Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pastors: This Is the Time to Fix Your Music Program

Priests talk about it often in private, and kid about the subject around laypeople they trust. They grouse about it week after week, and this has been going on for years. But they dare not actually attempt to address the problem, much less take it up with those who are responsible. They know that there is something profoundly wrong (and people complain to them regularly) but they worry that they lack the competence they need to make a change. And so the status quo lasts and lasts.

I speak of course about the unspeakable topic of music in our parishes. Every priests knows that no good can come from seeking to fix the problem that everyone knows exists. It is a mine field. You take it up with the musicians and them balk, bluster, and bring up their low pay. You bring it up with the parish counsel and you unleash arguments over taste and style that begin politely and end in total war. You raise the topic with the Bishop and he assures you that going there just isn’t very pastoral.

The biggest fear of all traces to their own perceived incompetence in the area of music. They wouldn’t tell the plumber how to fix the drain, the electrician how to make the lights work, or the builder how to make the roof stay up. The priest’s job centers on the sacraments, along with the infinite number of pastoral things that pastors do to keep a parish alive and thriving. Isn’t that enough? Must they be expected to take on the area of music too?

And so the pastor just leaves it alone, in the hands of people who have been swirling around in parish music circles for decades with greater longevity than any pastor. Any current pastor has nothing to gain and everything to lose by insisting on change. The budget is tight and most of these people are volunteers anyway. Members of the paid staff are even more of a problem, with their pattern of seeming to sneer and roll their eyes at anything Father requests.

This is how the pattern came to be established that the pastor just doesn’t touch the music question. Once there is relative peace, even if it means the weekly parade of mediocrity and music that embarrasses people with an understanding of the Roman Rite and its true musical demands, the pastor just lets well enough alone. But the problem is still there and he knows it. He might like to push for change and even gain the knowledge necessary to talk shop with his music team, but the occasion never seems to present itself.

Well, the Church has given these pastors a wonderful gift with the new translation of the Roman Missal that will go into effect this Advent. The Bishops are urging a widespread education plan for two reasons: 1) to make sure there is no repeat of the meltdown following the introduction of the 1969/1970 Missal, and 2) as an opportunity for new catechises about what the Mass is and why it matters, the knowledge of which has plummeted to new lows in our times.

For a while, I couldn’t understand why such enormous efforts were being pushed just for a new translation. The people’s parts have very few changes at all. The most substantive changes occur for the celebrant, and here it is incontrovertible that the changes represent a huge upgrade. This doesn’t strike me as anything that needs a gigantic push to make happen.

However, it was then explained to me that the second point about educating people more generally is the real reason for all the materials being published and the seminars being conducted. Then it became to make sense. It is true: the new Missal really is a wonderful opportunity.

Well, it is also true of music. The new Missal integrates English chant into the structure of the Mass to a much greater degree than the past editions. The Bishops are pushing for the Missal chants to become precisely what we have always lacked in the post-1970 world: a national body of music that has been approved by the Church that is known by everyone. Important, this music comes not from a for-profit publisher but from Church authority itself.

The settings are not in themselves universally brilliant but I find myself rather impatient with criticisms of them. They are so much better than what we have, which are almost entirely unused as it is. They are written in the style of chant, which is to say that they are plainsong and can (and should) be sung without accompaniment. To think about these chants properly, you need to think with a bit of depth about what dominates the typical liturgy today (hymns plus mostly silly or puffy Mass settings) and also where these Missal chants will lead congregations as the next step.

There are really three parts to the right reform agenda. We must first phase out nearly the whole of the conventional repertoire that exists, one piece of music at a time. We must work toward a gaining a correct understanding of the musical structure of the Roman Rite, so that the people are granted primary responsibility over the ordinary chants including the creed and the kyrie (both of which are sadly neglected) and the schola has a new-found appreciation for the responsibilities regarding the proper chants of the Mass.

Finally, we need a new embrace of our chant heritage as it applies to the ordinary form, to the point that people feel comfort with Latin and the truly normative music of the ritual (which is Gregorian chant), a crucial step that re-integrates the new with the old and ends this “hermeneutic of rupture” that is so widely perceived to exist.

That is a gigantic mission and its success depends on many factors. We need to re-train existing musicians and raise up a new generation that has the desire to sing music that is intrinsic to the rite and also the competence to do so. The people need to feel that their role is important and that they aren’t just being brow beat to sing pop songs suitable for selling cosmetics or mollifying teen angst. Providing music for the Mass is a serious job and it requires seriousness of mind and heart.

Whether this process of change lasts a long time or takes place immediately depends on circumstances of time and place. What matters most is that we get the process going. It must begin. And the Missal chants are a great beginning. The change in the Missal provides the opportunity to insist on the change.

If I could add just one piece of practical advice for pastors: insist that your musicians sing the chants without accompaniment. No negotiations on this point: unaccompanied only. This will make a dramatic difference in the liturgy. It will also help to end what is usually the biggest problem in parish music, the persistence of some overbearing piants, organist, or guitar player who has convinced everyone that the human voice that God gave each of us is nothing without some external contraption. It’s nonsense: the human voice is the primary liturgical instrument. Unless we get that point right, there is little hope for progress.

There are many things pastors can do to make parish music better. But insisting on these two points (sing the Missal chants and sing them without accompaniment) will go a long way in most parishes toward breaking the cycle of mediocrity. The issuance of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Now is the time to act, for the sake of the future of the faith.