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Musical Musings: Liturgy

How to Get Beyond the Mediocrity of Liturgical Music with Excellence

by Fr. Paul Schmidt

Part I: Introduction

Father Paul Schmidt has served as the priest personnel director for the Diocese of Oakland, California, and also as diocesan director of religious education and as pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Concord. He holds a master's of divinity degree from St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park and a master's degree in English from California State University, Hayward. He was a columnist for The Catholic Voice, the Oakland diocesan newspaper, for many years. Father Schmidt is author of the book Buried Treasures: A Guide to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

This article, which has appeared in The Voice (Oakland), is reprinted from The Catholic Herald, the newspaper for the Diocese of Sacramento, with the kind permission of Julie Sly, Editor.

A reader responded to my article on expectations in liturgical prayer by saying that he expected mediocrity. He went on to cite numerous examples. Fortunately, other readers testified to excellence in liturgical celebrations they had experienced. The presence of mediocrity in liturgy, however, cannot be denied. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in liturgical music. This is a tragedy, since music, as popes and the Second Vatican Council have reminded us, is one of the treasures of Catholic worship.

The entertainment world has a high standard of musical excellence. It also, of course, gives us music which appeals to our baser instincts, but even in this kind of music, the composers and musicians give it their best effort. Martin Luther said: "The devil has the best tunes." Luther used to steal the tunes and substitute pious words.

The mediocrity afflicting much liturgical music in the Catholic Church starts with the composers. We simply do not have the best composers, popular or classical, writing the music which occupies space in our missalettes. There has been no effort on the part of the church to commission the best talent in the country to produce texts or melodies for use in worship. Exceptional cases have surfaced here and there; they have often been complimented by having their best songs stolen and their copyrights violated. There are some fine old hymns. Most of these come from the Protestant tradition. Often their words fall short of poetry, because they are awkward translations from another language, or because they are expressed in sentimental or archaic language. Even worse is the tampering with old texts to make them contemporary or gender-correct, with no attention to what artistry the original may have had.

Many excellent Protestant composers continue to produce hymns in the gospel or popular style; Catholics listen to these on the radio but seldom hear them in church. African-American composers, Catholic and Protestant, are turning out wonderful religious songs in the spiritual and soul traditions; few of these ever get sung in the "mainstream" churches.

  Back to Liturgy Index

Part II: It's Not Just the Composers... 

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