Friday, January 27, 2012

Why do I care?

Fair warning.  This is another jeremiad about sacred music.

I chose that word jeremiad quite carefully.

First I termed it a rant.  But rant sounds irrational and I don't think that quite fits.

So I went to the Thesaurus.

Is it a diatribe?  No.  A harangue?  No. A phillipic?  Not quite.  A tirade?  Not at all.  Hmmmm.

Jeremiad.  :  A prolonged lamentation or complaint.  

YES!!!   That fits.

So.  Fair warning.  This post is another jeremiad about Sacred Music.

I've already written a fair few, so why again?  Am I bored?  Running out of other topics?


I just happen to think it's THAT important.  Let me try and explain why.

When music is present it sets the tone for the environment and the activity.

Elevator music is chosen for being inoffensive, bland, "easy listening".  You don't have to think about it and you don't have to be invested in it for the length of the elevator ride.  It's designed to be background noise, to evoke non-threatening emotions in you and help make you comfortable, while you are enclosed in a moving box with a bunch of total strangers.

Rock music is written to evoke strong emotions.  Anger, Lust, Power.  It is designed to inspire you to rise up against authority.  (Because let's face it...all teenagers feel oppressed.)

Folk music is designed to invoke feelings of belonging, nostalgia, simplicity, roots.

There are other examples, but you get the idea.

So what is Sacred music in the Mass designed for?  What is it's proper function?

There are many theories.

It's supposed to foster a sense of community.
It's supposed to help the people participate.
It's supposed to make people feel good.
It's supposed to reinforce catechesis.
It's unnecessary.
It's supposed to help people focus on Jesus.

I've heard all of those.

I think the last comes the closest, but it's not quite right.

The purpose of Sacred Music in the Mass is to draw the attention of the faithful and allow them to more fully express their joy in the eternal mysteries being celebrated.

The purpose of Sacred Music is to draw attention to the fact that this space and this time are set apart from the every day.  The Mass is a banquet.  A Wedding Feast.  Special.  Important.

That doesn't mean that the congregation has to actively sing everything.  It can also mean attentively listening.

It does mean that the music should be the best that can be offered in service of God.

Now.  I'm not suggesting that every church should have an opera star who performs.

I consider that in fact, to be a horrible idea. 

There is a reason that in older churches the choir loft is always in the back of church.

Sacred music isn't about the singers as individuals.  I don't care how beautiful your voice is.

Sacred music isn't about YOU.

It's about the function of the music.

The job of the choir is to return the gift of their voice to God in service of the church.  Period.

Just as it isn't about the priest, it's about the Sacrifice of the Mass.  If the priest does it right, he more or less disappears.

In persona Christi.  The idea is to see Christ.  Not the priest.

Sacred music should operate along those same lines.  The individual voices should disappear into the beauty of the music being offered.

That's why I would prefer it be about a choir.  Not that cantors can't be self-effacing, it's just more difficult.

Especially when they stand in front of a microphone.  Their voice carries and drowns out everyone else.

Which is fine when they are singing something that the congregation is supposed to listen to. (The Psalm, The Propers or a chorale meditation piece.)

It's quite another thing when the congregation is supposed to participate.  One miked voice overpowers the rest of the congregation.

A choir on the other hand...many voices singing the congregational responses with no one person on the "mike" encourages the participation of the faithful.

Then too, a well trained properly rehearsed choir, can give as a gift to the faithful, some of those beautiful pieces of music that are part of the treasury of the church. 

One reason that the young people are turning towards chant and polyphony is the other-worldly beauty of it.

We have a Schola cantorum at our church made up almost entirely of college students.  It's about the chant and the Latin.

That music sounds special.  Important.  Set Apart.  The young recognize and respond to that.

The charismatic Masses on the other hand, with their "contemporary music"  My own teens pronounced boring.  My daughter's fiance who self-identifies as a charismatic...attended my oldest daughter's Nuptial Mass and immediately asked if they could have that music for their wedding.  He like many others, said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.

Another young man who also identifies as a Charismatic Catholic was quick to offer this qualification..."I'm charismatic, except that I like chant and polyphony."

I find it interesting that these young people immediately and instinctively seem to grasp that which continues to elude many others.

That music in the Mass isn't just an afterthought, tacked on, inserted into the Mass.

It's an essential, functional part of what we are offering as a community.  It's important.

It sets the Mass apart from our every-day activities (at least it should).

Sacred Music should be beautiful.  It should be special.  It should offer the best of what we have to offer.

Our first fruits as it were.

The young get that.

The only question is...why does this truth continue to elude so many of the adults?

So why do I care?

I have better questions.

Why don't you care enough to demand chant and polyphony in your parish?
Why are you settling for the pap and pablum they give you? 
How important is the Mass to you?  
Why don't you care whether it's special or not?

Thanks for reading.


  1. Believe me, I make a nuisance of myself demanding chant in my parish. So far not getting anywhere. But the pastor listened to me today a little bit when I was begging please let's at least learn the (ICEL English) Missal chants so we don't have to always have the horrible contemporary style Mass ordinary even at weekday Masses.

  2. That's awesome. Don't give up. The ICEL chants are lovely even if they are in English. It's a great starting point. They are very similar to the Latin Chants for Mass XVIII.

    May 200 people in your parish join you in making a nuisance. The only thing that will have an effect is for large numbers of parishioners to start vocalizing their desire for good sacred music.