Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Next Step for Reformers

We’ve sailed through the most substantial changed in the Catholic Mass in 40 years, and finally corrected a very flawed problem at the core of the experience of Mass goers, one that destabilized several generations of the faithful and created a massive disconnect between our practice and our tradition. At last we have a translation that is faithful to the Latin original, theologically serious, and aesthetically liturgical.

To those who have despaired that nothing will ever improve, those who have believed decline is somehow written into the fabric of our times, take notice: a dramatic improvement has in fact happened, seemingly against all odds. Authentic progress is possible with work and prayer!

With the basic structure in place - what can you do so long as the language of the liturgy is not right? - the question arises concerning the next step. What is stage two of the reform? The music issue is most certainly next on the list. Aside from the text, this is the issue that deals most substantially with the core of what we experience at liturgy. The core question is whether the music at liturgy is there to provide popular entertainment and inspiration or whether it is there to honor God by giving a beautiful and solemn voice to the liturgical texts themselves.

The Vatican seems to be alert to this issue. Early in the fall of 2011, Pope Benedict issued a motu proprio that reorganized the Congregation for Divine Worship. To what end, no one knew for sure. Now it has been reported that the Congregation will establish a new "Liturgical Art and Sacred Music Commission” that will begin to take up the music question. Adam Bartlett has linked the two events and speculated that this was the reason for the shakeup, to finally do something about the problem that everyone knows exists but few have the willingness to confront in any kind of legislative way.

We can hope for much more than the usual generalized declarations that Gregorian chant should have first place at Mass, that not all music is appropriate at Mass, and that the style of music should be an extension and development of the chant genre. Those points are excellent ones, to be sure, but they have been made again and again for decades, even centuries, but nothing really changes. They are on the verge of becoming platitudes, slogans without real operative meaning. There are several reasons for this: they are too vague and subject to interpretation, people do not really know what it means to give chant pride of place, and it is impossible to develop and extend something you do not know anything about in the first place.

What the commission really needs to take on is the issue of the Mass texts themselves. Can we freely dispense with them and replace them with texts of our own composition and choosing? Or must we defer to the liturgy as we have received it and ennoble that liturgy with music appropriate to the task? This is the real question. To put the matter plainly, the Vatican needs to rewrite its own legislation as regards music. It must make the propers of the Mass the mandatory sung text. Mandatory. No exceptions. It must absolutely forbid them to be replaced by something else. This change in the legislation alone would do far more than yet another cautious statement about the lasting value of the Church’s treasury of sacred music.

To review the history here, the idea that the propers of the Mass can be displaced has absolutely no precedent in the history of our faith. I can hear the critic now attempting to correct me on the point: “before the Second Vatican Council, we never sang the propers; at Mass, we sang various hymns at the entrance, offertory, and communion, and it is no different today.”

That’s true enough but here is the major difference. When the people were singing hymns in preconciliar times, the celebrant was saying the propers of the Mass. He said the entrance antiphon, the communion proper, and so on. They were not neglected completely; they were part of the Mass but at low Mass, they were restricted to the priest alone.

There can be no question that a major ambition of the liturgical reform was to do something about the problem that the low Mass had become the primary form of the Mass that nearly all Catholics experienced week to week. The goal - and this comes through in the writings of the liturgical movement dating back to the early part of the 20th century - was to raise the bar and make every Mass a sung Mass. The Mass was no longer to be the private preserve of the celebrant but rather those prayers and those propers were to be publicly shared and made part of the audible experience of the Mass for everyone..

For this reason, it really was a catastrophic concession that the propers of the Mass can be replaced by the other songs that we alone decide are appropriate substitutes. The concession was made as an afterthought, the option four that was thrown in to deal with the unusual contingency, but it proved to be a moral hazard of the worst sort. It quickly became the norm, and suddenly we found ourselves in an even worse position than we were before the Council convened. Not only were the propers not sung, they were not said either. They completely dropped out of the picture.

Many people have pointed out that the new edition of the flagship hymnal of the GIA, called Worship, contains for the first time an index item that draws attention to the entrance antiphon for Mass. People have sent this to me and said it represents progress. I suppose it does. But consider the irony. A mainstream book of some 1000 pages that purports to offer music for the Mass has a few inches in the way back that actually addresses the sung proper of the Mass - and this is cause for celebration? It’s incredible to think that this is what it has come down to.

If you want to see a vision of the future, take a look at Jeffrey Ostrowski’s Vatican II Hymnal. Here we have one book that is all about music and all about the liturgy, a book in which the two are not separate but a united whole. The propers of the Mass are there in English and Latin, along with the readings and plenty of music for the whole of Mass. It also provides some traditional hymnody but clearly as supplemental material designed to enhance our experience at a Catholic people and give us additional music with which to praise God. The balance is correct here. The title itself sums up the point: this is much closer to what the Council fathers envisioned.

I’ve not previously mentioned another visionary project by Adam Bartlett, the Lumen Christi Missal. What I appreciate most about this book is the clarity of vision, which comes through in the stunningly beautiful typesetting. As I looked at the first draft, I thought: this is so advanced, so effervescent, so solid. I stammered a bit at realizing what I was seeing here. It offers a serious challenge to the way we think of the sung liturgical structure. It gives us readings, the text of the antiphons of the Graduale Romanum and Roman Missal, musical settings of the Mass ordinary, Psalms (including weekday Psalms), plus weekly antiphons from the Missal and seasonal antiphons (primarily from the Graduale Romanum, but also from the Missal and Graduale Simplex) for entrance, offertory, and communion. These antiphons are through-composed with the idea that the assembly can participate in singing them if the propers are not sung in their fullness by the schola. There are no occasional hymns; 100% of this book is drawn from the liturgical text.

In some way, I would say that Adam’s book is really the first music book that takes seriously the ordinary form of Mass in English as a ritual of the Catholic faith with a voice all its own, and it is a voice that it is serious, substantial, and special. There is not a hint of nostalgia in this work (not that nostalgia is always bad); rather, we see here a settling down of a uniquely conciliar vision for how the liturgy is to be conducted in light of both tradition and the need for development. How many parishes will be bold and (dare I say) progressive enough to embrace this project? Already, there are many people who have signed up to receive notification when the project is complete. Perhaps it will end up in 2% or 5% of the best parishes. Fine. That’s a great beginning. I predict that this could be the beginning of something wonderful in our future.

In any case, these are two of many such projects underway. They are in in their infancy, and it will be some time before we begin to see them used more broadly. They all point the way forward. Gregorian chant, yes, but with a practical and realizable strategy going forward. These books move us beyond slogans toward real practice. As the Vatican commission fires up its work toward a musical reform, these books need to be widely circulated as models for how to tackle stage two of the reform of the reform.

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