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Balancing the Buts

by Gary D. Penkala

Balance The life of a Catholic parish music director is lived on a tight rope. The balancing act goes on constantly. We must be faithful to the liturgical rubrics and instructions; we also must be attentive to the needs of the parishioners. Tension exists between two groups who say:

  • But I like… 
  • But it says…

There are extremists in either camp:

Ms. Lotta Huggs

Ms. Huggs looks for just the right Gathering Song that will make the assembly latch on to the worship experience about to happen. She programs lots of current "church music hits," just like the cutting edge radio station in town. Music must awaken strong feelings in the participants, bringing them to a deeper relationship with Christ through emotional catharsis at Liturgy. Her repertoire is rooted in the 1970s and 80s, from which many of the songs she considers "traditional Catholic music" emanate. Chant and perhaps Latin is used ever so sparingly and only for effect [to create a meditative mood for a moment in time]. She doesn't like organ, and of course by extension the assembly doesn't like organ — it gathers dust, and that big, bulky console is really a nuisance. Piano is where it's at, but guitars are very helpful to create the liturgical ambience of the "glory days" of post-Vatican II reformed Liturgy. Both consciously and sub-consciously she frequently says, "But I like…"

Dr. Ulrich Mentz

Doc U. Mentz knows all the citations in the books — he's a walking compendium of liturgico-musical infrastructure. In his church office, at his fingertips, are the Graduale Triplex, the Antiphonale and the Ordo Missæ in cantu. He studied chant with Dom Dahdumdum at Solesmes and can solfege in every mode, forward and backward, which he'll demonstrate at any opportunity. He has gathered some of his university buddies to form a polished Schola at the parish, which sings for major liturgical feasts, as well as for all funerals and weddings. Only Propers and polyphonic Masses are sung at Holy Mass; the faithful participate by attentive listening. As a European-trained organist, Dr. Mentz likes to wail out a Recessional, à la Notre Dame de Paris. He joys in those particular feast days during the week when the OF and EF calendars match up, and he knows just which Gregorian chant Mass should be sung at the 12:00 noon weekday Mass for those days. He uses the familiar "Doc" in ordinary conversation rather than the more formal "Doktor" of his native Austria. Nonetheless, fearful of his academic degrees (and perhaps his demeanor as well), the faithful rarely approach him, which suits him just fine. He often thinks, and mumbles, "But it says…"

The Via media

A good music director is not exclusively Ms. Huggs or Doc U. Mentz, but should model some of each. We cannot breeze through liturgical planning, completely ignoring the texts and music that the Church has already given us. Neither can we subject a parish to Gregorian Propers and Victoria Masses at every parish weekend Mass. These extremes seem rather obvious. But how do the "buts" impact the average Catholic music director, someone who's already playing "middle of the road"?

It's not as hard as you might expect. Take, as an example, Midnight Mass for Christmas. To open Mass, the rubrics in the GIRM certainly favor the singing of the Introit, Dominus dixit ad me, a beautiful Latin chant setting of the Entrance Antiphon from the Roman Missal, "The Lord said to me: You are my Son." But Christmas is the time when people really want to sing those familiar carols [you know… the ones they were forbidden to sing during Advent]. There's the tension — what do we do? Try this: have the Schola learn the Latin Introit very well, perhaps even momorizing it. Darken the church at the stroke of midnight. Have the priest and ministers process down the side aisle of the church to the creche, with candles lit, while the Introit is sung. Proceed to place the Babe in the manger and bless, sprinkle and incense the creche. The deacon (or priest or cantor) sings the Christmas Proclamation in the darkened church, surrounded by candle-bearers. The full lights come on and a sturdy carol ("O Come, All Ye Faithful") is sung by everyone as the procession moves to the sanctuary and the altar is incensed. This makes "But is says" happy, since the proper Introit was sung, and also allows "But I like" to sing a familiar carol.

Another example, from a funeral liturgy. The death of a loved one is a very emotional time for the family. Requests are frequently made of the music director by family members, who come from many parishes, many backgrounds, many spiritual situations and even many denominations. How do you handle, "My mother's favorite song was, 'The Wind beneath My Wings.' Where can we have that sung during her funeral?" These are tough times for musicians, also. We obviously can't sing this during Mass (says Dr. Mentz), but it's very harsh to just respond, "No way!" (says Ms. Huggs). Can some compromise be worked out? Does your parish sponsor a luncheon after funeral Masses? Isn't this a better time for a "favorite song" to be heard, where the original in CD form, with all the fancy recording studio polishes, can actually be played — and further, announced — as music so meaningful to the deceased and family.

Other opportunities: look in the opposite camp for something of value. Surely some songs written in the 1980s are worthy of use. Find some quality music there, and program it. Conversely, simple Latin chants are within the congregation's ability, and have the added benefit of being true "global" music, a repertoire that will unite Catholics around the world.

In the end, we needn't fight so much.
We do need to be faithful to the Church and her rubrics.
We do need to be sympathetic to the parishioners and their needs.
We need to do both.
Just how is that done?
We need to pray!

Article written 01 January 2015

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