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Musical Musings: Liturgy Page 2

Letter on Sacred Music in the Liturgy

to the parishioners of
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church
Lake Ridge, Virginia (Part 2)

II. The Need for a Parish Sacred Music Renewal

At this point we should reiterate something said previously; namely, that critiques are directed not toward particular persons or groups of people but toward certain types of music as they are used in the Liturgy. There are many issues addressed about which some will say, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?"16 We ask that you seek the truth with your whole heart in prayer and sincerity.17

Today . . . the meaning of the category "sacred music" has been broadened to include repertories that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself. . . . [N]ot all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations.18

This quote from Pope John Paul II explains that not all sacred music can be admitted to the Liturgy. A particular point of contention in today's Church is the state of contemporary Christian music, the predominant genre in hymnals such as Glory & Praise and Spirit & Song. Our parish has in the past used this music at all Sunday Masses in varying degrees. How do we properly evaluate the liturgical suitability of such music?

Liturgical vs. devotional

Throughout her history, the Church has permitted and promoted non-liturgical popular devotions that foster a particular approach to spiritual life by certain persons or within various groups.

Popular piety is an expression of faith which avails of certain cultural elements proper to a specific environment which is capable of interpreting and questioning in a lively and effective manner the sensibilities of those who live in that same environment.19

Such devotions have taken a myriad of forms. No list could be exhaustive, but the following are a few examples: religious plays and pageants, vernacular hymns and songs, Eucharistic devotions, collections of prayers such as the the rosary and various chaplets, pilgrimages to holy places, veneration of relics, litanies, novenas, processions, and meditation guides.20 All of these are laudable to the extent that they lead to greater participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is a wholly different kind of worship.

[E]very liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.21

While popular piety fosters our personal spirituality, in the Liturgy we are drawn into an action of Christ together with his Church — a movement initiated by Christ, through the Church, and not by our own actions.

In the earthly Liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until he our life shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory.22

Because the Liturgy is an action of the whole Church, with God and all the angels and saints, elements of our earthly celebration should reflect the transcendence of the Liturgy; in other words, what is appropriate for personal piety is not necessarily appropriate for the corporate Liturgy.

The pious exercises of the Christian people and other forms of devotion can be accepted and recommended provided that they do not become substitutes for the Liturgy or integrated into the Liturgical celebrations. An authentic pastoral promotion of the Liturgy will know how to build on the riches of popular piety, purify them and direct them towards the Liturgy as an offering of the peoples.23

Forms of piety that are heavily influenced by secular culture need a period of experimentation where their successes and failures can be evaluated outside the Liturgy. In the case of contemporary Christian music, music in popular styles previously alien to the Catholic Liturgy was thrust into the Mass without having the opportunity to develop in the realm of popular piety. The entire genre was accepted wholesale with very little musical or theological vetting. Such a radical departure from the previous tradition in practice entailed whether intentionally or unintentionally abandoning that which was handed down before. Thus part of our renewal is a recovery of both old and new music that flows from the authentic tradition.

Care must be taken to ensure the quality, both of the texts and of the melodies, so that what is proposed today as new and creative will conform to liturgical requirements and be worthy of the Church's tradition which, in the field of sacred music, boasts a priceless heritage.24

Therefore, all new forms must follow in the previous tradition, rather than reject it.

Challenges of contemporary Christian music

While the Church "admits into celebrations even the most modern music, as long as it respects both the liturgical spirit and the true values of this art form," it remains "necessary to pay special attention to the new musical expressions to ascertain whether they too can express the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy."25 Pope Benedict XVI summarizes this tension:

[Consider] the cultural universalization that the Church has to undertake if she wants to get beyond the boundaries of the European mind. This is the question of what inculturation should look like in the realm of sacred music if, on the one hand, the identity of Christianity is to be preserved and, on the other, its universality is to be expressed in local forms.26

Thus, for the sake of preserving the identity of Christianity, we must use caution in bringing cultural elements into the Liturgy. Two particular concerns with the use of contemporary Christian music in a liturgical context are theologically problematic texts and an inappropriate musical style. Both factors are unfortunately supported by marketing attitudes. The repertoire in question — contemporary Christian music — is notably a descendant of 1960's and 1970's American musical theater songs and popular rock and roll; importing such music into the Church inevitably entails an acceptance of the profit-turning market values attached to it.

