On music at Catholic Mass, take the long view

Every few months, I come across another rant about how bad music at church has been since Vatican II. Oftentimes, there’s a pining for the music of before Vatican II. I don’t have a problem with much of the stuff from pre-Vatican II, and I like Gregorian chant; we use it sometimes at my church. However, a lot of these critiques are, well, not able to take the long view. Consider this one at CatholicVote, which came out a few days ago.

Choir loft stained glass

Honestly, I just needed a photo here for aesthetic purposes. This isn’t here for any other reason than to look pretty. I suppose that means I shouldn’t have this caption, either.

Now, whether you like Marty Haugen (who wrote such stuff as “Gather Us In” and “All Are Welcome”) is up to you. Same thing with any other contemporary composer of music intended for liturgy. (Not you, Christian contemporary music. Stay out of this.) But I think it’s important to keep the following things in mind when you’re having a discussion of what you like/dislike and think is appropriate/not appropriate for Mass.

1. The Church does reflect culture, to some degree (but it then rises above it). It sounds like a lot of folks think that music that sounds too much like secular music is problematic. Well, sometimes, sure. But not necessarily. You see, I look at it this way: there’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with church music having certain aspects that match secular music. Yes, even the greatest classical music and the greatest Mass settings and the greatest chants (even chant!) reflect, to some extent, the prevailing tastes at the time.

But what should the church musician or church composer aspire to do? In my view, he should seek to understand this culture, then write music that takes it even further, taking the best aspects, the holiest aspects of these to create music that is artistically genuine and praises God. It’s not the easiest thing to do — there’s plenty of bad liturgical music out there. But to simply suggest that church musicians should ignore culture is, to my view, silly. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we should have rap or synthesizers or rock bands at Mass. No, I don’t think we should. But what’s wrong with contemporary-sounding, faithful hymns on the organ (or piano)? To me, there’s no problem.

Praise bands just aren’t my cup of tea. I think we can do better than this.

2. It takes time to sort out what’s good and what’s bad, and the best stuff does tend to rise to the top. But the only way, really, to start figuring that out is playing it at Mass. So you’re going to have to sit through some bad stuff. Get used to it. I play a lot of stuff in our hymnal (it’s OCP, one of the major companies) to see whether we can use it. But even if I like it, the congregation as a whole may not like it.

Let me put it this way. At my church, in the choir loft, there are Glory and Praise books (with a lot of guitar-based stuff) from 30+ years ago. They have a ton of awful stuff in them. I mean, awful. And most of it has fallen by the wayside over the years. Why? There was time for feedback to come in and time for musicians, themselves, to gauge what was good and what wasn’t. After Vatican II, everyone tried to find their way to new, but good, music. I think we’re in better shape now than we were in then. But it’s a process of continual refinement. The best of the new stuff will endure; the rest will, eventually, fade away.

3. A lot of folks’ preferences are based on their own biases, not necessarily whether something actually is appropriate. In other words, if you don’t like a hymn, you’ll be more likely to nitpick it apart to try to find something “wrong” with it or exaggerate aspects of the hymn to make it sound worse than it is. I know I do it, but a lot of the folks, especially on the traditional side, who complain about modern hymns do so without acknowledging their own biases. Sometimes, hymns aren’t appropriate, and it’s more obvious, but much more often, it’s folks who are reading their own views into something. Considering this, reread the CatholicVote piece I linked to above, and ask yourself whether this guy’s guilty of this. I think he is. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, and it doesn’t mean he’s right; it just means you have to take that into consideration when you consider his words.

So what’s my point? Well, there is room for diversity in music. Chances are, whatever type of sacred music you prefer, you can find a place with it. As long as the people are endeavoring to serve and praise God in song, it’s hard to truly go wrong. And if you don’t like the music, there’s nothing wrong with getting involved yourself. But sitting back and complaining, then doing nothing? Can’t say I’d recommend that.

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2 responses to “On music at Catholic Mass, take the long view

  1. Thank you for your article. I am an organist and I tend to lean towards the traditional hymns, but I also like to play some newer music as well.

    Another important aspect is to play songs on the correct instruments. Our guitarists sometimes play music that is more appropriate for organ, and there are some songs they play that I won’t because I know they’ll sound awful on the organ. I believe it’s important to take that into consideration when planning music for the Liturgy.

  2. Good point, Jim. Thanks. Adapting songs from one instrument to the next is definitely a challenge. There are ways to do it most of the time, but sometimes, it’s just darn near impossible.

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