As a liturgical musician I can’t help wondering to what extent the insipid and vapid music prevalent in our churches has contributed to the present crisis.
That there is more than a mere coincidental connection between the squishy feel-good liturgical music and the lax and casual atmosphere in our churches is clear to me- especially when I reflect upon what the great Philosopher Socrates had to say about the power of music.
musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated noble, or of him who is ill-educated ignoble.
It was a common saying among the Greeks that,
Like produces like
Does wimpy music produce wimpy character? Does squishy liturgical music produce squishy feelings and squishy prayer?
Much has been written about the scourge of contemporary liturgical music. Much has been said already about how the Churches’ treasury of sacred music has simply been abandoned; Gregorian chant and the sacred polyphony handed down for centuries was jettisoned and replaced with music remarkably ‘soft’ and sentimental by contrast. I think thoughtful people may now have legitimate suspicions that the prevalent music in our churches is not wholly unconnected with the present onslaught of scandal that is rocking the Church from top to bottom.
Or at least we might suspect that the current music in our churches is something of a fitting soundtrack to the crisis.
Now, as a liturgical musician, I might hold a somewhat exaggerated view about the importance of music. Nonetheless, shouldn’t we all be eager to find the causes that brought us to where we are? Undoubtedly, the causes are manifold.
Although it is tempting to explain every problem by a single cause, we might heed the warning of the ancient philosopher Empedocles
when he was critical of those in his own day who attempted to explain the natural world in terms of one cause, saying,
For narrow are the means spread throughout the limbs and many are the miseries that burst in and blunt the thoughts. And having seen only a small part of life during their lives… they boast of having found the whole.
Having grasped one part of life we tend to think that perhaps we have grasped the whole.
And so, I will not claim that the sexual scandals in the Catholic church were caused solely by the vacuous and insipid church music that we have all been subjected to over the last fifty or so years. We have not just been subjected to this music, but we have been saturated and immersed in it. It fills our ears and imaginations and is seemingly inescapable. The sheer habituation to this music can’t help but to have affected and even shaped our affections and tastes as much as we try to resist. We find ourselves inadvertently humming it!
It would be a serious mistake to ignore liturgical music as a contributing cause to the scandal.
After all, as soon as the dust settles and justice is carried out, as soon as restitution is made, as soon as light expels the darkness and truth prevails…as soon as all this has happened, then we are surely going to make certain that it never happens again to whatever extent possible.
In this way, I suppose, we will make use of the saying (despite its dubious pedigree) “never let a good crisis go to waste,” difficult as it is to see anything good in the current crisis.
And so let’s gather our thoughts on the matter and reflect on the various causes, great and small, that have possibly contributed to what some are calling the “greatest crisis” to date in the American Church. Our (non exhaustive) list of contributing causes will include things like,
- The sexual revolution and breakdown of decency in our society especially during the later half of the twentieth century.
- The wholesale abandonment by Catholic colleges and universities of authentic Catholic education and Catholic identity as became manifest in the Land O’ lakes Conference
- Lack of oversight by seminary admissions directors and vocation masters that allowed a homosexual subculture to thrive in seminaries.
- The loss of faith and belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by seemingly even those in the church’s hierarchy.
- The resistance to and rejection of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae
- The liturgical confusion and collapse of monastic orders that ensued after the Second Vatican Council.
- The psychological toll of the abortion and contraceptive culture.
- The stepped- up attack on the priesthood by the devil.
- The world and the flesh.
But somewhere on this list – and let it not be last- we ought to place as a serious and real cause of the sexual crisis in the church the insipid, trite, uninspired and tedious music that has been forced on Catholics from coast to coast.
If the causes for the sexual scandal in the church that I have listed are more important, and if there are others that I have missed that are even more significant, at least I can say that the liturgical music that we have all been subjected to for most of our lives has provided the perfect atmosphere for the scandal- music that is all at once self-centered and ego-centric, saccharine, narcissistic, enervating, banal and silly.
From Here I am Lord to Let There be Peace on Earth, from Eagles Wings to Fly Like a Bird, from Be Not Afraid to Sing a New Song, the music in our churches is universally destructive (for the top ten worst songs see here).
Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking,
Hey wait a second, I kinda like some of these songs.
I know, I know. So do I. But this should not surprise any of us. We have already stipulated that music is inexorably powerful in its influence. The sheer repetition and enforced familiarity with it is irresistible to the ordinary ear. That’s the whole point that Homer was making to us (nearly three thousand years ago!) in his description of the irresistible singing of the Sirens. All of Odysseus’ men would have perished had they not plugged their ears with beeswax. Odysseus himself was only able to withstand it because his men tied him to the mast.
