A lunchtime talk given at the Library on Wednesday October 8, 2003 by David Schütz
It is necessary to constantly discover and live the beauty of prayer and of the liturgy. One must pray to God not only with theologically precise formulas, but also in a beautiful and dignified way. In this connection, the Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the liturgy. It is necessary to purify worship of deformations, of careless forms of expression, of ill-prepared music and texts, which are not very suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated. (Zenit, 26th February, 2003)
John Paul II makes a very timely appeal. The observation that much of today’s church music and hymnody is “not very suited” to the nature and reality of our liturgical celebrations is perhaps commonplace. But what is striking is the Pope’s appeal for an “examination of conscience” in this regard.
“Examination of conscience” is a term that we usually associate with the recollection of our sins prior to confession and repentance. Is the Holy Father really saying that our use of music that is “not very suited” to the liturgy is sinful? If he is, then it is a serious matter. It means that liturgical music is not merely a matter of taste, but may just possibly be a matter of morality or ethics.
How can that be? Maybe we underestimate the magnitude and purpose of the liturgical act, as we come in the company of the angels and the saints into the very presence of God, in order to offer him our sacrifice of praise. Maybe we underestimate the important role that sacred music and song plays in the pastoral care of souls, as it lifts their hearts to God, enriches their prayer, expresses their deepest emotions, and puts true words of praise on their lips. In his meditation on Psalm 150, John Paul II highlights these two dimensions in the liturgy: prayer, greatly aided by music, is like Jacobs ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend between the liturgy on earth and the heavenly liturgy. If we properly appreciated both the human (pastoral) and divine (doxological) importance of liturgical music, we would not be so quick to underestimate the moral obligation the pastor has to feed his parishioners on a healthy diet of sacred music and song.
The American Lutheran lay-theologian and musician, Marva Dawn (author of Reaching out without dumbing down and A Royal Waste of Time), regularly compares the musical repertoire of a parish to kinds of food diets that parents give their children. Sometimes a little fast food is okay-it tastes good, but it’s not good for you. A regular diet of fast food will leave you sick and starving. Sometimes too a five course French dinner is the go for special celebrations-but again they are special, and take a lot of effort by real experts to prepare them. Most of the time we just need a solid, healthy diet-and although that might mean meat and three veg on a regular basis, we will grow strong on it. Liturgical music and song is analogous. Sometimes the emotive, entertaining style of music might be a treat. Sometimes a full polyphonic choral setting of the Eucharist might be appropriate and even attainable for a high festival. But we need to give most of our attention to the “meat and three veg” hymnody and music: our day to day basic repertoire that we can be sure will nourish faith in the faithful.
The Holy Father highlights three areas that require “purification” in worship: “deformations”, “careless forms of expression” and “ill-prepared music and texts”. I am not quite sure what is meant by “deformations”. Perhaps he hints at this when later in his commentary on Psalm 150 when he refers to the warning of
So what about this “examination of conscience”? We are all familiar with the devotional lists of questions that are used by those preparing for confession. I propose that we need just such a list to help us identify the faults of our liturgical music and song. Such a list would be more beneficial than George Weigel’s recent tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a “Index Canticorum Prohibitorum” ( http://www.the-tidings.com/2003/0808/weigel_text.htm). The latter would, I think, rob us of the responsibility of deeply reflecting on the pastoral principles of liturgical music.
A good place to begin in any “examination” of one’s pastoral practice would be in relation to what the Church requires of us. Unfortunately, we have had very little magisterial guidance in relation to Catholic church music in recent decades. The last document of any significance on church music to be released for the universal church was Musicam Sacram in 1967, and reading it today shows that it hardly addresses the more pressing issues of the contemporary crisis. Perhaps, in view of the lamentable era in sacred music that followed its release, it even failed to address the issues of its own day. That does not mean to say that familiarity with the relevant magisterial documents (which include Tra le Sollecitudine 1903, Musicae Sacrae 1955, Sacrosanctum Concilium 1963 as well as Musicam Sacram) would not be beneficial.
