Sunday, August 7, 2011

The State of the Transition

Some three months from implementation, how stands the transition to the Third Edition of the Roman Missal? In terms of the text and acceptance overall, the dissidents have calmed down, the publishers are printing the Missals, the workshops are proceeding apace, and we can all look forward to a vastly enriched liturgical experience beginning in Advent.

But there is another issue that is hugely important to the overall presentation of the Roman Rite, and that issue is music. Commentators tend to underestimate the significance of this factor, but if you talk to average Catholics, this issue turns out to be decisive. The music provides the aesthetic framework that is communicated to the faithful, and it is one they readily understand as a sign of the well being and confidence of the Church herself.

More than any other issue, the music issue was the one that most traumatized Catholics when the first Mass of Paul VI was promulgated. In the same way that this new Missal corrections that serious translations of that edition, so too does this Missal offer a chance for making things right.

The text issue can be settled from on high, and it has been. It was a matter of making a new translation and implementing it, and this has been done. The music issue is not so simply solved. It relies on parish-by-parish cooperation in the spirit of the change. Legislation can suggest, the Church can publish, influential voices can explain and guide. But, in the end, it is all about the parish, the pastor, and the directors of music at all levels.

Pastors, however, have come to fear the music question because it continues to divide people like few other questions. Uncountable numbers of people simple refuse to go to Mass because they can’t stand what has happened to music at Mass, and the people who remain continue to be as divided as any group that fights over song selections. As for the musicians themselves, no matter what they are playing or singing, they take great offense at the slightest suggestion that they have made less than stellar choices and need to change.

All this wrangling is completely understandable given the near-total loss of the music that is native to the ritual, namely the chant. Chant is music specifically crafted beautifully elucidate the text of the Mass in a stylistic manner than transcends social divisions. It does not draw from contemporary cultural archetypes so that it does not go out of fashion. It worked in the first century and it works today to accomplish what liturgical music is supposed to do.

This tradition has been completely replaced because of a series of missteps following the close of the Second Vatican Council. The Council made a strong call for chant. The Vatican published two books of chant, one before and one after the new Mass appeared. But the voice calling for chant was always an “uncertain trumpet.” The right to pick any music for the Mass, embedded in legislation, led to an untenable situation in which the Mass music and therefore vast aspects of the liturgy itself were effectively contracted out to third party publishers - and not just the composition and printing of the music but also every aspect of the text and style.

A few years ago, the tipping point arrived for many Church officials. They discerned that something had to be done about the loss of the chant tradition. The introduction of the new Missal seemed like the best vehicle for this: a more authentic translation should go along with more authentic musical experience of the Mass. This idea was to reduce in our liturgical environments the role of artificial, industrialized, commercial pop music and increase the role of simple chant that people can actually sing and grow to love.

This is why so much effort was put into composing chants for the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. Just enough of the words of the Order of the Mass are changed in the new Missal to make nearly all existing “Mass settings” unusable. The metrical elements of the old text that caused them to be said in a syllable-driven 6/8 meter (“Glory to God in the highest / and peace to his people on earth”) were changed to be more accurate and eliminate meter and hence encourage plainsong.

Strategically, this amounted to a stroke of genius. With the slate clean, the next step was to formulate music that consistent with the Roman Rite tradition but is also easy enough for parish musicians to sing and implement in their parishes. Further, this music should be in English in order to overcome the great fear of our age of Latin, and doing this explores that largely neglected possibility opened up by the Council.

The chants were made integral to the Missal text itself. ICEL officials have said, time and again, that the Missal chants themselves should be thought of as a baseline music for all parishes. To this end, the USCCB has given approval for all of this music to be used in liturgy in the months before the Missal is scheduled to be implemented.This is why the music has been be given away free online far in advance, so that everyone could practice it. Publishers outside the Catholic Church, however, were not excluded but rather invited to offer settings consistent with the new text and the emerging ethos.

It was all very bold and brilliantly done. It’s probably the plan that I would have crafted had anyone asked me. It strikes me that this overarching plan had a high probability for success in dealing with the problem, which is that the music in all but a few parishes bears any likeness to the historical experience of the Roman Rite or the hopes of the Second Vatican Council.

If the whole idea was a great one, is it working? For the well educated musicians in parishes with savvy pastors, the answer is yes. My own private estimate is that perhaps 1000 parishes that were otherwise stuck in a pop-music rut are already making the shift. They are embracing the singing of the Missal chants without accompaniment. These same parishes are using the occasion to implement sung propers (see the Simple English Propers) and make some efforts to unify all the parishes Masses around this theme.

