03 July 2006


The recent posts and comments at The Shrine of the Holy Whapping regarding liturgical music have prompted a bit of reflection on my part. Being now the proud posesser of an actual Bachelor of Arts in Music, Emphasis in Liturgical Music, and in view of my roughly 15 years of experience with parish choirs, I feel somewhat qualified to reflect on this subject (not that Joe Q. Catholic in the pew isn't, of course, but I know all the fancy terms...like...quillisma).

In all seriousness, the first thing I want to say is that it's not about taste. I like rock music (rock of 40 years ago, but that counts too), I like Broadway both modern and vintage, I like Latin (Latin-American, that is) rhythms and think African drums are really cool, and I've tried my hand at the Irish tin whistle. However, would I bring any of these things into any of the (very white, American) parishes I've attended? Most definitely not. Why? Because as wonderful as they are in other settings, they don't belong at Mass. This is not to say that you can't use your electric guitar to worship God, but please do it from your garage or a concert stage, and leave it at home on Sunday.

Why do I say this? Because the Church says it, and because, having spent the last four years studying and trying to follow the Church's directives on liturgical music (notice I'm not saying "sacred music," which could really be anything with a religious theme, but "liturgical," as in, "the liturgy of the hours and Mass), I've discovered that, surprise! the Church is right.

Chant changes people. This is point two of my tirade. Ask anyone who's lived with chant for an extensive period (every Sunday for six months, maybe) what their experience was, and I'll eat the first page of my thesis if they don't tell you that something about their spiritual life is different now. I'm not saying that anyone who chants regularly will become a better person--God knows I'm even further from being spotless now than I was in high school--but the formation of the soul, their education, has changed. Attending a good (in the heavenly, not academic, sense) school doesn't automatically make you a good person, but it might mean that you have better tools to get where you're going, if you choose to use them.

In junior high, my religion teacher explained, "It's not that people who aren't Catholics won't go to heaven. It's more that Catholics have the map, and everyone else is going by trial and error." I think this analogy can be applied to the music requested by the Church vs. other music. It's not that other music is bad, it's that you know for sure that chant can get you there if you're willing to go, and you can never quite be sure about the rest of it.

I try not to be a snob or an egoist about liturgical music. I have a pretty voice, which might possibly be operatic if I chose to develop it that way, but I've found operatic (read: showy) voices annoying at Mass, and prefer the clearer, purer voice I had as a teenager. People said I sounded angelic, which in one way I loved, because I wanted to make them think of the angels praising God in song, and in one way I hated, because I didn't want to be complimented for my own sake. What I liked best was to be told things like, "God gave you a wonderful gift." I don't like to be up at the front of the church, except possibly when acclaiming the psalm, which should be sung from where the other readings have been done, since it's really just a more musically elaborate reading. I'd rather be in a choir loft, heard and not seen, so as to better bring to mind the unseen hosts which are forever singing to their Lord.

This is also ties into my first point, that this isn't really about taste. In the chant Propers, the Church has told me what should be sung every Sunday and feast day. How arrogant would it be of me to decide that I could choose better than the Church has chosen--text, music, and all? Ok, maybe for variety, we'll have a different setting of the same text, which is, after all, what the music serves, or maybe even a paraphrase. But to ignore it completely just because the music director would prefer something different? That seems like a terrible idea, possibly even a sinfully prideful one (depending, of course, on the music director/cantor/organist's state of mind, and all that).

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