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by Fr. Jeffrey R. Keyes

This article is reprinted from the blog, Omnia Christus est nobis, with the kind permission of the author.

Have you ever noticed that people will sometimes evaluate the liturgy based on how it makes them feel? Feelings and emotions are important but they are not what the church uses in determining what music to use. But often when we choose music based on its particular style we will end up saying that was a good liturgy because it made us feel good.

I like all sorts of music. I listen to many kinds and varieties of music, everything from Beethoven symphonies to the "Nitty Gritty Dirt Band." Thirty years ago when I was active in the music industry I composed an album of music called Fire and Dancing that included "styles" of music currently used in a variety of Catholic and Protestant congregations. The album included sixteenth-century style polyphony, Asian five-tone music and Brazilian batucada. The problem with the collection, I later learned, was that the style became important and the text mattered little. In some cases the text was even altered or paraphrased so that it might fit the music. In Catholic church music it is the text that is paramount and the music is its servant. The text is always taken from the Sacred Scripture. We sing the Word of God so that we might become the work of God.

The problem with French polyphony, Asian five-tone music and Brazilian batucada is that it makes us feel at home here, and identifies us with a particular culture or place. Batucada and five tone music is associated with a particular dance. The difficulty with some charismatic music is that it comes from and is identified with a 19th century Holiness movement in a fundamentalist Protestant context. Much popular wedding music comes from its use in movies and is associated with a raucous bedroom scene in the opera for which it was composed. I remember a couple who insisted that "One Hand, One Heart" was "their song" and they wanted it in their wedding. The song was from a movie where the couple sang the song together right before they committed suicide. There are more than 150 songs published in the 1980s with my name on it. All of it was written for the Liturgy. Only two or three pieces are appropriate for the Mass if we use the Church's understanding of what is important for the Mass.

Gregorian chant has pride of place in Roman Catholic liturgies. That is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Composers are instructed that anything composed for the liturgy must conform to the model set by the chant. The music does not identify us with any culture or place but places us squarely within the mystery. It does not make us feel at home in France, Brazil or Asia. No, instead it takes us to heaven.

One of my students at the University of Chicago wrote to me after I moved back to California. She had graduated and had moved on to some graduate work in Japanese Language and Culture. For this she had moved to Japan for an internship and had requested to live with a Catholic family. The father of that family was helping her with the hand-held missal in Japanese as she was attending her first Mass in Japanese. Everything was going haltingly for her as she was unfamiliar with much of it. But then they got to the Gloria, and the cantor intoned, Gloria in excelsis Deo. Suddenly she felt very much at home and she joined in, singing it by heart. It was real prayer and she could pray with the congregation even though they did not speak the same language.

Recently I was asked if we might designate one Mass for modern music. That kind of balkanization of a parish community creates different congregations with different sets of music. Then when we get to the Easter Vigil or Holy Thursday when there is only one liturgy, part of the congregation is left out. There are those who do not attend liturgy here on Good Friday because of our use of the Latin. They want music they can understand, even though we are a parish community of some 20 different languages. It is a mistake to demand of the Liturgy that we understand it. How can we understand it? It is the source and the summit of the Christian life. It is the summit to which we journey. We are not there yet, but are on our way. And we journey with people who do not speak our language or understand our English. But they recognize the Church's music they learned growing up and they are very happy to journey to heaven with us even when we do not understand each other. So let us journey together with heaven's song, the Word of God, and come at last to the place where the only thing left will be Love and we will have been changed into Love's likeness.

Article written 30 September 2014

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