CNP Logo CanticaNOVA Publications
Online Catalog
Musical Musings
Liturgical Planners
Submit Your Music
Contact Us
Company Description
Musical Musings: CNP Feedback

CNP Feedback — Concerned about "New Traditional Music"

by Gary D. Penkala

Dear Church Musician,

We appreciate hearing your heart-felt concerns about music in the liturgy, a subject that is quite obviously dear to both of us. Let me respond to some of your comments individually, as numbered below:

  1. Question:

    I am truly scared about the return to "New Traditional" music. I truly fear for my job as church musician and am saddened that my service to Jesus through music is about to be devalued by Liturgical Reform.


    There is no need to fear loosing a church job over musical and liturgical changes ... as long as one is open to the wisdom and guidance of the Church. Periodically the Church has issued documents and legislation to guide the faithful to better worship in her Liturgy. A deep longing was evident in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council for more lay involvement in liturgy. The council document, Sacrosanctum concilium, and others since then have opened the doors to many options that were not previously available (such as renewed hymn singing, the musical role of the assembly, newly-written music). CanticaNOVA Publications, and I dare say any other organizations you might label as "Reformist," would not disagree with these documents, from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy right up through Redemptionis sacramentum.

    We at CNP try to be faithful to the Church and sincerely trust her to guide us all on the right path. There are organizations, however, who openly advocate a complete return to a Latin Mass as the only possible "correction" for what they see as current liturgical abuse. They are extremely radical and we do not share their views!

    There are also organizations and individuals who advocate a "progressive" view that the only purpose of music at liturgy is to induce "feelings" in the congregation. They tend to deny or downplay the primary purpose of liturgical music which should be the worship of Almighty God, and secondarily, to aid our own sanctification. They write and sing music which exalts themselves (i.e. the congregation) and speaks little of or to God. They see liturgy purely as something we do and ignore or minimize the sacrificial nature of the Mass, which ultimately must involve a priest and is directed toward God. They are radical and we do not share their views either.

  2. Question:

    I began playing organ when the Mass was still in Latin. I watched and participated in the liturgical changes after Vatican II. Never in my entire musical vocation did I not have Pange lingua in Latin for the procession concluding Holy Thursday Mass. But at this same mass, I also used "Our Blessing Cup" for the psalm, a very "80s" arrangement played on organ, with guitar, cantor, and four-part choir.


    The documents that have recently been issued by Rome are partly an attempt to educate bishops, priests, deacons, liturgists, musicians and the laity on liturgical matters. If we all understood liturgical rubrics and were willing to submit to their authority, we would have much less of the "confrontation" that exists among musicians today. For example, the Procession to the Repository at the end of Holy Thursday Mass has traditionally been accompanied by the chant Pange lingua. The official rubrical book, the Sacramentary, states, "During the procession the hymn Pange lingua or some other eucharistic song is sung." If we look at the rubric closely, we can learn a lot. Obviously, music is meant to accompany the procession. What should this music be? The Church has long sung Pange lingua here, and it may be worthwhile to continue the tradition. However, the rubric also states (albeit secondarily) that something else can be sung, especially if Pange lingua won't work for some reason. The only stipulation is that it be a "eucharistic song." So, from this short rubric, we can read and infer quite a bit about criteria for our choice of music here. There are not only demands (singing) and suggestions (Pange lingua) but also freedom ("some other eucharistic song").

    The Responsorial Psalm, on the other hand, holds a different place in the liturgy. The Church very tightly guards her role in placing liturgical text in the mouths of the faithful, and Scripture in the mouths of lectors, cantors, choirs and priests. No one, not even a bishop, may change any liturgical text on his own authority (except where modifications are expressly allowed by the rubrics)! The Church vehemently adheres to approved liturgical translations of Scripture (like the New American Bible for the United States). Non-approved translations (including the psalms) are simply not allowed. There is no "freedom" here. The fact that numerous progressive composers of the 70s, 80s and 90s bypassed this tenet to produce their own "paraphrases" of Responsorial Psalms, notwithstanding how numerous and popular they may still be, does not make that music acceptable ... on the contrary, only approved psalm texts from the NAB may be sung as Responsorial Psalms in Roman Rite liturgies in the U.S. I'm not sure what setting of "Our Blessing Cup" you were using, but if the verse texts were not taken from the Lectionary (the NAB translation), then this music would have better been sung during the procession than as the Responsorial Psalm.

    Remember, our job as Catholic church musicians is not to "make the people feel good," but to facilitate the "blossoming of the liturgy in their hearts" as a means of worshiping our Creator.

  3. Question:

    I watched and applauded the excitement felt in congregations as the changes took place. I believed the Catholic Church was finally coming out of the dark ages. I personally witnessed to Baptists and other non-denominational members about the misconceptions they had about the church; evangelizing, learning, and sharing with them, praying with them that we all be more understanding of each other.


