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CNP Feedback - Truth & Charity

The "Feedback Box" on the CanticaNOVA Publications website has proven quite effective in promoting communications on a variety of subjects, and expressing concerns of liturgists and musicians. From time to time, we'll compile a few of these questions or comments and put them in public view, with the hope that others with similar concerns may benefit from their content.

Q. Dear CNP:

I have ordered from you in the past, and the choir and congregation have very much appreciated the music. It's now summer — I am busy planning and was looking at your Fall 2005 catalog. On page seven I read, in the description of the Mass Propers for Christmastide:

Perhaps this was due to overzealous liturgists and musicians of the late 20th century who were more concerned with promoting an agenda and their own tawdry pieces than researching ...

I am personally weary unto death of the liturgy wars. All sides are sanctimonious to the point of nausea in their rhetoric. There is no way you can know whether or not what you wrote was true; you are just fanning the fires of division within the Church.

When I read that, I tossed your catalog into the trash. Then I remembered the proverb about the baby and the bathwater, so I dug it out and decided to send you this note.

In my humble opinion, I think that everybody in the field of pastoral music ought to remember that charity and hospitality are major Christian virtues. Your rhetoric was neither charitable (you put the worst possible construction on the events) nor hospitable. Maybe you don't take your Christian faith seriously, but I do. And I think that in the future, when you write your catalogs, you should take your Christian faith seriously in your writing and not sin against charity and hospitality. If you think that fanning the fires of hatred and division is the proper way to advance your ideals of what church music should be, then you should think again, because the Catechism clearly teaches that it is wrong to try to achieve a moral end by the use of immoral means.

I hope that future catalogs that we may receive from you do not sin against charity and hospitality. If this kind of rhetoric continues, however, I will certainly not support you with purchases of music.

Steamed in the South

A. Dear Steamed:

Thank you for your earnest and heartfelt remarks regarding a phrase used in our Fall 2005 catalog. I wrote that text, so I can take full blame (or credit) for any ideas contained therein.

The phrase I used to better understand why "at many places during the Mass, we have come far afield of what the Church expects of us" was not meant to be vindictive or to fan any flames simply for the sake of a larger conflagration. My comment was:

Perhaps this was due to overzealous liturgists and musicians of the late 20th century who were more concerned with promoting an agenda and their own tawdry pieces than researching what music might be closer to the rubrical desires.
It can hardly be disputed that from the mid-1960s through the turn of the millennium there were virtually no liturgical settings written for any of the texts of the Mass Propers (as found in English in the Roman Missal and in Latin in the Graduale Romanum and elsewhere). These are the texts of primary importance for the "processional" moments at Mass: Entrance, Offertory, Communion. Other texts that one might use at these points are used secondarily, or by exception.

My observation was this: Why were popular composers universally ignoring "proper" texts to construct their own, many of which were "tawdry" ("cheap in nature or appearance")? Songs about butterflies and balloons may well elicit emotional satisfaction (particularly in the young and the immature), but such texts are nowhere close to the sublime psalm quotes that mark the Proper Entrance, Offertory and Communion antiphons (which are de facto models of what the Church wants to be used at these liturgical moments).

Why, indeed, did popular composers follow their pattern of creating new texts and setting them to mundane ("typical of this world") music?

  1. Perhaps it was to feed a need, perceived or actual, for "fuzzy" music among the faithful
  2. Perhaps it was for financial gain (selling this music was quite lucrative)
  3. Perhaps it was as a rejection of all things "rubrical"
  4. Perhaps it was an attempt to "soften" the hierarchical Church
  5. Perhaps it was an attempt at promoting an agenda.
And that, was my comment.

I was simply examining the situation and I offered a possible explanation (please notice the "perhaps").

There are many areas of life where the Church offers options to us:

  • eating meat on non-Lenten Fridays or not
  • choosing to celebrate an optional memorial or not
  • receiving Communion in the hand or on the tongue
  • going to confession face-to-face or anonymously.
In none of these (or many other) areas have I made or should I ever make comments regarding preferences, or admonishing those who choose one or the other option. The options are all appropriate and legitimate.

There are other areas of life where it is clear (through rubrics or example) what the mind of the Church is:

  • liturgical texts may not be altered
  • solemnities, feasts and obligatory memorial must be celebrated according to the universal calendar and the table of precedence
  • blue vestments are never permitted in the United States
  • pride of place must be afforded to Gregorian chant in liturgies
  • music is more worthy the more closely it resembles chant
  • the pipe organ is the foremost instrument for Catholic liturgy.

People who would deny such clear rules are either ignorant ("lacking knowledge"), misinformed, shading facts to promote personal ideas, or openly rebellious. In any of these cases, they are wrong ("not in conformity with fact or truth"). One goal of CanticaNOVA Publications is to educate; another is to oppose error. While the composers whom I obliquely mentioned in my comment would themselves argue vehemently and with perhaps much indignation about the righteousness of their intent and the quality of their compositions, there are many musicians "in the trenches" who are looking for guidance as to what is proper and expected by the Church. Our speaking out is more than charity to them; it is indeed education and promotion of the truth to explain both the rubrics and why so many of their colleagues seem to be ignoring them.

Understanding the liturgy is not necessarily easy. It often involves conflict between groups who see things in different lights. It is often a struggle. In referencing a book on liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

I hope that this book will help the struggle — which is necessary in every generation — for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. [italic emphasis added]
If, in my exposing much of late-20th century American church music as being "less than noble," I have offended its composers, I apologize. It was not my intent to be malicious or uncharitable, even in speaking the truth. Pope Benedict, in his first address after his election (April 20, 2005) spoke, quoting Saint Paul: "Truth without charity would be like a 'clanging cymbal.'" [I Cor 13:1]. If I sounded like a "clanging cymbal," I am sorry.

He also said in the same address: "Charity without truth would be blind."

Lest we blindly follow the questionable musical path of the previous four decades, we must seek understanding, seek knowledge, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit functioning in the heart of the Church. The "truth" about church music is not an ethereally speculative notion — it is promulgated and interpreted concretely by councils, popes and Vatican offices. In charity, we need to follow where the Church leads, not shying away from the truth and not diluting it with personal prejudices. May Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of the Truth) reign.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

See also Entrance Psalms
Offertory Antiphons
Cardinal Ratzinger on Liturgical Music
The Practicality of Chant in Modern Liturgy
What Have We Done?

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