Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hymn Conflicts are Avoidable

At my parish, there is some debate about a song chosen for a first communion liturgy. Like many songs and hymns, there is a vague talk about the body as tabernacle of the Lord, and the question has arisen about the orthodoxy of the text. Much of it is left to interpretation and it becomes easy to spin either way. The text could be unobjectionable or it could be heresy. Just the debate alone has cause some slight contention in the parish, even if among a small set of people.

The entire debate is one I’ve had in my own mind about innumerable songs over the years, and this problem doesn’t just apply to praise music and other predictably flabby ditties by modern song writers. It also applies to 19th century traditional music, much of which is drawn from a non-Catholic tradition. There are times when I do a double take on a text on hymns like “The Church’s One Foundation,” puzzling about whether this song didn’t originate in a surreptitious criticism of Rome for its emphasis on Peter and the Papacy. Maybe so, or maybe not. To say something is free of error is not to say that it is the best or most precise statement of Catholic belief.

Are laypeople who are not really trained well in theology really in a position to decide these questions? I’m sure not. I find myself quickly out of my league when trying to make heads or tails out of some of these lyrics. I’m not sure that I would have an ear that is finely tuned enough to detect heresy much less distinguish it from a mere creative expression. It is for this reason that I’ve never enter the hymn debate to any degree.

People writes me constantly to ask for my opinion on this or that text. I really don’t know what to say. One of the reasons that I’m Catholic is precisely because I do not believe myself competent to make up my own religion based on source material alone. I would rather leave that to tradition and the collected wisdom of the ages. This is not to doubt my intelligence, but rather to affirm that the wisdom embedded in long-standing practices that trace to solid authority will tend to be more sound than that the intuitions of even the smartest living person.

Catholic liturgy is, in this sense, an open-source project that many have worked on for uncountable numbers of generations. The bugs tend to get worked out that way, and what we practice is a stable release, not an alpha or beta release. This is important when we are talking about issues like eternal life and miracles like transubstantiation.

Religion is serious business and it should not be subjected to made-up ramblings or the judgment of any one people at one time. Heaven knows that the translators of the Mass have had enough trouble in recent years agreeing on wording, and they were working with a stable source text!

For this reason, the use of hymns at Mass pose a special problem and probably an unsolvable problem. We are always in the danger zone. A well-known fact is that most Catholics know only three hymns well. Maybe one of the reasons has to do with “sense of the faithful” that these three hymns are theologically sound, and of this there is little doubt about that. Note that all three (I’ll leave you to guess) are all rooted in a Latin text.

If they are not so rooted, consider the possibility that the music instead of adding to the liturgy actually works as a distraction from it, raising an entirely different subject and also introducing theological ambiguity or even heresy.

Pastors who work so hard to say or sing what is the Missal, and prepare their homilies for hours, should consider the possibility that all their attentiveness is being undone by what the choir is singing from the loft, an area over which pastors are not usually exercising any control. Why so much attention on the text of the Mass and virtually no attention to the many random words stated in these hymns sung at four parts of the liturgy?

In any case, my point is not to council despair. It is to underscore that the entire problem is wholly avoidable through one simple step: sing the propers of the Mass! The answer here is perfectly obvious. The Mass propers apply at the entrance, the offertory, and the communion. These are the precise time in the Mass when hymns are mostly substituted for propers, and here is where we enter the danger zone. We don’t have to go there at all if we would just stick to the texts in the Missal and the Roman Gradual.

If we want to have no doubt about the orthodoxy of the text and the appropriateness of the music we only need to sing Gregorian chant, the music that is native to the Mass and the normative answer. It is the first choice by every standard: history, theology, rubrics. If singing the Gregorian is a problem, today there are other ways to sing Mass propers in English, either according to the text in the Missal or the translation in the Gradual.

At my own parish, we try to sing authentic Gregorian chants at the entrance and communion and at least sing the proper text at offertory according to a given tone. But this morning we were lacking important voices and we could not do this, so we tried out the Simple English Propers to be published this Spring. We did the full suite of them: entrance, offertory, and communion. We also sang the appropriate Psalms with them so that there was singing for the entire liturgical action. We did it all without instruments and even without a pitch pipe.

The results were just marvelous, I’m happy to report. They are very beautiful and easy to learn in a pinch. But the most important part of them is that when you use them, you are singing the Mass itself. For this reason, you can know that the text is liturgical appropriate for the season and the day. They reflect the lessons that we are to learn that day. By preserving the mode of the Gregorian original, the “mood” of the piece also comes through. And they are are a wonderful stepping stone to singing the Gregorian. As one friend of mine said, these propers are a kind of “gateway drug” to Gregorian chant.

Now, a few years ago, when the only real option for propers was the Latin original, there might have been an excuse for not singing propers. But these days, sets of propers are free for the download. And with the Simple English Propers, we have a fantastic package. They are arranged correctly according to the new calendar. They have notated Psalms. They offer beauty and variety. They train singers to read four-line staffs, learn how to sing plainsong, and also sing without instruments -- all essential skills for chanting at Mass.

Why are we having these debates about hymns when the propers are right there for the singing?