The corporations that currently primarily market contemporary Christian music reflect these values. For instance, the texts, as noted above, often focus on self and contain ambiguous doctrine, thus appealing to a wider audience. The repertoire represents the most popular songs that have survived market competition, rather than the most theologically sound and liturgically appropriate. The major publishers insist that parishes should purchase their music selection guides — which of course are partial toward their own hymnals. Subscription hymnals tempt parishes to stay "up to date" on the latest styles and songs. All these factors reflect an attempt by an industry to conform the Church to worldly attitudes,27 despite the best intentions of those who derive spiritual benefit from this music.

Questionable texts

Many contemporary Christian songs have excellent texts, whether original or derived from Scripture or other sacred writings and rites. Unfortunately, many other songs currently in use contain texts directly contrary to the spirit of the Liturgy.

Forms of popular religiosity can sometimes appear to be corrupted by factors that are inconsistent with Catholic doctrine. In such cases, they must be patiently and prudently purified through contacts with those responsible and through careful and respectful catechesis — unless radical inconsistencies call for immediate and decisive measures.28

Religious songs in styles from the popular culture fall under this category of "popular religiosity" and often contain one or more of the errors described below.

  • Texts distorted to support a political agenda: The application of inclusive language to God or the insertion of an explicit social justice connotation, for example, may disrupt the Church's theological understanding of a text with Scriptural or liturgical origin.
  • Texts that celebrate the congregation: Such songs are self-focused ("I" "me," "we," "us," etc.) rather than God-focused. Instead of praising God, they often praise the congregation. Some of these songs do not even refer to God at all.
  • Texts in which the people take on the part of God: In these songs, the people sing God's words, whether taken from Scripture or presumed by a composer; in essence, the congregation "plays the part" of God as if in a stage drama. Because these texts often have God singing about how wonderful and merciful he is, in practice it becomes the members of the congregation singing about how wonderful and merciful they are. Whether or not this is intentional, the long-term effect can be one of making "us" all too comfortable with taking on the words of God ourselves.
  • Texts in which the speaker's identity is ambiguous: These songs often freely swap between the voice of God and the voice of "us." They are difficult to follow, and at the first reading, it is often not clear who the speaker is until halfway through a verse.
  • Texts with ambiguous or misleading theology: Songs in this category allow — and often invite — theological interpretations at odds with Catholic teaching. This is a particular problem with Eucharistic songs, many of which present an incomplete (or even incorrect) doctrine on the Eucharist.

Musical style

While "[the Church] has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of people and the needs of the various rites,""29 prudence demands careful consideration of music based on popular styles before admitting them to the Liturgy.

The musical judgment asks whether this composition has the necessary aesthetic qualities that can bear the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy. It asks the question: Is this composition technically, aesthetically, and expressively worthy?

This judgment requires musical competence. Only artistically sound music will be effective and endure over time. To admit to the Liturgy the cheap, the trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.30

Many contemporary Christian songs employ musically cliché elements that appeal to emotions and create good feelings that may be confused with real inspiration. While authentic liturgical music inspires awe in the sacred mysteries and often a deep elevation of emotion, the "cheap" or "trite overly emotive music derived from popular styles instead breeds an unhealthy familiarity. In essence this reduces the mystery to something comfortable and familiar rather than transcendent; God is made to fit in a friendly, familiar package. Appropriate liturgical music, on the other hand, points beyond the ordinary, familiar experience of everyday life, drawing us into the solemn heavenly Liturgy where "earth unites with heaven"31 and where we sing with the angels and saints, not just figuratively but really.

Through Christ the angels of heaven offer their prayer of adoration as they rejoice in your presence forever. May our voices be one with theirs in their triumphant hymn of praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord . . . 32

Now, with angels and archangels, and the whole company of heaven, we sing the unending hymn of your praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord . . . 33

In this section thus far we have discussed the music closely related to "soft rock" and musical theater genres. There is another set of spiritual dangers associated with music derived from heavier rock and roll styles. Our present pope warns of these dangers:

"Rock," on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.34

 Back to Part 1: Introduction

Part 3: Toward an Authentic Renewal

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