In other words, as sad as it is, and I hate to say it, we are all guilty of contributing to the present crisis in so far as we have failed to plug our ears against the insipid liturgical music of our day. I am reminded of the wit who changed Captain Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours!” to “We have met the enemy and he is us!”
Because we ourselves truly are contributing to the sexual crisis in the Catholic church by our inactivity and cooperation with the background music of this crisis.
That is ridiculous!
You only say that because you did not take Plato seriously in his Republic, whereas I did!
In other words, music has a tremendous impact on the soul.
Now imagine for moment a typical Catholic congregation who attend a typical mainstream Catholic parish Sunday after Sunday. Does the liturgical music that they hear week in and week out have an impact on their souls?
The answer is obvious.
I cannot help but think that we’ve heard some protestant-derived music at Sacred Heart from time to time 😉 But in all seriousness- right to the point (if correlative as much as causative)!
We have met the enemy….:-)
So it’s OK to give the Pope a pagan title (Pontifex Maximus) — no problem there. And it’s OK to rededicate the Pantheon as Sancta Maria ad Martyres — no problem there. It’s OK to invoke the sibyls in the liturgy, and it’s OK to employ Plato and Aristotle to construct a Catholic philosophy — no problems there. BUT, any exposure to Isaac Watts, and before you know it the priests will be buggering altar boys?
GET A GRIP ON REALITY.
Isaac Watts wrote “Kumbaya”?
If all Protestant music has liturgical cooties, Isaac Watts has liturgical cooties. And yes, the whole question is at about the level of “who has cooties”.
I don’t think anyone here is talking about Protestant music. Both Bach and Handel were played during JPII’s funeral. Ditto during the celebration of the new Pope Benedict. One priest told me that Catholics built cathedrals and protestants wrote music. To my ears the religious music of JS Bach – or Charles Wesley – is remarkable.
The only thing that’s remarkable about the liturgical music written for the Catholic mass since Vatican II is how bad they are. (They do replace some pretty poor Irish sugar sweet tunes – but it was a step backward.) Many of the hymns are insipid and even heretical (any hymn having you singing the words of Christ or God, has things backwards – just ask Michael Joncus or Dan Schutte.) The liturgical music, much more important, is often much worse. Go on YouTube and check the channel MassSettings – it gives you about 30 of the worst modern masses available. Check David Hass’s stinker “Mass for a New World” for a starter. But they’re all bad. Some or just worse than others. I don’t go to mass to be entertained – but it’s sad to hear the lovely mass made insipid..
Actually, I had meant to reply to Proff Scridd that it is not the protestant hymns that I am complaining about – which are by and large my favorite hymns (e.g. Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow, Now Thank We All Our God, and so many by Isaac Watts) But rather the barren and vacuous music written in the last 40 years by Catholics for contemporary worship. I much prefer “Now Thank We All Our God” to “Gather Us In”.
I will admit to having sung “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” when the cantor wanted us to sing “Sing a New Church” — which it requires a heroic act of virtue to interpret as other than heretical.
I agree, Howard. I get your point. It is really a wrong move to tie our own pet peeves, whether valid or not, to this horrible, crisis in the Church which is the direct result of sin. This article really has the effect of minimizing the demonic sin that apparently has spread through our Church.
And guess what ? I also do not like the vapid and insipid music as you call it. I think it is a symptom rather than a cause. It is a symptom of a lack of reverence and respect and a casting aside of centuries of beautiful music which brings out hearts close to Heaven. On that we can completely agree.
Bingo. Look, I don’t object if a parish chooses to go with only Gregorian chant, and I will not defend the modern hymns that at are both bad art and very dodgy in content, but we should be realistic about cause and effect.
The idea is that if you think you can make your own rules about music for Mass, which for over a millennium has been Gregorian Chant, and which has been repeatedly reaffirmed as THE music of the Roman Rite, then what else are you going to make your own rules about? It’s not a matter of tying pet peeves to the crisis. As you worship, you believe, as you believe, you live. When an entire culture subjectivises worship, morals, as we have seen, become a matter of personal choice as well. The two are tied together.
The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest established institution in human history and derives it’s authority from the word of Jesus Christ. Through almost 2,000 years of it’s existence, it has adapted to the progress of human growth, yet maintaining absolute fidelity to the message Christ left to guide our lives and ensure our ultimate reunion with him for eternity in heaven.
Through these two millennia, the Catholic Church has grown and changed, all through that time developing in our worship of Him in forms that are beautiful and personal. It evolved a majestic ritual of worship that exalted above our human condition.
As a young boy, I experienced from my serving at mass as an altar boy, the transition from the Latin mass to that of our post Vatican Council II world. While the great good in incorporating participation of the congregation into the mass is undeniable, there was a sense of the reverence and sanctity of worship that has been lost.
