Sunday, May 2, 2010

Isn't all music suitable for Mass?

Dear Rev. Know it all,
My pastor is trying to introduce more Gregorian chant into the Mass. I hate it. It’s boring. I like music that makes me feel something. Chant is so dreary and depressing. One of the great things the Vatican Council did was that it did away with the old chant and encouraged people to use more expressive modern music like Ray Repp and the St. Louis Jesuits. Shouldn’t Mass be joyful?
Harold E. Lujah

Dear Hal,( May I call you Hal?)
So, the Vatican Council did away with Gregorian chant? Here’s a video you might find interesting, What pray, tell, is new about the music you mentioned? The St. Louis Jesuits wrote their stuff from 1964 to 1974, almost fifty years ago. I remember it well. We would have relevant music, music that the young could relate to. It would fill the churches with youth and vitality. Didn’t anyone notice that in 1964 the churches were full? Well that worked out real well.
Now, in Europe and America we have churches sparsely filled with grey heads that think fifty-year-old music is contemporary. Got any more good ideas? Have you never heard that one who is married to the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower?
One can occasionally force an adolescent to go to church if the child is allowed to wear shorts and a T-shirt, but chances are he finds nothing interesting or special going on. It is just that old music that grandma thinks is so modern.
And then there’s the stirring lyrics “Sons of God, hear his holy word. Gather round the table of the Lord. Eat His body, drink his blood and we’ll sing a song of love, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu Hallelu-u-u-u yah” and “Halelu, Hallelu, everybody sing Hallelu The Lord is risen, it is true everybody sing Hallelu.” and “Come dance in the forest, come bump into trees...” Or something like that. What majestic poetry. Who could possibly prefer Gregorian chant to this stuff?
What is Gregorian chant, anyway? The name Gregorian derives from Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), to whom tradition ascribes the codification of Roman chant. It is first called Gregorian chant at a later date, perhaps by Pope Leo IV (847-855) (cantus St. Gregorii.) Pope Gregory did not invent the music called by his name, but he seems to have helped standardize it. It was added to and developed over the years, but it most certainly is a style of music that reaches further back into distant antiquity. Here are some excerpts from an article, “Crossing the Sacred Bridge”, “The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and as a sign of mourning both for its destruction and for the Israelite exile, the rabbis issued a prohibition against making music with instruments. The voice, which always had been the main instrument of prayer, became the only one. The music itself was monophonic – with no harmony – as it is to this day in the Middle East.
"Although Gregorian chant has been influenced by other factors, it collects and preserves the Church’s ancient modal prayer, and that tradition was learned and copied from Hebrew prayer modes and traditions.” “...The early Christians were Jews..... They lived during the time when synagogues were being established and Jewish prayer services developed. When the Second Temple was destroyed there already were more than 300 synagogues in Jerusalem. Just as Jews had morning, afternoon, and evening services, the early Christians, too, were told to pray in the morning and afternoon, at approximately the same time..... Such Church fathers as St. John Chrysostom, 400 CE) knew that customs and liturgical practices had been transmitted from Jews to Christians.... While the roots of early Christian music surely must be sought in the entire ancient eastern world, it clearly originated in the liturgical singing of Levitical and lay cantors who had come to Rome from Jerusalem.” I myself have an interesting recording called the “Sacred Bridge” by the Boston Camarata in which is recorded Psalm 114 using both a Christian psalm tone sung in Latin and a Jewish psalm tone from the Sephardic tradition, sung in Hebrew. The melodies are not similar, they are exactly the same! They presumably come from a common source.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s almost as boring as Gregorian chant itself. Because: these are melodies and styles of music that Jesus and His disciples would have recognized. When you chant you are entering something much bigger than yourself. You are entering the very temple to offer sacrifice to God. Herein lies the problem. Modern people, don’t believe anything is bigger than ourselves. We have big skies and great plains and purple mountains’ majesty and super-sized everything. We are the top of the food chain. We drive Humvees. The liturgical movement of the 60's 70's and 80's largely caved in to that modern spirit, the primacy of ME. Some practitioners of our new and improved liturgy put the emphasis on the satisfied customer, not on something beautiful for God. It is a fine thing to stir the soul and uplift the mind and heart, but it is not the first thing. Worship is the first thing, and worship means “to bow down before.” (in the New Testament “proskynein”) Does the liturgy exalt God or does it exalt me and my personal tastes?