However, over the last forty years the proverbial goal posts have been shifted so far away from their original position, that we have to learn to kick in new directions if we want to continue to score the goals these documents originally had in mind.
So the musical “examination of conscience” that follows cannot claim anything close to magisterial authority. You will almost certainly disagree with some of the faults identified below. However, among those for whom this is a daily pastoral concern, there is a fair degree of consensus about what is and is not helpful in liturgical music and hymnody, and I hope the following “examination” reflects this consensus to some degree.
Most of what follows relates to the choice of liturgical songs. Purely instrumental music also has a place in the liturgy (as Musican Sacram acknowledged), but it plays second fiddle (so to speak) to sung texts. In this connection, we should also be aware that good liturgical music in any parish is the result of hundreds of individual choices that need to be made every time we chose what will be sung at mass. And because these are always pastoral decisions, good liturgical music will only ever be developed through the exercise of faithfulness-constant, steadfast, unwavering insistence upon what is right and good even in the face of opposition.
I. Do I value sacred music?
The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn Liturgy. (SC §112)
This statement assumes that the words of the liturgy are ordinarily united to music and therefore that “sacred song” is as “necessary or integral” to the liturgy as the words themselves. (The recent Editio Tertia Typica of the Missal makes this clear by once again printing the music of the liturgy together with the words.) Obviously the Council Fathers knew of the “said mass”, but they assumed the norm would be the “sung mass”. Most Australian Catholics would be surprised to learn this. Most lay persons, and probably many parish priests, would regard music in the liturgy as “icing on the cake” for special occasions or an annoyance to be endured. Rather, music has an essential pastoral role in the liturgy. Its use makes a qualitative difference to the liturgy, both in terms of deepening the effect of the words upon the participant and in terms of heightening the prayer, praise and adoration which is directed to God in the liturgy. Therefore we need to value it.
II. Have I observed the proper “degrees of participation” with regard to the parts of the liturgy that are to be sung?
· (a) In the entrance rites: the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people; the prayer.
· (b) In the Liturgy of the Word: the acclamations at the Gospel.
· (c) In the Eucharistic Liturgy: the prayer over the offerings; the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus; the final doxology of the Canon, the Lord's Prayer with its introduction and embolism; the Pax Domini; the prayer after the Communion; the formulas of dismissal.
· (a) the songs at the Entrance and Communion processions;
· (b) the songs after the Lesson or Epistle;
· (c) the Alleluia before the Gospel;
· (d) the song at the Offertory;
· (e) the readings of Sacred Scripture, unless it seems more suitable to proclaim them without singing.
The irony of this is that, at least in Australia today, it is almost universally the practice to reverse these three “degrees”, such that those parts of the liturgy listed under the “first degree” are the least likely to be sung, and those parts under the “third degree” (with the exception of chanting the readings) the most likely. The result is that many of our liturgies tend to resemble the protestant “four hymn sandwich”, where between the spoken parts of the mass, sung hymns are inserted at the entrance, offertory, communion and recession. The principle, as far as MS is concerned, is that “in selecting the parts which are to be sung, one should start with those that are by their nature of greater importance, and especially those which are to be sung by the priest or by the ministers, with the people replying, or those which are to be sung by the priest and people together.”
III. Have I allowed Gregorian chant to sink even further into disuse?
One thing all the magisterial documents are clear on, is that Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Pius XII called the chant a “precious treasure” concerning which “it is the duty of all those to whom Christ the Lord has entrusted the task of guarding and dispensing the Church's riches to preserve” (MS1955). Any examination of our musical conscience fifty years later must acknowledge that the way in which we have squandered this treasure is nothing short of scandalous.
