Dealing with Frustration at the Slow Pace of Change

Mostly I write with a sense of optimism about our liturgical future. There are so many wonderful signs: Summorum, the new English Missal, the formation of thousands of scholas, a new generation of priests who “get it” as regards the liturgy, growing support from Rome, as well as cultural change at the heart of Catholic life. All of these are fantastic, and I’m deeply grateful to be alive to see it all happening.

And yet, nearly every day I receive notes from people who are still despairing because their own local parish offers nothing that resembles the sights and sounds of Catholicism. There is no chant, the hymns are embarrassing, the musicians and liturgy directors are clueless, the pastor does nothing or is part of the problem, and every week brings another teeth-gritting moment. Many are at their wit’s end.

We should all be sympathetic to their plight. In fact, it is not unreasonable to presume that this is the norm in the overwhelming majority of parishes. It is hard to be optimistic when all the good trends are an abstraction while the bad trends date very far back in history and are the only present reality you experience week to week.

Long experience tells me that a person’s attitude toward the state of affairs in the Catholic Church is determined by their own experience on the ground level. For this reason, it’s a good idea not to dismiss anyone’s perspective on what the real problems and solutions are; one never knows for sure how we might act and believe if we walked in another’s shoes. And truly, it was not that many years ago when I dreaded going to Mass because the music was so offensive. It made me so mad that it would take until Thursday to get over it, and the whole process would start again on Sunday. These were dark times.

And yet consider this. Even if parish situations are terrible today, the knowledge that change is happening elsewhere can really lift the spirits. What if this were 1966 or so? In these years, most parishes were more or less peaceful but a terrible storm was building right outside the window. For many decades after, we saw very but decline. Standards not only fell but were destroyed. The rules and norms that governed liturgical life for centuries were suddenly thrown out and replaced by improvisation and a near-universal touch/feely ethos.

To be a priest or serious musician in those times was more than a struggle. It was a daily occasion for despair. These were people who had adopted liturgy as their lifetime vocation – and there is only one life. During the whole of their lives, they saw nothing but decline and face little but attacks.

We often hear caricatures of crabby traditionalists who could do nothing during all this time but mutter and complain, but we should be loath to condemn them for this. They were put through a trial most of us can’t even imagine. When they looked at a crucifix, they could identify, and this fact was made all the worse by the reality that their torment seem to be happening at the hands of the Church they had embraced as their true love.

Many in this generation just left. The heros are the people who stuck it out and prepared the way for the current reform. They saw the need to offer a model, to teach and train. They consoled themselves with the hope that some future generation would reap the benefits, all while knowing that they were not likely to see the fruit of their efforts in their lifetimes.

There are hundreds of such people, but let me just mention two that serve as great inspirations to me. The first is Msgr. Richard Schuler, who stood virtually alone in the United States standing for high quality music in his parish (St. Agnes in St. Paul, MN) and never relented in singing the propers of the Mass. It was treated terribly and widely regarded as the last of a dying breed. He kept the Church Music Association of America going despite having no money and very little help. He was a dreamer and an idealist but mostly he had that rare thing: faith that beauty and truth would eventually carry the day. He was ordained in a time of peace and stability in the Church but ended up fighting every day of his life against the trends of his time. But he never gave in, and always did the best that he could with what he had. We all owe him a huge debt.

Another case in point is the legendary chant director Mary Berry of the U.K. Upheaval also defined her life and she had to reinvent even her own vocation in order to survive. But thanks to amazing tenacity and a great deal of creativity, she managed to teach and inspire several generations of students. She did more than that: she entrenched chant (Latin and English) as part of the musical scene during a period in which it might otherwise have disappeared. She was the most generous person, happy to lead anyone to the beauty of liturgical chant. And when she was asked about her struggles, she would always demur and change the subject over to hopeful things. When people would attempt to drag her into controversies, battles, and internecine splits she would refuse. She had a light in front of her that she followed always, and that light was that of Christ. And you know what? The Catholic world is filled with her students today – students not only of music but students of life who have replicated her example. Some of them are in very high positions in Church today, helping to bring reform with gentleness and a loving and generous spirit.

What both of these great people had in common was the willingness to take up a cause themselves, regardless of what people around them or in the press said about them. Grousing and complaining was not their way. Their lives were light, not heat. They love the work. It was the source of their joy. They knew what they had to do and they did it, even though they received few if any personal accolades for their work. This is humility. This is a form of piety. And this is something that we should all hope to emulate. And look what they have left! It’s incredible how the life of one man and one woman can make such a difference in this world. And consistently with the poetic drama of the Christian faith itself, their glory as individuals is only obvious to us and to the world after their deaths.

