Saturday, July 16, 2011

Back to the future?

Over the last year plus, our parish has been holding events in celebration of the 150th anniversary of its founding. As part of those activities, we have published a series of tabloid inserts in our local newspaper describing various aspects of our history and catholic traditions in general. I have authored all of the articles on worship and specifically music. This is the last of those contributions that will be published in our paper in August before our September 8th anniversary date. Just thought I'd share this with....

For the final musical installment of our anniversary tabloid series I’ve been asked to “portend” the future of Roman Catholic sacred music practice. Even though I just returned from a local meeting of diocesan musicians I won’t confine my prognostications to the future locally in Visalia or the valley parishes, but in a more universal, “catholic,” sense. I’ll do this off the cuff with only God as my co-pilot!

I remember Pastor Harry Wood (a much revered, now retired Methodist pastor) publicly remarking the most vexing and contentious issue facing his church was….. The Music Wars! How true, pretty much for many Christian communities, that remains. But I do see, after forty plus years, that reliance upon musical elements whose origins are “of the world” and continuing to integrate and add more popular forms into the worship paradigm will diminish, not improve the prayerful intent and relationship of the Faithful to God. If we insist, for emotional need or a rationale that as we are in His image, so must our worship music reflect “us,” then we will lose all interest in aspects of worship that point to the “otherness” of God, and that is integral to why we worship God in the first place: we must strike a balance between Christ at the door (Mt.25) and the “I AM” Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai in the manner in which we praise and worship the Lord.
First of all I already see the most compelling instrument changing the “economy” of musical worship is the internet. Though the sinister web is a playground for evil and malice, it also serves as a virtual infinity of historical, philosophical and practical resources by which church musicians ought to consult, communicate and continue their own understanding of their stewardship of their worship traditions as they lead their communities in sung prayer. Inasmuch as most parish musicians cannot take a busman’s holiday on Sunday’s (or Saturday’s), they certainly can have many other sacred music worlds opened to them by one mouse click.
Next, for my Church, I see that the “ship of state” of liturgical music, Gregorian and vernacular (English, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) Chant will be saluted and finally re-admitted to its titular role as the primary musical “tongue” in which we sing. But that doesn’t necessitate an abandonment of many valid other forms of music: the strophic hymn, or the liturgical song, or even the praise and worship chorus. But those forms must sail alongside and, hopefully, more in the manner and style of the mother-ship. Because the music must serve to transcend and dispose our souls towards a music known only to angels and saints, not merely musical theater arias and pop-star megahits.
And lastly, the forthcoming of a new English Missal this Advent (a missal contains all the ritual language of the Church’s daily and Sunday calendar Masses over a three year cycle this written for non-Catholics) provides us the greatest mandate: to be faithful to the texts handed to us by the Author of Life, the Lord God, and the psalms of His chosen people’s King David, and the gospel of His only begotten Son. Music that unflinchingly serves the Living Word, and avoids ego based intention or emotional outcome in worship, will thrive on the vine. Music that is only randomly associated with the source of the vine, will become entangled in thorns and wither away.