may have no binding force, and for that we should probably be grateful. But it is still a vast improvement over what came before, and some of what I list above here can be found in this document. We are getting there one step at a time.

A larger question I sometimes get from people attached to the extraordinary form is the following: what is the point of all of this? Why not just embraced the 1962 Missal and save your time and energy on what is probably a hopeless project of making the Novus Ordo more like the Mass of history?

It is a fair question that has several answers. One is that we have an obligation to fulfill the hopes and desires of the Second Vatican Council, which states more clearly than any Council in the history of the Church that chant is the music of the Roman Rite, the standard against which all other music is to be judged. It is true that what emerged from the reform efforts in 1970 departed substantially from vision of the Council. Even the Missal that emerged in 1965 travelled a far distance from the expressed longings of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy from two years earlier.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable reality that the Missal of Paul VI is the only Mass that several generations of Catholic know. It is the Mass attended by some 95% of Catholics in the English-speaking world. I can't see any great heroism or bravery or principle in the suggestion that all of these people and all of these priests should just be written off as hopelessly corrupt.

One can admit that the full musical ideal of the Roman Rite can sometimes be a difficult fit within the 1970 Missal, a fact which speaks to the flaws in some structural elements of the ordinary form and the impatient temperament of celebrants and people. But when the effort is made, the results can be as spectacular as anything in the preconciliar Mass, to the point that only experts can detect the difference. It is possible, and I'm speaking as someone who once went on record doubting this. Participants in the CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium see this happen every year.

But there is yet another point. If one's preference is for the old Mass, and one would like to see more people drawn to it, one still must have a plan in place that makes that transition possible. Some people can go from one to other with no preparation. But most people need a bridge of some sort, something to entice them into a fuller appreciation of the importance of tradition and solemn forms of liturgical expression. Small steps toward reforming the ordinary form can make that possible.

The reform of the reform is happening, slowly and with little fanfare. These can be small steps but they are important ones. If we find them here, we will soon find them everywhere. So long as we are approaching the ideal, and even if achieving it remains a far-off goal, we have reasons for hope.

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