Thursday, October 13, 2011

Good Plans Gone Awry

Readers of the Cafe know everything this article already, so feel free to skip it. But because I usually upload my weekly column for the Wanderer here, I thought I should post this one too.


Why Your Parish Might Not Sing the Missal Chants
by Jeffrey Tucker

I’ve sat on this story for a while in hopes that the problem was isolated and temporary and thereby not serious. But I’m gaining increasing evidence from correspondence that it is indeed very serious and pervasive. The problem has to do with the music of the new Roman Missal, a book that contains more integral chant than any Missal ever published. Just like the text of the Missal is actually based on the Latin edition (no more loose paraphrases), the music of the Missal is also rooted in the Latin chant as found in the Graduale Romanum, the Kyriale, and the other official chant books of the Roman Rite.

This dramatic increase in the presence of music is designed for a reason. The Bishops of the English-speaking world developed a desire over the last decades to see some degree of standardization in what is sung at Mass. There are several reasons for this. First, a community of believers needs to have a community song that serves to unite them. Second, the ritual does have its own embedded music and surely this should serve a primary role. Third, the Church and not private publishers should be the provider of the main music at Mass, so it is long past time for the Church to do so.

Based on these considerations, the liturgy office of the USCCB, as well as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, worked very hard for a very long time to create chant settings that transfer the musical sense from Latin to English. It is not an easy task, and no two people agree on the best approach.

The task also confronts a very strange political problem that I’ve only recently begun to fully understand. It requires no explanation of why the pop music publishers resent chant. It goes against their whole sensibility. Chant solemnizes the liturgy and takes us out of ourselves and into an eternal realm. For some people, this is exactly the opposite of where they want to go. In any case, it makes no sense for a commercial publisher to embrace music that is easily downloadable and freely shared among all. This point of view can cite a certain level of support among Catholic people who have not been formed with the understanding that liturgy is not for toe-tapping entertainment or the manipulation of emotion.

On the other side, for some people who are knowledgeable about chant and love the Latin, English chant is an intolerable compromise to render the musical language into another tongue, especially one with lots of hard word endings. The music and language of chant are supposed to go together, and changing the text in particular is hopelessly damaging. I’m not entirely sure that I disagree with the substance of this critique, but there is the matter of practicality. The Mass was vernacularized. Many people warned in the 1960s that unless the chant movement did something to embrace English, the folk music and pop music forces will rush in to fill the gap. It is more than obvious that this is precisely what has happened in the absence of serious attempts to recreate Gregorian chant in the vernacular.

Given this two poles of opinion, the result has been to squeeze out this third option that the Missal embraces. The stalemate on this issue had pretty well continued for fifty years until it was decisively broken by ICEL. Yes, this should have happened 45 years ago when permission for the vernacular first entered into the consciousness of the Bishops’ conferences but all that history is water under the bridge now. The important thing is that we finally have access to an entire body of music for the Mass that covers music for the people and for the celebrant (you have to look elsewhere for propers sung by the schola).

ICEL flooded the world with its chant editions long before the printing of the Missal itself. It encouraged recordings, engravings, sharings, and every manner of promotion. These chants were to become the foundational music of Catholic life as regards the Roman Rite of Mass. It was required that they be printed in every pew hymnal. It was an ambitious plan, especially given the fractured state of Catholic music and the near banishment of chant from most parishes in this country. But the plan was truly visionary in ways that were not expected.

Given all this, you might be thinking that chant will arrive at your parish on Advent one this year. That could happen but it is not likely. After all, no one has mandated that the chants be used at Mass. It was strongly urged by the head of ICEL but there has been no mandate. Many publishers have produced alternative Mass settings, and this is as it should be given that the Church has always encouraged art and composition and never sought to freeze into place all music that takes place at Mass.

But something new and unexpected has happened. In more than just a few dioceses around the country, the Office of Worship has sent out orders to all parishes that they do not have choice in what music to sing. They must sing such and such Mass from a certain publisher for a period of one year. This must be sung at all parishes and at all Masses, regardless of the preferences of the congregation or the celebrant or the pastor or the director of music. This is being done in the name of diocesan unity, a concern that should not be dismissed. But if it is unity we seek, what better to unify than the Missal itself? But this is not what is happening. Many parishes are being forced to buy Mass settings published outside the Church and simultaneously eschew the actual music of the Missal.

I first heard about some of this just two months ago, but now the reports are growing. Many of the people reporting this are wanting to remain anonymous. Many are not even giving the name of the diocese for fear of reprisal; no one wants to be seen as a trouble maker. But it is deeply demoralizing for those who saw this new Missal as a possible liberation from the disunity and cacophony of the present state of Catholic music. Alas, bureaucrats have intervened to stop this from happening.

You might be wondering how they can get away with this. It’s a good question. I seriously doubt that the mandates could stand up against any serious canonical challenge. But here is the problem. By the time the challenges and answers make their way through the administrative apparatus, the trial period of one year will be up, and parishes will again be free to sing the music of the Missal. So a legal challenge probably doesn’t make sense at this point.

The sad news for many Catholics is that they will have to wait yet another year before the music at Mass becomes reliably solemn. That’s not to say that there are not some excellent settings out there being published by commercial publishers, and all of them have some quality offerings. But those are not the ones that are being popularly selected, so far as I can tell.

And we all know the way music works in parishes. Once something is around for one year, it sticks forever. You can see, then, that this practice of one-year mandates is amazing subsidy to the commercial publishers as against the Church - which is precisely what the Bishops did not want. Indeed, this whole practice amounts to an ingenious reversal of a major part of the intent of this new Missal. The message of the crowd that gave us the status quo is: we aren’t going anywhere soon.