To be surrounded entirely by decline is a very difficult way to live a life. Despair is a universal human temptation. We should avoid it, refuse it. But how much easier should it be for us in our time than it was for them in their time? If Msgr Schuler could build up a world world-class music program in one parish that became a light to the world, and if Mary Berry could teach thousands and leave behind generations of brilliantly trained scholars and singers, and do all of this in the 1970s and 1980s (!) surely there are things we can all do right where we are. This is the task of our generation. It is our calling. And looking back at the past, we should realize that it is a much lighter burden than theirs.

I too would love to see change sooner rather than later. We’ve waited decades and decades for this. In this time, great men and women have lived hard lives and died before the reform came. Let’s let them be our inspirations as we go forward in our own times to do what we must.

15 Replies to “Dealing with Frustration at the Slow Pace of Change”

  1. Jeffrey, brilliant post! While I did not know Monsignor Schuler personally, it was he who indirectly led me to Mary Berry. Your description of Mary captured her, and I couldn't agree more. She constantly reminded her students to do their homework and know their stuff, and yet, to proceed always "peacefully and serenely." I remember after having returned to the states, complaining that my diocese was a wasteland, devoid of any Chant whatsoever(it was the late 80's), Mary in a magnificent and inspiring way encouraged me to "soldier on" and to gather a few people together and "keep singing the Chant" even if alone or with a few people- gather people together and sing the Divine Office, or Mass if you find a sympathetic priest. It was the best possible advice, my group grew and things got better.

    I would encourage all in similar situations to do the same. KEEP SINGING THE CHANT! Even if in small groups and in your homes. Mary Berry sang the Office daily with students, friends and neighbors, anyone who might stop by, in her little chapel at St Benedict's, her home in Barton, near Cambridge, and if there was a priest, there would be a High Mass! It was there singing office, that many of us learned the intricacies of the psalmody, with texts devoid of any pointing and sight-singing, but we also grew in love of the Church's liturgy and in our faith.

    Even though I am a full-time choir director in a church where I use the Chant all the time, I continue to have friends over to my house to sing Vespers or Compline, or even Lauds or some of the minor hours. Its a great way to start a day spent with friends or perhaps a dinner or an evening out. I would encourage all, as Mary Berry encouraged me and countless students- Do not despair, forge ahead, do not become discouraged, study the chant, do your homework, sing the Chant and get ever better at it, gather people around you to do the same, you will grow, and again, be peaceful and serene, God will lead you. Mary Berry often reminded us, that according to St Hugh of Cluny, the singing of the Chant was a path to holiness- if Mary was any example, St Hugh was spot on. David Hill, in an interview on the BBC the week after Mary died, said "she was one of the holiest people I ever knew…" Indeed, I would heartily concur.

  2. Excellent post, Jeffrey! Because of Msgr. Schuler and Dr. Berry, I work in a parish that is a beacon for sacred music and a pastor that is dedicated to all things beautiful in the Liturgy.

    But…even with all of this, I can get discouraged as I look at the world around me and feel that I am all alone. Your post almost brought tears to my eyes and gave me the strength to stand up and keep the fight going with gentle strength and firm love.

  3. Jeffery, I did know Monsignor Schuler personally. The very first time we met I was a man with a long ponytail in charge of a "contemporary choir" at a different parish. I had come to St. Agnes in search of a connection with tradition. Almost on sight he invited me to join the St. Agnes schola. I don't know how he knew I had learned a little chant at St. Olaf (I was in the St. Olaf choir, but learned chant from my Greek prof in the classics department, Jim May, who was a St. Agnes parishoner and is now academic dean at Olaf). But after that meeting I joined whenever I could make over there and learned a ton from Paul LeVoir the schola master there. Long story short, because of Msgr. Schuler, I now have my own schola that sings twice a month, once at an OF and once at a Sunday EF. Thanks for the opportunity to join in paying tribute to this great man.

  4. But it is also good to remember two helpful proverbs that help us cultivate detachment:

    1. Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.
    2. There are victims, and then there are volunteers….