I sometimes travel the long distance it takes to attend a service of our old Latin mass. Every time I do, I am hit with the powerful sense of what the Catholic Church gave up with the effort to “modernize” the Church. It is good that the congregants are now also participants in the mass. But I no longer feel the sense of worshipping the Almighty power that created all that was, is and forever will be. I no longer feel any sense of awe from the novo ordo mass that I get from the traditional Latin mass. We have paid the price of disconnecting from God to connect ourselves together. I don’t think the Catholic Church will be able to right itself going on into it’s future until it is able to recover it’s own balance.
As an aside, I do think that had the Church kept to the Tridentine form of the holy mass, that it’s troubles in our modern world could have been much worth. Can you imagine this current millennial generation maintaining any patience or interest at all less than what they currently have with the incomprehensible Latin ritual of the mass. I only appreciate it because I trained as an altar boy for serving at the Latin mass during the Vatican Council II transition starting out with my ritual Latin responses and finished up my tenure serving the “Hootenenany” masses that were the immediate result of that drastic transition.
I do miss the Latin mass and still get the powerful sense of spirituality from them. I don’t know that younger Catholics who don’t have such real experience of the Latin mass would get what I do from it. I do believe that it would be a benefit if the Church were to return the mass from the huggy feel good mass of today to that of our worshipping our God and the Almighty Creator.
Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo.
And the Mass of St. Ann does not help things.
A lot of the composers of those awful songs are homosexuals. We can assume that this was known to the people choosing this music for our services. Sort of like affirmative action.
Mr. Langley you are spot on. Having next to zero competence in the field of sacred music, but from the perspective of a Catholic father I see my children exposed regularly to music that is in a word unserious. These jingles make light of the miraculous encounter that is the Mass. If we can make light of such a thing what then is it to make light of morality and the sacred in other ways all the way up to our Bishops who permit same. Your article is very astute.
This is true, at least to the extent that it represents the larger issue of a failure of right worship of God. This is most certainly a cause of the crisis, and until we reclaim right worship, we will be lost on our own.
If we believe as we pray, maybe we also believe as we sing. At least 75% of the time at my church, we sing about ourselves: We are a pilgrim people, Gather us in, We will arise at the sound of our name, We are the old, We are the young, Let US build a city of God, Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with ME! Not to mention the utterly un-singable melodies, so many of which turn the liturgy into a whiney Disney musical reject. The constant repetition of these vapid ideas and tunes must be mind-bending.
I deeply disapprove of folks arriving late and leaving early, but there is no other recourse — the glad-handing, needless commentaries, and dreadful music at the beginning of Mass keep me purposefully late. The raunchy and inappropriate music at Communion time destroy any possibility for interior reflecting and thanksgiving and add to that the obligatory public reading of this weeks bulletin — well, following Communion, it’s out the door and out to my vehicle where I can pray and reflect (nunc dimmitus servum tuum…..). I steadfastly refuse to sing anything by Dan Scutte, et al.
Great article, and I agree. I do think, however, you left out a crucial cause of the crisis in the Church; more then a collapse of sexual ethics, it’s a collapse of faith- a denial of “no salvation outside the Church” (I’m happy when we get no salvation outside of Christ these days). Maybe that’s where we get some of our repetitive and vapid music from; because, after all, if none of us are really that bad of sinners and if Christ saves pretty much everyone anyway, what is there to get all excited in singing about?
May the Lord have mercy on us all. For those who choose to scapegoat the homosexuals
for all that is wrong in the Church including your so called insipid music borders on insanity. Nextime you get on your heterosexual high horse you may want to reflect
on the great frescoes and paintings that decorate the grand basilicas of Europe, and likely many others as well. Lots of these grand spectacular works of art were painted and carved by men with same sex attraction, homosexuals. God alone knows how many masterpieces of art and indeed music are the product of men who struggled. And while you are accusing them for everything under the sun consider how many billion sins of fornication you’ve ignored. How many million acts of adultery and pornography, contraception, abortion, etc. mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
As for the quality of church music; at least they try. I seriously doubt God has ear plugs when His daughters and sons sing his praises, no matter how their brothers and sisters insult their prayer. Church music, hymns, songs of worship etc. need to be created in each generation even as we hold to the great works of past ages. Or are we to examine the sexual preferences of every musics and artist. The beam in our eyes is blinding us to love our sisters and brothers even as we teach the truth of Jesus Christ on all moral issues. Jesus loves you, all of you; so much that He died to offer us salvation.
It is never a good thing to justify homosexuals/homosexuality by the works created. Because homosexuality is defined by sex. It cannot be defined by love. It cannot be defined by marriage. And it cannot be defined by children. It is defined when two folks of the same sex engage in perverted sexual activity. Were sex not involved the relationship could not be homo-sexual. Homosexuality is defined by sex, heterosexuality is defined by God.
Quite the interesting comment, might I say.