    I would be careful about what I included in "the dark ages" of Catholic church music. Certainly a priest who rapidly mumbled through one Latin text after another, who ignored the congregation as an "intrusion" on his Mass, who eliminated the beautiful music that the Church had to offer, and congregations who were ignorant of what was happening and used the Mass as merely private devotional time — this scenario is from the dark ages.

    But the great legacy of Gregorian chant, the wonderful motets and Mass settings of the masters, a sense of piety and solemnity surrounding the Sacred Rites, the awareness of actual participation being equally "hearts joined together" as "voices joined together" — these are not out-dated aspects of Roman-Rite worship — these are our heritage!

    "Reform liturgists" are merely trying to remind us that the Mass is not a social gathering and that music needs to lead us closer to God, not merely more happy with each other. Some of the musical "remnants" of an earlier time can help us see that.

    I wholeheartedly support ecumenism — in theory and in practice. I, too, have had considerable discussion (both official and private) with groups and individuals of other denominations. I've eagerly participated in numerous ecumenical services (planning not only the music, but the service itself). I rejoice in the cooperation and liturgical similarities that exist between Catholics and Protestants. However, if I were a Baptist, I would be appalled at the notion of a Catholic musician disdaining Gregorian chant — after all, it's a Catholic legacy acknowledged by the world. As a Catholic, I would be appalled at a Lutheran musician who never used Germanic chorales — that's their heritage!

  4. Question:

    And now, I read and read and listen to the "Reform" movement. I have read the revised Roman Missal, seen the changes in the new revised Lectionary. I see my role in the Church being diminished and the role of the congregation being returned to listeners only.


    If anything were a threat to the job of Music Director/Organist it would have been the irrational and erroneous disbanding of choirs after Vatican II. While promoting the goal of expanding the participation of the congregation in liturgy, the documents by no means wished to diminish the role or importance of the choir (or schola, as it was often called). Trigger-happy liturgists took frequent and deadly shots at choirs with the result that the glorious musical heritage of the Church (chant, motets, polyphony) was lost to several generations. Music of universally-acknowledged banality rushed in to fill the vacuum. Often the organ was totally replaced by the "contemporary ensemble" and an electronic keyboard.

    Current "reformers" seek only to re-establish some balance regarding music during liturgy. Rather than witnessing a congregational "song-fest," they would rather see a hierarchy of musical elements. Some of the most important parts are reserved for priest and congregation (the Opening Prayer, the Preface Dialogue, the Eucharistic Prayer with its acclamations). Others are encouraged for the congregation (Entrance Antiphon, Gloria, Agnus Dei). Some of the latter may even be sung by the choir alone on occasion. This is not new stuff ... these rubrics are in the earliest Sacramentaries following Vatican II. The violent reaction in progressive circles against a choir singing the Lamb of God, for instance, is not the fault of current "reformers" — it's the fault of people not reading (or blatantly ignoring) what's been around for decades. Rome merely sees a course correction as being in order.

  5. Question:

    I appreciate your group's desire to promote and keep hymnody. But I fear that it will disappear as well as many of the contemporary hymns and songs that have helped myself and others to come into a deeper understanding and knowledge of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.


    While I am profoundly moved by great hymnody sung by an alert congregation (some of my favorite hymns are even of Protestant origin — see My Ten Favorite Hymns), I am not so naive as to see hymnody as integral to the Mass. In the Roman Rite, hymns are only called for during the Liturgy of the Hours (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, etc.) and at a few places in the Mass (generally specific processional moments as we have seen above on Holy Thursday). Other than these instances, no hymns exist in Roman Rite liturgies. The rubrics primarily call for antiphons alternating with psalm verses at the "processional" moments during Mass (Entrance, Offertory, Communion). The fact that church musicians in the U.S. have infused the liturgy with popular hymns does not make them "proper to the liturgy" in the strict sense of that phrase.

    Here again, if we knew the rubrics we could better understand their application. The Church "wants" the specific antiphons that are assigned to each Sunday to be sung for Entrance, Offertory and Communion. The Church "allows" substitutions to be made, although these should be seen as alternatives, not as primary options. Hymns ("A Mighty Fortress" or "Be Not Afraid") fit into the "exception" category.

    In coming to "a deeper understanding and knowledge of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist," I would certainly rely more on the texts that Holy Mother Church has placed before us than the texts (however poetic they may be) of hymn writers of the ages or of singer-songwriters of today.

  6. Question:

    I agree with the need for higher education and performance requirements of the lead church musician. And I agree with the issue of a just wage for the same. But if the church in the 50s and 60s didn't spend the money then, do you really believe that the "Reformed" changes of bringing in Latin chant, which is traditionally unaccompanied, and doesn't necessarily require books, hymnals or other instrumentation, will encourage the spending on education and just wages for a musician who may not be needed?