It is clear that the Council expected the Church to make the effort to preserve the chant together with the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular. Although there is some evidence of some effort being made in this direction, it seems that that effort was half-hearted. No-one seems to have believed in it enough to persevere and make it work. In this country, two slightly different approved settings of the chant for the mass created (and continues to create) extra confusion. In the Church today there ought to be at least one Gregorian setting of the mass that is well known enough to be sung all the way from Perth to Cairns (and from Rome to back of Bourke, for that matter). Even the hymnals have abandoned the chant. I know of only one currently available Catholic hymnal that has an plainchant setting of the mass in English (Adoremus).
There even seems to be a mistaken idea that the chant will only work for Latin and cannot be adapted to English. This can be disproved by a quick glance at the Lutheran churches. They have a standard chant setting of their mass which was preserved at the time of the Reformation in German and has since been translated into a host of other languages the world over, including English, and (in central Australia) the Aboriginal language of Arrunta.
Still, there is reason to believe that 1500 years of tradition cannot be kept buried away for ever. It is fashionable to point to the fact that Gregorian chant has made a resurgence in the popular music charts. This shows that people are keen to hear and sing the chant if someone will teach them. Our opportunity is upon us with the immanent re-translation of the liturgy. Let us put in the required effort now, so that the new translation can be published ready-made with a simple, standard Gregorian setting. Then we need to recommit ourselves to the work of teaching it. We can start with the Lord’s Prayer (which many will know already) and add the Sanctus and a simple Gloria (not responsive). Experience earlier last century shows that the chant can be revived if there is the will to do it.
IV. Have I taken care that our liturgical music and song focuses on God?
A massive shift in liturgical focus has occurred in the last thirty years or so, creating enormous challenges for liturgical music. Whereas traditionally sacred art, architecture and music have focused (like the liturgy itself) on God, much contemporary liturgical renewal seems to have been aimed at re-focusing our attention on the worshipping community, ie. ourselves. At the same time there has been a “flattening out” of liturgical vision-everything has become “horizontal” at the expense of the “vertical” dimension. This can be clearly demonstrated in two types of texts abounding in contemporary hymnody.
The first type sings about us and about what we are doing or should be doing. Some modern hymn texts verge on the narcissistic, gazing not up to God, but into the navel of the worshipping community.
Traditionally there have been two types of hymn. On the one hand a hymn could be explicitly addressed to God (or Christ as the case may be). Such hymns are sung prayers, voicing adoration, petition, thanksgiving or confession of faith. Alternatively, a hymn could be a hymn of praise, that is, a song about God (or Christ etc.), extolling his attributes and actions to the world. But what we have in this new batch of hymns are songs that sing about ourselves, in which we tell ourselves (or perhaps God in case he doesn’t know) about our attributes and actions. Maybe this has come about through the demand for sacred song that matches the ritual actions in the mass. Since one dimensional liturgical thinking sees all ritual action as our action, such songs end up singing about ourselves. So at the entrance procession we sing about coming into eachother’s presence (rather than into the presence of Christ-comapare CCC §1348) and we sing about the gifts we bring at the offertory procession. Examples of this type of song include: Gather us in (Marty Haugen), Song of the Body of Christ (David Haas), We are companions on the journey (Peter Kearney), Bring forth the Kingdom (Marty Haugen), Ashes (Conroy/Joncas), We are the Church (Christopher Walker), As Grains of Wheat (Laurence Rosania).
The second type has been identified by Richard Connolly as a true innovation, the like of which could not have been found in the Church “from St Ambrose to about 1970”). This is the liturgical song “whose ‘voice’ or speaking persona is that of God speaking to us, not us to him” (The Summit, May 2003). In these songs, the focus is truly confused. The people sing as if they were God singing to them. Almost without doubt this type of text arose after Vatican II when composers sought to produce songs based on passages of Scripture. The Council in fact encouraged this (SC §121). Those passages of scripture in which God speaks his promises to his people were naturally most attractive to the composers of new songs, but they failed (and continue to fail) to do the necessary theological internalisation required to turn these passages from a form in which God addresses us into songs in which we respond to God in praise or adoration for his promises. Hence we get songs in which we sing God’s words to ourselves. Connolly wonders if such songs may not be a usurping of the role of the liturgy of the word. Perhaps they do. They certainly do not function as sacrifices of praise to God. Examples of this type of song are over abundant. They include Come as you are (Deidre Browne), Hosea (Gregory Norbet), I am the bread of life (Suzanne Toolan), Strong and Constant (Frank Andersen), Isaiah 49 (Carey Landry), Be not afraid (Bob Dufford), I have loved you (Michael Joncas), Remain in my love (Christopher Willcock), and Our Supper Invitation (Kevin Bates). There are many others.
V. Have I allowed songs to be sung in the liturgy that contain teaching contrary to the Faith?
Sacrosanctum Concilium (§121) insisted that “the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine.” In other words, what we sing in the liturgy must be true. This really ought to be the first commandment of liturgical song. Whether we sing about God, ourselves or the world around us, what we sing must be true. This is demanded by the inverse of the principle lex orandi lex credendi, but it is also a part of the primary duty of care that pastors have toward their flocks.
Words that are sung “sink in”, and find a lodging place in the heart far deeper than words that are merely spoken. Everyone from 16th century reformers to 21st century advertising executives have understood this. Everyone, that is, except the pastors of Catholic parishes who have not paid sufficient attention to what their people are singing week in and week out at Sunday mass. The American liturgical theologian Don Saliers, at a lecture given at
Singing, by its nature, involves more of the individual than mere speaking-both physically and spiritually. Singing, as an aid to memory and a thus a prime means of teaching the faith, has been used to good effect in the past. Today however, “careless forms of expression” have led to a falsification of the faith. Lucy E. Carroll, in an article entitled “Singing for the supper or the sacrifice?” (Adoremus, Vol. VIII, No. 8, November 2002) has clearly demonstrated the unsatisfactory standard of contemporary song texts for the Eucharist. If people keep on singing about “sharing bread and wine” in the Eucharist rather than about communing on the body and blood of Christ, it won’t take long for them to cease believing in the real presence. Carroll’s list of Eucharistic hymns that fall short of “conformity with Catholic doctrine” include: We Remember (Marty Haugen), Bread, Blessed and Broken (Michael Lynch), Gather Us In (Marty Haugen), Bread of Life (Bernadette Farrell). Now We Remain (David Haas), Bread for the World (Bernadette Farrell), Song of the Body of Christ (David Haas) and To be Your Bread (David Haas). One could also include Bernadette Farrell’s paraphrase version of the Agnus Dei in her setting of the mass, where the people are asked to sing “Hear our prayer, hear our prayer, through this bread and wine we share…” Whatever kind of teaching this might be, it is not “in conformity with Catholic doctrine”.
Other hymns intentionally fail to conform to the Church’s doctrine. These “avant guard” hymn writers are usually saying something about the gender or nature of God. Some attempt to feminize God, such as John Bell’s “Enemy of Apathy” which insistently calls the Holy Spirit “She”. Bernadette Farrell’s “God beyond all names” suggests that all names for God, even revealed names like “Father” and “Jesus”, are ultimately just human attempts at naming God rather than God’s gracious self-revelation of his essential nature. Other hymns just seem to be beyond the bounds of Christian doctrine entirely. Marty Haugen’s “One Ohana” and “Song at the Centre” both seem to be exploring a sort of pantheistic nature spirituality rather than a Christian doctrine of creation.
Sometimes the theological errors are simply cases of what the Pope has called “careless forms of expression”. In this category, one could put Dan Schutte’s glaring theological error in “Glory and Praise to our God” when he asks the congregation to sing “Though the power of sin prevails”! It certainly does not. What he meant was “Though the power of sin is strong…” which would have been a rather more felicitous phrase and more theologically correct.
With the exception of John Bell, all these writers are Catholics. It may be worth noting in passing that some of the very best available “catholic” hymnody has in fact been written by Protestants. Among these “Holy God we praise thy name”, “Alleluia, sing to Jesus”, “Sing of Mary, pure and lowly”, and “You holy angels bright” could be named. It just goes to show that each text needs to be judged on what it actually says, not on its pedigree.
VI. Have I discouraged congregational participation in liturgical song?
The popular adage is that “Catholics can’t sing”. Given that Catholics do not differ biologically from other human beings, this would be surprising if it were true. More correctly, various cultural and habitual factors are to blame for the poor quality of Catholic congregational singing. Not all parish priests are convinced of the necessity of congregational participation in liturgical music. Even fewer parishioners share this conviction. An anecdote may be excusable here. I occasionally attend a large Catholic parish in a rural sea-side holiday spot. The usual fare here on Sunday mornings is spoken mass with “Come as you are” or “Here I am Lord” at the beginning and end.
One morning they had a visiting vocal and guitar group from the city, who led the people in singing the parts of the mass as well as four songs. One elderly worshiper was heard to comment afterwards: “A bit of a sing-song this morning, eh?”
Sacrosanctum Concilium declared that
Religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics (118).
How does one “intelligently foster” singing by the people? For a start, we could identify those things that discourage congregational singing. Among these are:
Cantors and choirs who “perform” rather than serve. The Council made it quite clear that the people must be enabled to sing those parts of the mass that are rightly theirs. Sacrosanctum Concilium (114) declared:
The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.
Despite the opinions of some liturgical experts, a close reading of this passage does not support the idea that the Council intended to abolish the occasional use of choirs to sing the more elaborate settings of the mass which belong to the “treasure of sacred music” which the church has inherited. What it did intend is that the people not be robbed of those parts which belong to them, namely “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs” (SC 30). The main offenders here, then, are not those choirs which professionally do the tasks assigned to them, but those cantors and parish choirs which see their role more in terms of performance than in terms of service. Some cantors sing in an entirely individualistic style which encourages the congregation to listen rather than join in the singing. Some choirs actually see their role as presenting performance items during the liturgy, when their real task is to support the congregation’s singing.
Over amplification of the cantor. Microphones are for performers. Put a microphone in front of most people and their first impulse is to perform. On top of this, when the cantor’s voice drowns out the meagre attempts of the people, the people will stop singing. Some amplification is usually necessary (given the poor acoustics of most modern churches), but it must be very moderate.
Lack of clear instrumental leadership. On the other hand, while voices are usually over amplified, the instrumental accompaniment is usually too weak to give proper leadership. Guitars suffer terribly in this regard, firstly in that most guitar players cannot play the melody of a song, secondly in that guitars do not carry well in a large building without amplification. This is one of the reasons why the organ has been held up as most suitable for leading congregational song. It can give clear, sustained notes at a volume that will carry throughout the church. However, many parish organists have not learnt to play in such a way that gives clear indications to the people about when and how they are to sing. They could learn a great deal from protestant organists in this regard. The role of cantor is practically unknown in Protestant churches-the organist gives most of the guidance.
The choice of song. Many factors are relevant here. Some songs in current circulation are impossible for a congregation to sing, and are more suitable for soloists. Among these are Carey Landry’s “Hail Mary Gentle Woman” and John Foley’s “One Bread, One Body”. The difficult timing of both these songs will discourage congregational participation (despite the fact that they are “favourites” and they like to listen to them). Other songs may display the composer’s musical cleverness but result in tunes that are un-natural. A good tune for congregational singing may sound “boring” to a composer, but needs to be predictable enough for the average untrained ear of the average parishioner. Another factor is how much opportunity the people have had to learn the songs they are asked to sing. Changing the songs every week will not encourage singing, whereas repeated use of the same song for three or four weeks will build up confidence.
Melody line for the song. Many hymnals today (such as the excellent “Together in Song”) include melody lines for the people to follow. Priests who cannot read music may dismiss the importance of this for a congregation, but many of those who are most likely to sing in our parishes are those who can read music (or at least follow the dots) and a melody line always helps to encourage them. Unfortunately this is often unavailable in this age of the overhead projector and the power point presentation.