As far as I can tell, anyone in their right mind won’t blame the homosexuals for everything under the sun. Some may feel same sex attraction, however they can be chaste and realize that this attraction isn’t conforming to their inherent nature, and as a result, not participate in it. The sin of sodomy comes in when they act upon it. Unfortunately to say, the society today has advanced and encouraged homosexuals to act on it. So, ultimately,, it’s not the homosexual’s fault for everything; it just comes back to the culture. But of course, in all cases you can’t deny free will.
My question on your address of the quality of church music is this: why do they even need to try? Why fix a cart that’s not broken? The Church reached its heights through the traditional forms of liturgical music. When we have hymns like the chant “Rorate Caeli”, why make a “Fly like a Bird”? Practically speaking, Holy Mother Church should be in contradiction to the ways of the world. But ideally speaking, the world would subject itself to Holy Mother Church.
Of course the horrible church muzak is contributing to the Church crisis, just like the horrible church architecture, horrible church “art” and priests telling the obligatory horrible jokes during sermons (pardon, homilies.) The dumbing down of the Church has been going on for at least a half century.
Mr. Langley, I commend you for making such a great observation, and a natural one at that. With VII has come a serious degradation of liturgical music (I just can’t help but notice that all the best liturgical music has come from a premodernist church). Music is so crucial in the formation of the individual, and you see how crucial it is with the growth of the church. As Socrates shows justice in the man by showing justice in the city, so do we see the importance of music to the individual by seeing the effects of music with Holy Mother Church. However, I do see a greater issue at hand with the church. I’d like to give you my full thoughts on a lunch period. But great work!
Insipid music is the ‘soundtrack’ of the crisis, for sure, but it betrays also a widespread rejection of what the Mass really is. You sing as you believe. If you believe the Mass is the unbloody sacrifice of Christ to the Father, then what you wouldn’t sing at the foot of the Cross, you wouldn’t dare sing at Mass. Then again, you believe as you sing. It’s hard to say which comes first, interior apostasy or insipid music? Maybe there’s a third term — as my Grandfather would say, in his Empedocles-like way, “When someone asks you chicken or egg, you ask him to tell you about the rooster.”
Traditionally Church chant was created to sing the psalms to praise and glorify God as was the Jewish custom during the time of Christ, The sacred psalms were sung when the people made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem. to pray in the temple. Originally, our Churches were designed in imitation of the Jewish temple with the Holy of Holies where God dwells as the focal point of the Church. Our Church liturgy and vestments are also based on the Jewish Temple. The Church was designed as the temple where our Triune God dwells and should be respected and treated as God’s holy house. Our music should be based on the psalms like Gregorian Chant which was created specifically to inspire prayer and praise God. Sadly, we have made the Church a social hall were we come to be entertain with popular songs and clapping and feel good similar to Protestant Churches. In order not offend our Protestant friends who say we worship Mary and images of saints and that Christ is not really present in the tabernacle of the Church, we have removed most statues, and altar which is now consider a table where the meal is celebrated facing the people. The tabernacle has been moved to a side room, giving the impression that Christ is not present in the tabernacle and is not the central focus of the Church.
Our music should be biblical, sacred and prayerful to inspire our souls to glorify and praise God. It should create the inspiration to contemplate and move the soul to the awareness of God’s holy presence here with us in the Church. May The Holy Spirit guide us!
It diminishes the severity of the scandal to insist that it has anything at all to do with church music. The shepherds fed their flock to the wolves. A little bit more Gregorian chant isn’t going to help us out of this mess…nnot when the shepherds were not moved by the mass itself.
Is it okay to listen to “insipid” music outside of church? Can I sing along with Chris Tomlin and Matt Maher on my car radio? I don’t think Sirius has a chant station. I suppose you listen to classical when you’re not listening to chant, but honestly, what do you sing when you’re doing the vacuuming?
I understand that your comments were directed to liturgical music, but as you said, music is a great influence, so I really wondered what you thought. Does this limit what I can play for fun on the piano? Do I have to quit playing French horn in our senior cituzen’s band because they play marches and ragtime and even Beach Boys?
And what about Christmas carols?
Music in Church needs to be Catholic, that’s for sure. It’s not and that’s harmful. But the crisis is caused by Communion in the hand (and to a lesser extent the distribution of the Precious Blood). If we can salvage Eucharistic piety, I believe, that everything will come right over time.
Unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters, we Catholics have no other outlet for our music besides our liturgy settings…that is the problem today! Much of the post-Vatican II music is very nice, very singable, etc. I agree that it is not helpful as liturgical music, but that doesn’t make it bad music, nor should it be banished from Catholic life. As the world’s largest Christian denomination, we should have listening channels for popular Catholic music, encouraging the creation of more music and songs–about Saints, about Popes, about miracles, etc. We are in this debate because we haven’t given our Catholic music culture anywhere to exist except in liturgy!