Admittedly, we are removed from the Catholic understanding of worship by at least one generation. But the tradition is far from dead. In its simplicity, chant should allow everyone present to join in worship. It should be remembered that “he who sings prays twice.” How can people join in if you are going to insist on this weird music? I’ve had a lot of complaints that people can’t join in because they aren’t used to it and don’t understand it, especially if there is Latin involved. It’s foreign to them. It will take a lot of work to become Catholic again, and we will have to emphasize repetition and simplicity, not novelty. But, I still believe that it is wrong to simply give in to the sentimentalism of modern life and to forsake worship because it is hard to climb Calvary. We have to find our way back to Catholic worship.
What most of us do in church now is just not catholic, by which I mean universal. It is a kind of hybrid with American Protestantism. It emphasizes the local over the universal. It may enrich a particular community or particular people, by whom I mean “me,” but it doesn’t bind the Church together in space and time. It is fine to have elements of worship that resonate with a local community, but it is a beautiful thing that a Catholic can travel to a distant land and find fellowship with the Lord and His Bride in a song known to him in his native place. How wonderful that I can sing a song that was known to my ancestors and will be known to those who come after me. As the Psalm has it “Behold how good and how pleasant when brethren dwell as one. It is like oil running down the beard of Aaron.” Remember that Aaron was the first Levitical priest and the unity of worship is compared in the Psalm to his priestly anointing. How sweet it must be to the Lord to hear a song rise up from the earth that has been sung since the ark traveled in the desert, a melody that was known to our Lord and our Blessed Mother, a song chanted by Peter and Paul as they faced their executions at the hands of Nero’s henchmen, a song sung for generations, a song of love that unites believers throughout time and space.
Naaahh! Give me something I can hum, something more interesting. If I like it, surely God must like it. I want to get something out of it, not put something into it. I want to come into church and hear some snappy tune. Nothing that challenges. I want no mystery nor wonder. I gotta see what’s going on. Has it occurred to you that there is nothing going on inside the church that isn’t going on outside the church so why bother to go in? You can watch it at home on TV if you want. Modern liturgy leaves nothing to one’s imagination or sense of wonder. It is, in most cases, as banal and boring as television. For forty years we have wandered in a liturgical desert trying to convince ourselves that it was a garden, and still, we think that “if it’s just a little snappier,” a touch more “pizzaz”, that will bring them in. Keep doing what you’ve done for forty years and you’ll get what you’ve gotten for forty years. Time to stop playing to the crowd. It hasn’t worked. Oh, if you still want to be entertained at church, I know a church in the northwest suburbs that has a food court. They broadcast the service into the food court. You can have a latte while hearing really good music and swell preaching. If that’s what you want, then go for it.
Rev. Know-it-all


  1. Dear Reverend Know-it-all,

    I just wanted to write a quick note to tell you how much I appreciate your posts. They are always witty and very informative. Please know that I keep you and your work in my prayers.

    It's hard to be a young Catholic! I went to Marquette, and because of a couple amazing, traditional Jesuits, I didn't fall by the wayside with other Catholics my age. Now I work at the Apostleship of Prayer in Milwaukee, with another fantastic Jesuit (Fr. James Kubicki).

    I've seen you mention Archbishop Weakland a couple times. It's not easy living in his wake. I think Archbishop Dolan and now Archbishop Listecki were presented with major clean-up work, so we have a lot of praying to do. I think many people my age are really reaching for tradition and have a hard time finding it.

    Sorry for the long note... but again, please know you're appreciated and that you're in my prayers!

    Stephanie Schmude

  2. Dear Rev. know-it-all
    what songs do you think would be good for mass?
    can you please answer this quick because i need it by saturday.
    from Pamela