    There will always be a need for Music Directors in the Catholic Church. Regarding the liturgy, the Church is mainly concerned with the texts used, as well as noting where music is appropriate and ensuring that it be noble and worthy. Specific music (e.g. individual Mass settings, or settings of the Propers or Responsorial Psalms) was never prescribed by the Church Universal. On the local level, then, that becomes the responsibility of the Music Director. While some may view the current trend toward eliminating poor-quality music and substituting proper texts as diminishing the role of the lead musician, on the contrary, well-trained and well-informed musicians are now vital to the parish in researching, discovering and choosing creative and appropriate settings for the congregation and choir. I agree that someone versed only in the singer/songwriter repertoire of the 70s-90s will be at a loss in the "updated" Church. Someone who can both reach into the treasury of musical repertoire from the ancient past as well as sift through the multitude of current music being published to find the quality pieces will be the new model of the effective Music Director.

  7. Question:

    I am glad that you have found strength in your community and pray that some of the things you suggest do happen. But I sit with heavy heart wondering when the language of "abuse of liturgy" and its insinuated "sin" as written in Redemptionis sacramentum, will darken the light of musical worship among those of us who want nothing more than to use our music to bring others to Jesus Christ. I am for sure a sinner, but no one in Rome or anywhere else will tell me that I have not felt the presence of Jesus Christ in my very being when I have played and sang of my love for Him during the very type of music so many "Reformist" members reject.


    Some humility is perhaps in order. The Church does not want to label anyone a sinner for a music preference. She does want her members to follow rubrics and guidelines that are issued for our own benefit (as always). We don't choose the commandments or precepts we wish to follow, shaping God or the Church to our own desires. If tomorrow, the Vatican issued a document stating that every church must have an electronic piano and that it should be the primary instrument for worship, I would certainly pray for the humility to accept that teaching, and I would follow through with it, however much I might "disagree." The Church is a "parent," a "mother," and as such has every right to guide her children in the proper path. We, as most children do, may have doubts about the rules ... but, we don't have the freedom (nor should we have the pride) to disobey them.

  8. Question:

    And I will stand up to anyone who dismisses the notion that the true presence of Jesus can't be seen or heard in a singing congregation that is singing to instruments other than the organ. I can't. I have felt Him when I play Bach on the organ. I have felt Him in choral anthems being sung by a volunteer choir, I have felt him in the beautiful arrangements of the psalms by David Haas accompanied by piano and guitar.


    No one would deny the inspiration of any of this music. God can be felt in many ways: a soft rain, a majestic mountain, a friendly smile, my niece playing her first song on a clarinet, the hand-clasp between a grandmother and her teenage grandson. All these, and more, are valid expressions of the existence and presence of God. That alone does not make them worthy of corporate worship ... my niece's clarinet playing may not inspire "holiness" in you!

    We count on an outside source (the best, in this case: the Church founded by Jesus Christ himself) to arbitrate what is proper for worship. We remember, too, that "feeling God" and/or "feeling good" may not be the goal of liturgy according to the Church.

  9. Question:

    I felt his overwhelming love of me when I sang the Ave Maria one afternoon at [a shrine retreat]. I knew of His presence when a visiting choir from Germany, having sat down while I was singing, pulled out their hymnals and sang to me.


    While the Church safeguards the texts and trappings of her liturgy (including the Eucharistic Liturgy), there are numerous avenues available to us to promote and strengthen our faith. CDs (of whatever music) played in the home and car can be a benefit to our growth as a Christian. Prayer groups and other parish meetings may be welcome places for "non-liturgical" forms of religious music. Individually and in private groups, the Church allows great freedom. Corporate worship (i.e. liturgy) is a realm of necessary and wholesome limits.

  10. Question:

    Music is my deepest form of prayer. It is my deepest form of communicating that I share with the members of my parish. When we sing, no matter what we sing, we sing together. How can Rome or anyone else say that it is an abuse of liturgy?


    It's a matter of what you're singing, and whether it contributes to your betterment or not. Singing does indeed promote unity — we all sing together. And were we a social club, that would be sufficient — the club song, or the alma mater, or the national anthem would promote desired unity. We are, however, the Catholic Church, met to make present once again the sacrifice of Calvary, through the action of the priest, united with his congregation and every other Catholic congregation in the universe, and both to present that Precious Victim to God the Father as our offering and to receive Him as our spiritual nourishment on the road to heavenly reunion with the Trinity. The immensity of this reality is exactly why Rome is speaking out!

I hope in this lengthy response to your questions I have offered some material for thought and reflection. I also hope that your expertise in church music will not be unappreciated and that you will enjoy many more years of service to God and His Church in whatever means the future may hold.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

 Back to CNP Feedback Index

Home / Online Catalog / Musical Musings / Liturgical Planning
Submit Your Music / Contact Us / Company Description / Links

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388

Send website comments or questions to: