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CNP Feedback -
Hit Songs at Mass

Q. Dear CNP:

Thanks for your informative website. I've been programming music such as "The Prayer," "Mary Did You Know" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth," for Catholic Mass at my parish for years. Now I've seen various posts on the internet which discuss the use of these songs at church and usually they aren't favorable. Can you explain to me why I shouldn't be using this music? For example what do I say to a bride that has asked for this at her wedding? What do I say to my priest who thinks there's nothing wrong with them? I think these hymns will be missed by the people in my congregation and they may ask for them if I don't play them for a while.

Cary Okee

A. Dear Mr. Okee:

We're glad you enjoy the CNP website.

The issue of questionable music is in the forefront of many discussions among clergy, parish musicians and laity all over the world. Music at Mass is perhaps the most contentious argument that occurs on the parish level concerning the Liturgy. This is so often cloaked as an "opinion" or a "personal preference" issue. It's really not.

There are guidelines and instruction that the Church offers for music at her liturgies. Staying close to these will help "defuse" the many heated discussions that occur over music in the parish. Let's examine closely what the Church proposes for music at Mass — realize, please, that these are ideals and may not be possible at every parish, all the time. They are, nonetheless, goals for which to strive. As close as our music comes to these ideals, the more authentic will be out liturgies, and the more grounds we have in discussing what many people see as just "your opinion against mine."

It cannot be said too many times, or stressed strong enough, that the Church herself has given us all the music and texts for Mass. The texts for Entrance, Offertory and Communion are given in the Propers of the Mass. Every one of these places has appropriate "Catholic" music already written for it, in the form of Gregorian chant contained in the Graduale Romanum, the Gregorian Missal, or the Graduale simplex. More and more publishing companies, including of course CanticaNOVA Publications, are producing various musical settings of these texts, in many musical styles. And many parishes are turning to these resources to be able to sing the "correct" texts for the Roman Rite liturgy. No one, not parishioners, not pastors, not even bishops, can criticize you for using the proper texts of the Church at Mass. You have one of the most compelling rebuttals for the "but-we-like-these-songs" argument. You say: "The Church wants us to sing these." Just check out the Roman Missal or your missalette — the proper texts are there.

The General Instruction on the Roman Missal, the "how-to manual" that's printed at the beginning of the Roman Missal, lists four options for the congregation's processional music (Entrance, Offertory, Communion) at Mass:

  1. The Gregorian chant from the Graduale Romanum/Gregorian Missal, or another setting of the same text in Latin or in English
  2. A more simplified Gregorian chant from the Graduale simplex
  3. A psalm and antiphon from an approved collection
  4. Another approved liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day or the time of year

Notice that only as a fourth alternative (the priority order is important), is a hymn or song allowed. A valid argument can be made that we Roman Rite music directors should be moving up the list in our parishes, and programming more Gregorian chant, Proper texts or at the very least Antiphon/Psalms instead of the steady diet of songs and hymns that have prejudiced our parishioners for fifty years.

With these goals and the reasoning behind them clearly in mind, and shared with the congregation, one can always beg off the suggestions for questionable music: "For the next few weeks (or months, or years) we're looking to expand our repertoire of official, 'Church-approved' music. Consequently, we may need to retire some of the old standards."

Many of those lobbying for the old "traditional" (sic) hymns (like "Let There Be Peace on Earth," "I Am the Bread of Life," "Here I Am, Lord," "Be Not Afraid," and "On Eagle's Wings") will often classify themselves as "progressives." Funny how their musical tastes have not "progressed" beyond the dated styles and titles of the 1980s. How polyester! While this assessment may have a certain veracity, you're not going to win any arguments by pointing this out to "progressives," who often, quite paradoxically, have the most closed minds. But the Church's faithful musicians, in both thinking and action, are moving [dare I say "progressing"] toward more authentic music in worship by the use of the Propers.

That's the general argument. But what about these three particular pieces that are so beloved in your parish?

I'm afraid I don't know "The Prayer." An internet search turned up a stage song by that name, written for Celine Dion, and sung by her with both Andrea Boccelli and Josh Groban. The song is nice, and has an appealing back-story. This concert song being sung by a congregation in a Catholic church at Mass certainly breaks the limits of appropriateness. I wish I could say that this surprises me, but I've heard and seen so much outlandish stuff being proposed as "liturgical" music, that very little raises an eyebrow anymore!

The incredibly popular Christmas song, "Mary Did You Know?" (Lowry/Green), has been sung by a slew of pop artists, including Michael English, Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd, Clay Aiken, Cee Lo Green, Pentatonix, Reba McIntyre, Rascal Flatts, and even has its own Wikipedia page. Truth be told, the list of pop artists above would be (for me, anyway) ample reason not to consider this liturgical music. However, there are stronger arguments against ever singing this in a Roman Catholic church.

There's an overtly heretical line in the lyrics:

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?
This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

The Catholic dogma, celebrated liturgically in the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, holds that:

the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful [Pope Pius IX, 1854].

While the rest of humanity lay waiting for the redemption won by Jesus Christ in the Paschal Mystery of his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Mary enjoyed those fruits beforehand, wrapped in the timelessness of God Almighty, from the first moment of her conception. Thus, "this Child will soon deliver you" is inconsistent with Catholic theology.

An even more blunt negative appraisal: Yes, Mary actually did know. At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel told her:

You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus [Yeshua, which means "God saves"]. Great will be his dignity and he will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever. The holy offspring to be born will be called Son of God [Saint Luke 1:31-32,35]

Further, she would have learned from God, via Joseph, her husband:

She [Mary] is to have a son and you are to name him Jesus ["God saves"] because he will save his people from their sins [Saint Matthew 1:21].

Mary knew!

But what about that Disney-esque wonder, "Let There Be Peace on Earth"? The song, written by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller in 1955 (around sixty year ago), has admirable sentiments, although the lyrics themselves are rather simplistic and self-centered. The music is well-suited for a soloist, particularly for a soloist with a microphone. The style is very secular — far from good liturgical music. I'd say, save it for the campfire or for "Spirituality Night" at the karaoke spot.

So, in dealing with parishioners and clergy who have a hankering for this questionable music, above all else, be kind and eminently civil. Don't argue — persuade. There are times and places for all this music that speaks to the hearts and emotions of many good Catholics. That time and place is not always at Mass. Encourage them to sing these songs loudly and often at Prayer Group, or Women's Club meetings, or wedding receptions, or to blare them in the car and iPod. At Mass, we need to begin actualizing the Roman Rite liturgy as contained officially in our Prayerbook [the Roman Missal] and our Hymnbook [the Roman Gradual].

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications
Article written 07 December 2014

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