VII. Have I failed to build up a durable foundation of liturgical song in my parish?
Liturgical musicians sometimes refer to the range of songs known by a parish as the “parish repertoire”. It is worth each of us sitting down and listing out those songs that are in our own parish repertoire. Include all the songs that the people could reasonably be expected to know. Then ask yourself some questions about this list. Do these songs have lasting merit? Does it reflect the breadth of the catholic tradition or is it a little “narrow”? Does it reflect a single “style” or “taste”? Do the texts focus to narrowly on a single theological idea? Do we have sufficient material to cover all seasons and liturgical occasions?
The last is a very serious issue. For instance, while most parishes would have a sufficient repertoire for Christmas, the same could not be said for Pentecost. Even Easter-a season that lasts for a full seven weeks-has a rather thin repertoire in most Catholic parishes. The few Easter songs that are known lack the robust resurrection theology (and melodies) of most Protestant Easter hymns. Since the festivals of the church year repeat themselves every year, it is worth working out a basic minimum of desirable songs for each of the festivals and, over a number of years, using them again and again until they are known. Among these one could see to it that the sequences for Easter and Pentecost are known to easily singable tunes.
One aim of developing the repertoire is that some songs, like the liturgy, should become known by rote. This aim also requires that the songs that we chose as part of our repertoire are worthy of such memorisation, and that they will truly serve the pastoral well-being of he people. Unfortunately, too often today our repertoires are determined by the “market-forces” of the musical publishing houses which are forever pouring out the fast food equivalent of a musical diet.
VIII. Have I only taught the children of the parish “children’s” songs?
One final concern is the current trend in our parish schools to teach children’s songs and only children’s songs to children. Children, of course, need special songs aimed at their level, and there are a number of good composers of children’s songs in
(Michael Mangen, for instance). But these songs are not sufficient on their own. Children also need to be taught “adult” songs, the songs they can expect to encounter in the liturgy on Sunday. In this way, their transition from childhood to maturity in the faith is facilitated.
Furthermore, children memorise songs with a great deal of ease, which means that what they sing as children will stick fast for the rest of their life. There is both opportunity and risk in this. There is great opportunity for fruitful catechisation through song. Unfortunately, the catechetical effect of singing was better understood in the past than it is today. And hence the risk: most modern children’s songs being sung in our parish schools are not suitable for catechisation, that is, they are not clear and unambiguous expressions of the Church’s faith. Of course, teachers feel under pressure to let the children sing “what they like” rather than what is good for them.
We know that parents who let their children eat “what they like” rather than what is good for them end up with unhealthy children. Feeding our children an unhealthy diet of liturgical music is pastorally irresponsible.
And while on this subject, surely it is in teaching children to produce liturgical music and song that we will reap the greatest reward for our investment of energy. Most parishes today are experiencing difficulty in finding suitable practitioners of liturgical music. This problem will only be overcome by teaching the children of our parish to sing and to play musical instruments, and by incorporating them (“mentoring” and “initiating” them) into the liturgical music program of the parish from an early age. The boys choirs of the past did this admirably. Today, we must expect to have to spend some money as well as effort in this area-perhaps offering parish music scholarships to promising children. It won’t happen without investment.
Many other questions could be added to this musical “examination of conscience” (in fact, I would be interested in receiving your suggestions for fleshing it out further); but ending with the question of training children in liturgical music and song perhaps demonstrates a strong connection with our starting point. We need to be convinced that developing liturgical music and song in our parishes is important-not for purely aesthetical reasons, but primarily for the moral reasons that it belongs to the glorification of God and to healthy pastoral care. It is perhaps when we consider what we are teaching our children that this becomes most clear. We will reap what we sow.
If we teach the new generation wisely, we will build the foundations of a sound tradition of liturgical music for tomorrow. If we don’t, we have no-one to blame but ourselves when the result is unsatisfactory. The Holy Father’s call to examine our liturgical music is a call to authentic worship and pastoral care. It is a call to repentance for past failures, but like all calls to repentance, it is also a chance for a new start and an offer of hope for the future.