Thomas, we’re not a denomination. We’re the Church.
Much of the post-V II music is bad because it is heretical. And because it’s an unfortunate fact that too many of the members of the congregation don’t know the faith well enough to know heresy when we hear it, it is very dangerous.
I attribute my priestly vocation (and my appreciation for high-quality liturgical music) in large part to the fact that in pre-Vatican II Catholic grade school, we sang a daily High Mass in Gregorian, as well as an array of dignified, non-sentimental hymns.
and then there is the contemporary choir at so many Catholic churches with 80% me, me, me. This toe tapping song from Phillips, Craig & Dean (all Protestant pastors) would seem to give the go ahead for Catholics in mortal sin to receive communion, somehow bow rather than bend the knee (which fortunately we still do). The greatest is not Jesus about to be received but still remains in some distant time. Some even might be confused that they are God.
“Come, Now Is The Time To Worship”
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
Come, just as you are, to worship.
Come, just as you are, before your God.
One day every tongue will confess
You are God.
One day every knee will bow.
Still the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose you now.
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
Oh, come. Just as you are to worship.
Come just as you are before your God.
One day every tongue will confess
You are God.
One day every knee will bow.
Still the greatest treasure remains for those
who gladly choose you now.
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
Come, just as you are to worship.
Come, just as you are before your God.
Oh, come. Oh, come. Oh, come.
Worship the Lord. Oh, come.
Come, come, come…
Oh, that’s not the worst.
The worst is the silly bad lyric-writing mistakes, that any half-competent lyricist should have noticed and rewritten. One that always made me cringe was called “Our God”:
Our God is greater, our God is stronger
God You are higher than any other
Our God is Healer, awesome in power
Our God, Our God
First line: Declaring God’s greatness to some non-divine hearer. Simplistic, but not a problem.
Second line: Suddenly we’re talking to God! Okay, fine.
Third line: Groan. Where to begin? We’ve switched back to declaring God’s greatness to a third party, so I guess our previous comment to God Himself was, what? An aside?
But there’s the ungrammatical “Our God is Healer” nonsense. How about “Our God is a healer?” Or “THE Healer?” You see, “greater” and “stronger” are comparative adjectives. Since “healer” ends in -er like the other two, it ought to “rhyme” in the same way: It ought to be not only an adjective, but a comparative adjective. Instead, it’s a noun, used ungrammatically!
If you INSIST on using “healer” in that line the thing to do is to give up using comparatives (as ultimately the lyricist does in the second half of the line) and make it something like…
Our God is greater, our God is stronger
God You are higher than any other
Merciful healer, awesome in power
Our God, Our God
…which fits the syllable-count and fixes the grammar problem.
But it’s better still to fix the second-line’s A.D.D. change-of-audience and make that part of the overall fix. You could say…
Our God is higher, our God is stronger
Worthy of majesty, blessing and honor
Our God is greater, awesome in power
Our God, Our God
…which keeps the same syllable-count, works with the melody, doesn’t spastically shift the person being addressed back-and-forth, and is more consistent in theme. I switched “higher” with “greater” because the long “I” goes better before the “Ou” sound of “our God,” and the adjective is less powerful (heh) than “greater,” whose sound works better before the dark “awe” sound of “awesome.”
One could quibble about that last part. But my initial complaint, and the initial correction, is all about OBVIOUS stuff. Failing to fix it is just negligence.
Some shoddy lyricist just dashed off those lines, declared them “good enough,” and left them as-is. He needed a stern nun leaning over him, to rap his knuckles whenever he pulled that kind of stunt.
We sang one last week at the youth mass with this line, “Now is your time to shine; Take up your cross.” WHAT!?!? It seems to me that a good word to apply here is “incongruent.” The vapid and narcissistic music is incongruent with the beauty and depth and holiness of the mass. It manifests a painful ignorance and thoughtlessness of what we’re there to do, and BE! I find more and more, as I age, things all work together. It may SEEM a stretch to connect the touchy-feels music with the scandals, but I don’t think it’s in error to conclude it’s a not insignificant part of the mix.
What you say is not without merit, but you come across as a liturgical snob. Some of the comments here above border on disgusting. Western polyphonic music is simply one of a number of legitimate genres of music, preferred by those who love it, but which does not connect with those who do not. You too readily dismiss the valid and worthwhile liturgies which do not conform to your ideals and you do this at your peril.
If you think you are free to say that Mr. Langley comes across as a “liturgical snob,” then I am free to say that you come across as a liturgical and musical cretin. Instead elevating men’s hearts and minds and drawing them heavenwards, your “whatever-music-the-consumer-wants” principle debases and trivializes the liturgy, and drags it down to the lowest common denominator — sentimental or pop-type music with lyrics devoid of solid doctrinal content.
