Thursday, June 18, 2009

The State of Catholic Music in the U.S.

Here is a truth that most mainstream Catholic musicians will not want to hear: Catholics in the pews are deeply unhappy, nearly to the point of disgust, or even past that point, with the state of Catholic music in the average parish. The longer the status quo continues, the more demoralized and angry they are becoming.

I’m not speaking of cathedrals, which have been improving, or of famed and growing parishes that are currently working toward the great ideals of sung prayer in liturgy, and I’m not even speaking of seminaries, which are undergoing rapid and thrilling rates of reform right now.

Instead I’m speaking of the run-of-the-mill Catholic parish you happen into on your travels here and there, anywhere in the country, the parishes that don’t make the headlines, can’t afford the trained musicians, don’t have the wonderful organs, and just have to get by on the resources they have.

Here is where the status quo prevails in a nearly tyrannical way. The musicians here will not read this article. Even if you clip it and send it to them, they will say: “sorry, no time; I’m a volunteer so I don’t really need to read this stuff. People should be grateful that I’m doing anything at all.” They have a point; but the faithful too have a point they their Mass should sound a bit more like Church and less like sit-com theme songs.

These put-upon volunteers, however, are not curious about the reform of the reform, the extraordinary reform, the writings of Benedict XVI or Cardinal Ratzinger, and they are not attending sacred music workshops this summer. They don’t read the documents, are not interested the learn about the intrinsic qualities of the Roman Rite, own no CDs of genuinely sacred music, and never think to investigate their moral responsibilities to the liturgy.

How did they enter on this path from which they refuse to escape? Perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, they happened into a commercial trade show at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians and grabbed a few octavos that they dragged home to foist on unwilling congregations. Maybe there was a pastor who backed them. They were never able to manage to conjure up that spiritual high they felt at the magic weekend but they did finally get their way. And there is where it stayed – no progress, no movement, no action at all.

What is especially depressing is that the music they grabbed, like so much of the fare over the last 30-40 years, implies a certain peppy sensibility with it that requires a hopped enthusiasm (This is new! This is fun! This is exciting!) to make it sound right. It works, sometimes, but only for a while.

Build the City of God! Gather Us In! Sing of God’s Glory! If you are tired of this fare and sing it with a plain-Jane voice, the music sort of dies, and ends up eliciting no more excitement than “Benny and the Jets” sung by a boomer in a dentist-office waiting room.

And this turns out to be the way many, or even most, if not nearly all, regular Catholics describe the music they must endure week to week. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive a long, pained email from someone pleading to know why it is that their Mass-going experience must be wrecked every single week by this music that they can’t stand.

Phonecalls pour into my cellphone from people who long to hear something that hints of the sacred instead of the material that they uncharitably describe to me on the phone, mainly because they at least feel they have a chance to vent their frustrations. It is overwhelming.

I know what you are thinking. Jeffrey, you are just a magnet for these kinds of bitter complaints but they hardly represent the whole. Who else are they going to call? Well, I used to think this too. But lately I’ve been trying it out an experiment in different contexts.

I’ve been to conferences on non-music subjects where people are clueless about any connection I have to Catholic music projects, and otherwise know nothing of my connections and work. I will just casually ask a Catholic—having discovered their religion affiliation—how the music is in their parish.

Every single time the response is the same and it is like the dam breaks before my eyes. The words they use to describe their music, after breathing a heavy sigh are as follows: unbearable, dreadful, painful, insipid, insufferable, horrid, absurd, ridiculous and many other words that I can’t repeat here. I always listen attentively without encouraging the conversation in any particular direction.

Then once their complaints are over, and follow up with a simple question: what do you think about Gregorian chant? The answer is 100% positive, followed by trouble questions about why they can’t hear this at Mass. They tell stories of chant they have heard on CDs they own, of concerts on television, of radio shows, of moving trips abroad to hear Mass in some Cathedral in a foreign land, and their countenance changes. These are the experiences they hang onto for dear life, while they wait and wait for something (please God!) to change in their parishes.

Now, what these people do not know, and what I would like to tell them, is that a revival is in fact sweeping the country. It began only a few years ago to spread outside a few preserves and is making its way ever more into parishes of all sorts, big and small. There are more each year. Scholas are being founded every week. Thousands of people are being trained, and they are taking on themselves the task of rediscovering this glorious tradition and they are doing so outside the official channels, using downloadable editions, assembling scholas of interested laypeople, and their passion is spreading.

Young pastors have been enormously friendly to the new scholas, giving them a chance to sing and holding them up as models for other musicians in the parish to follow. They are delivering homilies on the topic, explaining the ideal to everyone so that the Catholic people can come to understand and love the music that is native to their Mass. It is happening in schools, and seminaries, and even in monasteries which are again finding their footing in the music that is at the center of their prayer life.

There is no question where the musical history of the Catholic Church is currently headed, and no question about what it is leaving behind, Deo Gratias. The trajectory is unmistakable, undeniable. Be patient. Pray. Work. And pray some more. The time will come, and that time is not as far off as many think. The tedium will slip away and our parishes will again be filled with the music that will inspire the faithful, give true Glory to God, and will even elicit awe in even the most secular ear.

In the meantime, we must avoid casting aspersions on those who are doing their best to provide music for Mass. In some ways, they are victims of a time and victims of a movement that has long outlived its usefulness. They devote countless hours to serving. What they need is guidance, direction, training, inspiration. I believe that most will embrace the challenge once it is presented to them.

Cultures change in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Change in coming. The line might be crooked and the timing might not always be to our liking but the direction of change and the goal of the reform is highly centered and focused. The long period of suffering will not last forever.

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