  5. And, I would say, the "crabby traditionalists" in the late 1960s were not heroic compared to folks like Dr Theodore Marier who actually did not storm out with his toys but built a solid foundation to carry over the Church's tradition of liturgical music in the era of vernacular reformed liturgy. I don't have as much pity on people who stormed out and decided not to be part of the solution. I've seen *lots* of that on the left, btw, and have the same attitude towards my former confreres from that angle.

    That's not to say I don't respect private decisions made to distance oneself from situations that are toxic to one's sanctification. But one must be careful to distinguish that from a more dramatic, ego- and/or ideologically-driven reaction.

    (And, I hasten add, the state of Catholic liturgical music *before* 1966 was also deplorable and toxic in many places. 1966 was not a magick marker in that regard.)

  6. Jeffrey, just an addendum from the Left Coast-
    Besides Dr. Mahrt in Palo Alto, no one should ever forget the stirling example of the Roger Wagner/Paul Salamunovich continuum in, of all places, Hollywood/LA. Out here, Paul was Schuller for many of us youngblood RC DM's at one point or another.

  7. "And, I hasten add, the state of Catholic liturgical music *before* 1966 was also deplorable and toxic in many places."

    I wonder where those places were. By 1966, I had as an itinerant academic been a member of 9 parishes in 4 dioceses in the south, midwest, and northeast, ranging from rural to metropolitan. In each of these I found actual liturgical music with enthusiastic (if amateur) choirs doing fairly good jobs. Nowhere did I see anything resembling the "deplorable and toxic" music that's the most common norm today.

    These references to Catholic parish music in the previous era are standard but, if something's not true to start with, repetition does not make it so.

  8. @Charles. Hear, hear! I sang at the last performance of Roger Wagner's (his own "Mass in Honor of St. Francis") and attended his funeral. I was formerly on the staff of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and sang under Paul Salamunovich many times. I'm glad you linked them together because they comprised a Roman Catholic choral tradition in Los Angeles. They also left a legacy of Masses and motets from the pre-Vatican II era that might have been lost to history unless they continued to perform them (hermeneutic of continuity).

  9. I spy Jeremy White, the chap with the beard in the background of the photo of Mary Berry. He's another case in point: a professional bass who's quietly put much of his life into the cause of liturgical music, taking the baton from Mary with the Schola Gregoriana, and chairing Spode Music Week for many years.

  10. (And, I hasten add, the state of Catholic liturgical music *before* 1966 was also deplorable and toxic in many places. 1966 was not a magick marker in that regard.)
    With the exception of some Benedictine monasteries, a few religious houses ,and a very limited number of European churches and cathedrals, liturgical music generally was and remains deplorable. One has to attend Anglican,Lutheran, or Orthodox churches to find a tradition of consistently great liturgical music.

  11. I was intro'd to chant by my friend B, who is truly a soldier for this. She gave our "hootenanay" choir a workshop and life has never been the same…sadly chant has not yet caught in our area, but some of us at least know what to do with it!

    Our landscape is very bleak, but I hope and pray that change is somehow coming.

  12. With the exception of some Benedictine monasteries, a few religious houses ,and a very limited number of European churches and cathedrals, liturgical music generally was and remains deplorable. One has to attend Anglican,Lutheran, or Orthodox churches to find a tradition of consistently great liturgical music.

    @Anon. (April 2, 2011 10:33 AM)
    Laetare Jerusalem, now isn't that a little ray of sunshine to reign on our little parade of vandals this Lenten day. Despite so much evidence to the contrary cited above and in thousands of accounts otherwise elsewhere, AND the illusion that their were large screens in many Lutheran churches reflecting the austere texts of Praise Choruses as well as the strains of Siyahamba eminating from more than one Anglican cathedral worldwide, I'm more than glad to know that our condition in RCC Land remains "deplorable." I can rest now from my labors, like Simeon, knowing that Anonymous is here to usher in the new era, neither as victim or volunteer, or as a man born blind, but as one whose judgment is clearly above reproach.
    Nunc dimittis…

  13. Henry Edwards is spot on. Like Henry, I lived during these times and recall most of the parishes in my town and elsewhere had very fine chant and polyphony. I could sing 5 Latin ordinaries by heart by the time I was 10. In the spirit of Joseph Goebbels many liturgical "progressives" continue to spread the big lie about the "miserable" state of Catholic Church music prior to the Council. But even if you believe that it is true, there is nothing you can say or do to paper over the tripe the Faithful has been fed for 40 years following the Council. But we are finally recovering our sanity and sacred music tradition despite the railing and gnashing of teeth by aging progressives.

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