There is no question that this is progress, even amazing progress. It is tempting to look on the downside I will discuss below and forget that all of the above would have been unthinkably wonderful even two years ago.

However, there were some missing pieces in the bold plan. A major factor has to do with the competence of the musicians in the parish that are to be the front line for implementation. I’m not sure that I’ve seen solid data how many of these people are trained to read music, receive a professional salary, and have knowledge of the structural demands of the Roman Rite. But I can say that in my own experience, most seem to be well intentioned volunteers who, if they are paid at all, receive just a small token for their services.

I’ve given speeches to large gatherings of diocesan musicians and ask for a show of hands of how many can name the minor propers of the Mass; only a few hands in a hundred go up. Fewer still can read basic notation; most follow along with the piano or affect singing based on what they have heard before. The prospect of hearing a note in their heads and breaking a silence to intone the Sanctus absolutely terrifies many of these people.

As just one example, at the largest gathering of Catholic musicians this year at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, a speaker began singing Ave Maria, and several separate reports suggest that perhaps only one quarter of those in attendance could pick up the singing. And this is with 3,000 people in attendance.

The bottom line is that despite growing pockets of expertise and obvious progress over the last ten years, the major swath of people who have been pressed into service in Catholic liturgy over the country are not prepared to manage what exists much less lead in a transition to a liturgy in which the human voice predominates in chanted settings of the ordinary and propers.

There is, in addition, a deep conservatism that has taken hold in all our parishes, and it takes the form of preferring the status quo to any change. This results from the depleted musical capital just discussed and also a leftover effect of the great upheaval of the 1960s that continues to leave many people in the pews completely shellshocked. Even among those who eventually became used to the new rite of Mass did not look upon the revolutionary fervour of the period with affection. Forty years later, we are in a strange position of panicking about the slightest change to anything at all. And so it is with Catholic musicians today. The deep irony is that lasting legacy of the Council of change has been a profound fear of change.

The new Mass text changes about 10 words in total for the full set of ordinary chants. But based on the level of panic on the part of musicians, one gains the impression that they are all being asked to sing in a long recitative in Swahili and an aria in Galician. My inbox certainly testifies to the level of hysteria. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive pleading notes of “save me, save me.” When the head of ICEL gave a talk in New York recently, he took time for questions and they were nearly all asked with a tone of fear and loathing underscore by deep confusions.

What happens to a large community of people who are barely getting by as it is and then are asked to change toward something that is arguably more difficult? They throw themselves at the mercy of the institutions promoting the familiar. This is pretty much what has happened in a large number of parishes, as the old-line publishers who have learned ways to flatter amateurs with settings that get them through the day are thriving once again.

It’s possibly true that ICEL, the USCCB, and Vox Clara all overestimated the capacity of average Catholic musicians to adapt and sing what strikes experienced liturgical musicians are ridiculously easy chanted settings of the Mass text. Even so, it could be the case that even this material is too difficult for their current abilities - or, at least, this is what many singers believe.

What about sending teachers out to parishes to get them going? Many of us have done workshops and worked with singers. We’ve made youtubes that have received as many as 7,000 views. We’ve produced editions in four-line staves and modern notes. But all our efforts combined are dwarfed by the influence of the large publishers, who have lobbied hard at every Office of Worship in this country (“you should have one Mass setting for the entire diocese and it should be the one we sell”), done non-stop seminars all over the country, and promoted proprietary music at every stop.

Pastors are in a position to get the musical transition on track with simple interventions. But, again, they are in the habit of not intervening in their music programs and are not interested in starting now.

None of this is to say that there has not been and won’t continue to be progress. After all is said and done, hundreds of parishes will be singing Catholic ritual music whereas they might otherwise after sung something else forever. But all these efforts are too little to amount to a wholesale counterrevolution that many have long awaited.

Some years ago, Michael Joncas wrote a book on sacred music that concluded that if chant were to make a serious return to American Catholic parishes, it would require concerted, relentless educational efforts over the very long term. It would appear that he was precisely right. Is it worth every effort? It is worth as much effort as the faith itself requires.

Remember too that this is only round one, and that this struggle isn’t about us vs. them. It is about creating space to let the voice of the liturgy itself speak and sing. There is every reason to be confident about the long-term future. The high hopes of the Council will eventually prevail.