Given that I started by saying that Mr Langley’s comments were not without merit, and that I did not espouse any particular genre of Liturgical music, you have a blind leap to suggest that I come across as a cretin.
For more than 30 years as a liturgical musician, I have always strived to achieve to the fullest extent, given the capability of the musicians, congregation and Celebrant, all of the aims of Musicam Sacram. The Sacred Liturgy is celebrated with reference and joy, with music and singing, and appreciated and encouraged by our late Cardinal Winning, our Archbishop’s and Bishops.
Some styles of Sacred Music are beyond our reach, but we trust that the Good Lord will not hold that against us.
Father, I couldn’t agree more. Why are we not allowed music-less Masses? Many, many congregants wouldn’t mind in the least. Many times I leave Holy Mass so exasperated for having been forced to endure the Haughen, Hass, Schute garbage that is so prevalent — the teeth marks on my steering wheel attest to the fact.
The reason is that the reformers detested the Low Mass and considered common vocal participation to be the ONLY form of participation in the Mass worthy of the name. You could not be left alone to contemplate the mysterium tremendum on your own. It was anti-social, and contradicted the “theology of assembly” that was the basis for the creation of the Novus Ordo Missae. So you had to be barking out responses and singing ditties with the rest of your fellow assembly members, urged on by the Gigantic Amplified Electronic Voice. The minimum ditty count had to include at least the “Gospel Acclamation,” the former Sanctus, the Memorial Acclamation and the “Great Amen.” Again, what you detest is the product of the bad theology underlying the reform.
The answer is no and yes:
No: the music is the result of a purposeful and malicious assault on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which was accompanied with the attitude that Mass needed to be “modern”. Thus, the music is a symptom of the crisis. Keep in mind, the liturgical rot started before bad music was the norm.
Yes: the happy-clappy musak eschewed sin and the need for forgiveness, and focused on everyone being awesome. Of course that’s going to have repercussions.
The bad music is ultimately the product of bad theology — the Mass as “assembly,” rather than a sacrifice offered to God. If the primary presence of Christ is in the assembly, as the liturgical reformers and modern liturgists told us, and it is the assembly that offers the sacrifice, well, the music has to reflect that. Hence, lowest-common denominator music and endless yammering about “gathering,”
The basis for this current music is pop and folk music. Pop and folk are simple and almost instantly likeable and learnable. Also, after some time hearing them over and over again, they are easily despisable, like a pop song you couldnt get enough of once that you now can’t stand. The top ten and dozens others suffer from a bland limited range of ‘niceness’; of composers, Dan Schutte is the worst. Banally cheery, positive. New music guy at parish seems to think we have to learn his Missa My Little Pony, with its unglorious Gloria. I still like stuff by Haugen, Haas, et al., but they are tiresomely familiar. There are several hundred songs to choose from; why not be venturesome.
This is another problem, uninspired music directors. I heard Ore. Cath. Press sends a weekly list of recommended songs to music folk; glancing around various churches a given week, looks like they mostly follow that.
However, those who want to get back to polyphony, chant etc., have a hard road to follow. I think it unrealistic to expect it possible at many parishes. Assuming you have any support. It seems at the several parishes I’ve been at, talented music directors who include good, formal church music have often been replaced by ones who tend toward “Your Catholic Hit Parade.” The future is grim!
Dies Irae for liturgical music
Day of wrath, O Day of mourning!
Earth to ashes now returning!
Gather, by the millions, burning!
Cleansed at last by cataclysm
Butchered rhyme and battered rhythm,
On that day, Lord, when thou comest,
And our dreadful hymnals thumbest,
Smite the ugliest and dumbest.
Smite them, Lord, yet of thy pity
Take their songsters to thy city:
Even Haugen, Haas, and Schutte.
Spare them on the stern condition
That they feel a true contrition
for the Worship III edition.
Doom them not to loss and ruin
While the darker storm is brewing!
They knew not what they were doing.
On that day when Palestrina
Dare not touch a celestina,
What will Sister Ballerina?
With thine eyes that pierce like lances
Still her heathen silly dances
And her flirting with Saint Francis.
Purge us of the prim and prissy,
Ditties fit for Meg or Missy,
Not for Francis, but a sissy.
Cantors who thought nothing grander
Than a sheaf of propaganda
Writ like office memoranda,
Raise them to thy room to bide in
Where their hearts and ears may widen
To the strains of Bach and Haydn.
Let their hearts within them falter,
Hearing, as they near thine altar,
Seraphs sing the Scottish Psalter.
Seize those devils set to pen a
Hymnal neutered of its men, ah,
Fling em all to black Gehenna!
