Many American Catholics assume that church music is inherently crappy. While I am by no means a music expert (and I might even be mistaken on some of the technical terms I use below), I think liturgical music is very important. Like for most Catholics my age growing up, the bad music at Mass was just “part of the deal”…something to put up with while fulfilling our duty of Sunday Mass. When I moved to a different parish a few years ago, I realized some churches indeed have very competent musicians only to eventually realize that the music wasn’t necessarily appropriate for the Sacred Liturgy.
Since moving to a new parish, I realize the importance of traditional liturgical music. Most cradle Catholics in our country have only been exposed to two different types of liturgical music:
1) Bad music primarily because of bad (or very old) singers. Sometimes they have an entire choir of poor vocals and sometimes they have a lone singer at the pulpit. There is likely no Gregorian chant or [acceptable] polyphony because of the difficulty of both. While often it’s not the parish’s fault there are no decent choir members available, sometimes there are indirect reasons the parish is unable to attract talented laity.
2) “Progressive” or rhythmic music. This parish relies on modern instruments such as guitars or drums. Usually this parish has the pews stocked with the most “modern” hymnals and sometimes even comes up entirely with their own songs to use for Mass. These parishes tend to put on a concert of sorts, making the focus of Mass on the music and the musicians rather than God.
Of course, the worst would be a combination of the two!
Since the Second Vatican Council, many parishes have felt empowered to radically change their liturgical music even though Vatican II clearly states that Gregorean chant should always have it’s proper place in the Mass:
The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”
–Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 112
The entire situation saddens me because many Catholics just don’t know just what they are missing out on! Catholic music is actually fantastic, these people just have never heard actual Catholic music, they have only heard secular music with crummy, [kinda-]Christian lyrics or Catholic music presented so poorly they naturally turn their ears off. Make no mistake: I love many forms of secular music. In fact, I sort of fancy myself as a music aficionado, so don’t get the wrong impression. But good music takes on different forms depending on the situation and the only way music can enhance a Sacred Liturgy is by being…sacred.
So why are drums, guitars, and strong lead vocals bad in church? It’s because their music appeals to our body rather than our soul or our mind. When you work out, what do you listen to? Probably rock, maybe some hip-hop or rap…something with a beat that gets you moving. A rhythm helps us jog just like it helps us dance. But we are not at Mass to tap our feet or bob our heads. We are at Mass to encounter Heaven and participate prayerfully. We want music that seeks to raise us up above the natural world.
When you want to study or do anything else that requires deep thinking, what do you listen to? Probably some form of classical music–symphony, piano, or singing. Probably something with a more reverent melody. Why is that? It’s because Classical music is appealing to our minds and our spirit. It opens our mind up to ponder what exists beyond our own physical body and natural world. This is why Gregorian chant and [reverent/traditional] polyphony are the most appropriate choices for music at Mass. I must also admit that I am becoming quite partial to the original Latin lyrics in these forms of music too–I think we should bend soul and intellect to understand these sacred lyrics, rather than watering them down to a form we more easily can understand (this isn’t to discuss the differences between the Latin Mass or the Novus Ordo Mass since Latin can be used in either). Not only are these forms of music more appropriate, they are absolutely gorgeous when done right…so gorgeous it can be hard not to fight tears:
Regina Caeli – I love this polyphony, it’s gorgeous.
Salve Regina – If only more Ordinary Form Masses closed with this during ordinary time!
Agnus Dei – What prepares you better for the reception of our Lord, this ancient prayer chanted in Latin or the more modern (and often mumbled) “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…”
Kyrie (polyphonic) & Gloria (chanted) – Many parishes put little emphasis on the [english-translated] Kyrie and I have been to some suburban parishes that treat the Gloria prayer as a blues song with rolling piano licks, drums, and lead vocals–seriously.
So what senses does the music at your parish appeal to…your body or your soul?
The featured image at the top is from here where monks chant in choir stalls.
For much more on traditional Catholic music, this is a topic the blog Views from the Choir Loft discusses regularly and much better than I can.