Survey Says…

Many parishes like the idea of taking a survey of what parishioners like and dislike about parish life. This makes sense because a parish is all about service to people, or should be. Its sacramental purpose is primary but there is an extended mission as well that involves creating an inviting and welcoming culture. We all need such places in this world, settings outside work and home that encourage the creation of social groups centering on the faith. The practical matter is that people need to feel as if there is something socially beneficial that is worth supporting financially.

A survey can be very revealing in this respect. But what kinds of questions are off limits? A survey would never ask, for example, whether there ought to be a Sunday Mass or whether the parish should be baptizing babies. Those activities are intrinsic to the life of Catholics and not subject to democratic veto.

The music of the faith is also intrinsic but it is rarely thought of that way. Today people tend to see the music of the liturgy as little more than a religious application of what we experience outside Mass. This is why most parishes today offer a variety of musical experiences depending on demographics and time slots. If the purpose of the music is to please people and their subjective tastes, this is what happens.

So of course parish music becomes part of the survey. Most musicians I know dread this for obvious reasons. Many choose their music based on serious considerations of the ritual, and of the singes and musicians they have at their disposal, and it seems rather ridiculous to solicit people’s input on such issues. It is not like selecting a channel on Pandora. But pastors like to put the music question on the survey anyway.

What are the results? It will usually happen that there are an equal number of people who hate chant and love chant, who hate praise music and love praise music, who hate 1970s classics and love 1970s classics, who want a rock band and who loathe the idea of a rock band. Passions run in all directions.

How is it possible to please all these different points of view? Every pastor knows that it is not possible. Even if he wanted to, no matter what the pastor chooses to do, some people will be passionately against it and some people will be passionately for it.

A small anecdote. I go to a gym that has satellite radio with some 500 channels. The gym users themselves determine what channel plays. If you get there early in the morning, you put on what you want and it tends to stick even long after you have left. Mid morning, someone might come in with a passionate opinion and ask everyone if it is ok to change the station. Because the person who chose the current selection is obviously gone, no one really objects to this idea. The station is changed, and that sticks for a few hours until someone else is bold enough to start the cycle again. No one really agrees but there is a system worked out for dealing with the problem so that there is some degree of peace.

Parishes have worked out similar systems in the name of keeping the peace. In many ways, this necessary for now but essentially tragic. Systems like this are fine for gyms because there is no music is that is intrinsic to the activity. The lifting of weights on the use of the treadmill are not intimately associated with a particular style and the music is not really a necessary part of the activity itself.

This is not the case with the Mass. The music of the Mass grew up alongside the Mass as a means of elevating the text. It is chant, in part, because the text is not metered and should have the lift we associate with prayer.

The chant developed more and more as the years went on and became the largest body of documented music in history, and the core of the repertoire itself constitutes the most brilliant musical contributions imaginable. Not much in this world holds up 100 years, to say nothing of 1500 years, but what we call Gregorian chant has really held up beautifully. It is new in every generation. To me, this suggests divine inspiration.

In the postconciliar period, the chant has been rendered in national languages. The Latin is also preserved in accordance with the dictates of the Second Vatican Council. Most crucially, the chant is not just any old music plugged into the Mass. It is Mass itself made more noble in song. It is not just the preferred form of liturgical music. It is the liturgical music, the very music of the Catholic Church in the Roman Rite.

For this reason, the usual parish solution to the “music problem” is not a stable one. If you have five different Masses, and only one of which is chanted in an appeal to a certain sector of parish opinion, the overall structure of the parish music is sending a message that simply is not true. It is like five different food items all labelled steak but only one of which actually comes from a cow.

In some way, the idea of surveying musical preferences can be a good idea in a parish because it makes the point that there is no way to please all people’s subjective tastes. We need to get beyond individual tastes and admit that there really is a body of music that constitutes true music for the ritual. It is not a matter of likes and dislikes but a matter of deferring to the music that is intrinsic to the ritual itself.

The persistence of random songs of various sorts, as replacements for Mass propers, and of secular and pop styles, really does open up a can of worms that benefits no one in the end. The only path to genuine, long-term peace in a parish life is to do what the Church is asking us to do. The liturgy must be true to itself.