It’s been the grace of my adult to watch as the sacred music movement has gone from near obscurity to near mainstream in the presence of American parish life. The momentum has been headed the right way now for five or more years, with scholas popping up in parishes week by week, seminars multiplying, and attendance at teaching events increasing on an ongoing basis.
When people look back at this time, they will see it as the period of change, the time when Catholics finally began to come to their senses, stopped rejecting their wonderful heritage, and finally integrated music with the liturgy after some 50 years of treating music as a cultural backdrop in the relentless attempt to update the liturgical experience to our times.
Catholics conventionally assume that such change comes from the top down. Surely some Bishop in the United States led the charge. Maybe the USCCB came out with a stern statement that required change. Maybe Rome intervened to ban non-liturgical music and insist that music of the liturgy truly followed the guidelines -- letter and spirit -- of the Second Vatican Council.
Some of that has happened. The USCCB finally repealed a terrible 1970s-era document called “Music in Catholic Worship” and replaced it with a much better (but still a bit confusing and meandering) “Sing to the Lord.” That was a relief - but it will be years before the damage done by MCW is fully washed out of the system. It is also true that some Bishops are working in a wonderful way to make a difference. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy has done extraordinary things to bring chant to the English liturgy. And of course Rome is speaking with an ever more clear voice on matters of music.
All of this has been wonderful and great, but it doesn’t necessarily make the difference at the parish level. In the end, you need singers to sing. You need pastors who regard sacred music as making a valuable contribution to parish life. You need publishers who provide music that people can get easily and sing every single Sunday. And most of all, you need someone at the parish level who makes the decision to take a step outside the status quo.
It is the last point that is absolutely crucial. You can have everything in place for change but the status quo can persist for an indefinite amount of time by sheer inertia. Someone needs to make it happen. Someone has to be in a position to pull the trigger. It can come in many forms. It can mean the addition of a communion antiphon based on Mass propers. It can mean introducing unaccompanied chant in the ordinary of the Mass. It can mean that dramatic step of replacing the processional hymn with an entrance.
Even before that, education at the local level is essential. It doesn’t matter how many articles I post on the ChantCafe.com, how many books come out, how many national newspapers run articles on sacred music. All of this is valuable and useful, but, in the end, the only way to reach the parish is by having someone explain to the relevant parties that actual case for making the change.
Here is my central point. In every case I know about where wonderful things have happened in parishes, there is one or two people who have stepped forward to push for change. This does not mean that these people need to rail against the silly youth group that plays bad music. Nothing is gained by denouncing the existing hymnals. All the hectoring of priests to institute Gregorian chant is for naught. That kind of negative approach doesn’t actually accomplish anything, and it introduces painful divisions in parish life. It can even harm the cause.
What makes the difference is positive action. There are many things one or two people can do. Let me draw attention to a case that happened close by where I live. A layperson in a small parish had a long heart-to-heart with his pastor about holding a parish workshop. The pastor wasn’t against the idea but he want to make sure that such a workshop would actually add value to parish life. He finally agreed to do this and to commit real financial resources to making it happen.
This priest and this layperson (who is not even a musician) invited me and Arlene Oost-Zinner to present a 4-hour workshop on English chant. We laid out the rationale for sacred music. We gave the history. We cover the legislation. We drove home the point that the Roman Rite has a musical structure that needs to be understood and deferred to. It was all supremely enlightening for the musicians and others who came.
Then we gave the people an opportunity to sing and sing. They sang chant. We practiced chant intonations, going around the room person by person. We gave them music and showed them how to read it. We worked and worked all the way up to a demonstration liturgy that showed all all this music works. Not once did we use a piano or organ. The instrument ws the human voice alone.
And who came? People not only from the parish but also from many other parishes in neighboring towns. Some came from other states. We ended up with as many as 50 people, and while that might not seem like a vast amount, it is enough to plant a seed in every parish that was represented.
The pastor of the parish was very pleased with the results. The musicians were happy to find out all these things that no one had ever told them before. They suddenly realized just how important they are to the Mass. They began to have a different view of their responsibilities. Over the coming weeks, they began to implement the changes. Now several new parishes on on their way toward beautiful and integrated liturgical music. Success!
But think how it happened. It wasn’t the Bishop. It wasn’t the pastor really. It wasn’t even a musician or the director of music. It was one person who really wanted to help, generously and with a deep commitment to charity and the well being of the parish.
In every case, the situation is different. Each situation of change takes a different shape. It is probably not possible to copy exactly from one experience to the next. But they all have in common that intensely human effort of one or two people who dedicate themselves, with genuine love, to improving the liturgy and making it more of a reflection of the heaven on earth that it is.
There is no one who can’t make a difference.
Nathan Knutson, cathedral and diocesan director of sacred music, performing artist, father, lecturer on sacred music