Fling them one and all to mangle
Their pronominals, and wrangle
Lest a participle dangle!
Who held manhood in derision,
Preaching double circumcision,
Suffer now their own revision.
Though the songs of Hell are naughty,
None by Handel or Scarlatti,
At the least they’ll have castrati.
Pitch, O Lord, the bald and raucous
Slogans of a leftist caucus
Down to Sheol, or Secaucus!
Save their singers, though: restore em
To a silent sweet decorum,
Saecula per saeculorem.
Various are the throngs of heaven:
Some were lump, and some were leaven,
Some as lame as six or seven.
When the demons hear thy curses,
And this world dense fog disperses,
Heal the hobbled, not their verses.
Hush me too, Lord, when I grumble:
In thy mercy make me humble,
Lest On Turkey Wings I stumble.
Though Haugen sing “Hosea” evermore,
Save me, I pray! but keep me near the door. Amen.
On a positive note, I see broad agreement that much of today’s music is not only inappropriate, it demoralizes the people and undermines the theology inherent in the liturgy. I too agree that many post-Vatican II songwriters need to be retired – as difficult as that may be – and replaced with something – new or old – and better.
One thing that was only mentioned in passing is the “unsingability” of the service music that has come out with the new Mass translation. The arhythmic music which followed the release of that new text is impossible for the average person to sing. Which is extraordinarily frustrating if it is your desire to raise your voice in worship of God!!
Finally, I attended a different parish for a change a few years ago. It was the month of December. The closing hymn was – indeed – Kumbayah, the quintessential Advent hymn, right? I wept – and they weren’t tears of joy or adoration – and never went back.
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I come to the topic from an interestingly broad perspective: A then-Protestant music-major who studied chant, Palestrina, and Baroque-era churchmusic in college, I went on to arrange music for “blended worship” Evangelical church worship bands, and to direct them. (“Blended worship,” in this context, means worship-band-style instrumentation with the addition of some orchestral instruments, playing a mixture of hymns and contemporary songs, in a higher-art style.)
Then I read the Church Fathers, started studying Scripture in light of the Mishna, said, “Oh!”, and became Catholic. Now Catholic, I began to experience Catholic worship in various parishes throughout Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia.
Here is my observation:
1. When Catholics attempt to do worship using worship-band-style instrumentation, they uniformly do it Excrementally Badly. In a dozen or so large, well-funded parishes (and more small, shoestring-budget parishes) I have never, ever seen competence in playing that kind of music. It was always a collection of people who had either no talent, no sensitivity, or no experience, with horrible sound-reproduction and mixing. Often enough, too, the songs (when they weren’t hymns) were poorly-written, poorly-arranged, poorly-selected, and sung by persons with voices unsuited to that kind of singing. It was embarrassing, cringeworthy. Every single time.
So I am not surprised when traditionalists are able to characterize “contemporary music” as unsuited to the Mass. PERHAPS it is all unsuited to Mass, no matter how well or poorly it is done. But certainly all of the “contemporary music” witnessed by Catholics in the American Southeast is unsuitable. That is a certainty, because it is bad, all of it.
(I grant that somewhere, sometime, a Catholic parish may have competently executed such music. I am just saying that it is impossible for an Evangelical Protestant to attend such a wide variety of Protestant “churches” and regularly hear the music done so very badly as it is always done in Catholic parishes attempting the same thing. For every 20 Protestant services doing that style, one will be winceworthy; for every 20 Catholic Masses, 19 will be winceworthy.)
Why is this? I don’t know. Perhaps they don’t pay anyone, they just draft teenagers and retired musicians without the relevant experience? Perhaps they just don’t have any good example to follow?
The lack of pay might be significant: When I gave up leading church music as an Evangelical to become a Catholic, I was giving up $125 per service, which is pretty normal since I played, sang, arranged music, and led rehearsals (but didn’t lead the congregation, and wasn’t on staff). People who led the congregation were paid a bit more. Less-experienced musicians whom we were mentoring into higher levels of skill (but who already had some skill and good taste) might be paid $50 per service (which included rehearsing).
At any rate, I also observe that….
2. Chant Arrangements Are Often Bad In English.
Catholic churches seem to do chant a rather better than they do contemporary music. (It’d be hard to do it worse!) But, words translated into English have often been wedged awkwardly into the same melismatic arrangements as their Latin counterparts! That is BAD.
Guys, English word-endings aren’t the same. The syllable count is all wrong. The stresses are all wrong. You end up fighting pitch-gravity in stupid ways.
Finally, I observe….
3. Hymns are sometimes Lyrically Bad, sometimes Tastelessly Arranged, and nearly always in a Bad Key For The Men!
Seriously. The keys seem to have been chosen by someone who doesn’t understand how low men’s voices are early in the morning. DON’T ask an adult male to sing a middle-C at 9 o’clock in the morning or earlier, people! The tenors can handle it (but they aren’t warmed up yet, so it hurts); the baritones can either strain, sing flat, or stay silent; and the basses resolutely shut their mouths.
Y’wanna know why Catholic men don’t sing? Part of it is those emasculating lilting 70’s Major-7 chords of “Eagle’s Wings” and similar tunes, which all sound like they belong on a 45-rpm recording from Karen Carpenter or Judy Collins.
But part of it is that the keys are Just Wrong for men in the morning, and the melodies are Shaped Wrong for male voices, and the words are Distasteful for Male Sensibilities.
There is a reason that Protestant men in traditional services can belt out “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (much of the text of which is more vividly Catholic than “On Eagles’ Wings,” by-the-by, though doubtless Luther didn’t mean it that way). Protestant men can belt it out because the BASS PART works for their voices (lots of powerful, consonant 4ths and 5ths), is PITCHED for their voices, and the lyrics aren’t so embarrassingly treacly as to make the singing of them SHAMEFUL for an adult male. They aren’t, for example, self-focused to a masturbatory degree, like Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord.” They aren’t shamelessly ripped from Gordon Lightfoot tunes like “Gather Us In.”
Yes, yes, I realize there are Catholic musicians who’re just trying to do their best. My words might hurt their feelings. Believe me, that’s not the point. As a church musician I sympathize with feeling like the red-headed stepchild who labors under disabling disadvantages.
I’m not pointing these things out to discourage people who KNOW what to do, but distressingly lack the RESOURCES to do it.
No, I point these things out for the benefit of pastors and budgeting decision-makers and people who aren’t sure what to do, or what kind of resources are needed.
Excellence honors God. If we would be embarrassed to play and sing this way for, say, the President of the United States, how much more should we be downcast if we are playing and singing this way for the King of the Universe, and could have done better, and chose not to bother?
Excellent commentary, R.C. Thank you.
Orthodox Jews and some Conservatives chant some prayers at services in the original Hebrew and style as a sign of unity with G-d and the congregation. Could be they know something we don’t about the nature of worship.
Growing up (not long ago) my brother disliked coming to mass on the weekends because of the music dragged on and on and it was song after insipid song… eeeh gads… He hated the music and enjoyed day mass because they didn’t sing.
That told me something is seriously wrong with the music. We aren’t at mass for a concert for the choir, were there for God worshiping and bad music that is LONG doesn’t help.
The church music business is big. New songs have to be written fast and furious for the market and the ‘old’ stand bys rake in copyright income. It has very little to do with prayer and praise of God.
And the seasonal booklets, which are thrown in the trash a few times each year, cost a bundle of God’s money. Just try introducing a permanent hymnal like the St. Michael Hymnal and you’ll bring the Kumbya roof down.
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My main objection to current liturgical music is that it is boring. The old hymns we sang before Vatican Council II had a simple beauty and were easy to sing together with all the congregation. They were sung often enough that we all knew the words. Today at each Sunday mass, the songs chosen are new and unfamiliar with melodies difficult to sing. Adding insult to injury, they are sung so slowly that they would easily serve as a funeral dirge.
I sure don’t know why it is shocking — as it appears to many here — to suppose that musical styles rooted in the intent to enervate the sexual drive would, some of them, succeed in doing so. Further, it’s not shocking at all to find links between the intent to change the deposit of faith, as found in much of this “music” would support broader intents to do the same. Think back to the impact of the Beatles on people when heard for the first time; or to the promiscuity associated with “juke joints” in the early parts of the last century. Or to the development into blatantly violent themes and explicit lyrics today. Music, by itself, yes, and even more so, sometimes, together with words molds the human soul. And part of what makes it possibly so dangerous is that it does it while appearing so innocuous and, well, we like it. Sort of like sexual activity itself. We have been in a languid steam room with lotus all around for decades now. It seeps.
About many of the comments here, Professor, I can only say, QED.
I have been an organist in the Catholic Church for 25 years. The state of Catholic Church music is, on the whole, atrocious. But that is because the church culture is atrocious. Choirs won’t practice. Catholics struggle to sing ANYTHING above C5, churches are like social clubs (especially before mass when so much gossip simply MUST be exchanged) and the whole thing seems to take on an air of faded glory and terminal decline: a Church run by old people for old people. I used to get really upset about it all, until I realised I could do absolutely NOTHING about it. I have effectively thrown up my hands, adopted the Catholic laissez faire attitude of ‘anything will do’, and will now focus my efforts on other things. I used to play quiet organ preludes before mass, but quite frankly, it is an utter waste of my time. I feel like I am intruding into people’s conversations. I feel sorry for anyone coming into church on a Sunday and expecting peace and quiet. They would fare better locking themselves in the toilet at home.