When I first jumped into this area of sacred music, I had detected the intense anger out there about the loss of tradition and its replacement by musical that many people find profoundly objectionable and inappropriate for Mass. Websites were opening up that heap ridicule on some of the most famous names listed as composers in our mainline pew resources. My inbox was filled with furious notes. People were desperate to stop the racket.
I am not one to condemn this attitude. Catholics care about the liturgy. They care about their faith and how it affects their lives. Too many publishers and musicians imagine that the liturgy is their playground, their performance venue to use their skills and otherwise strut their stuff in a style of their own choosing. They forget that the pews are filled with people, young and old, who do not share their musicians’ views of what music at Mass should sound like. These are people who have paid the parish bills, raised their kids in the faith, and remained devoted to the Catholic faith despite every cultural signal to go the other way. All they are asking is that the musical ethos of the Mass not flatly contradict the prayerful and solemn liturgical spirit that their sense of the faith tells them should be audible
There was a hot war in the sixties and seventies that became a kind of cold war in the eighties and nineties. In the meantime, many of the conscientious objectors left the faith. Others just learned to live with it. Still others retreat to quiet daily Masses, traditional-minded parishes, or just developed the remarkable skill of shutting out the music from their ears as best than can.
My impression for the last ten years is that the anger has subsided in part due to the minor progress that is being made. Gregorian chant is making a new comeback. There are books of accessible propers. There are no hymnbooks in print that revive a more stable repertoire. Young people are turning away from pop styles in favor of music that is more serious. We see plenty of examples of Papal liturgy done well.
All these forces have combined to make an environment of greater peace.
Or so I thought.
Then I went on a nationally broadcast radio show sponsored by ETWN. I gave my pitch for sacred music. The phonelines were opened for questions from the listeners. It was like an avalanche. The first few gave me as sense of what was coming for the remainder of the time. Why am I not allowed to pray in peace anymore? Why do these musicians play all this terrible stuff to the point that I am miserable for the full hour? Whatever happened to the old music of my childhood? Isn’t there any law in place that can stop this horrible thing from happening every week?
Only a few of the comments had the tone of open anger about them. Others were just heartbreaking. I wish that the musicians at the parishes in question could have heard them. I quite sure that the people doing the singing and strumming are quite unaware of how people in the pews really feel about what they are doing. In fact, I think they would be shocked. For my part, I was just sad knowing that there was really nothing I could do to change any particular parish situation. All I can do is help to encourage good music by being involved in the Church Music Association of America.
Still, I detected far more heart than light emerging in the course of the conversation, and there was essentially nothing I could do about. I’ve never been interested in the hymn wars. I have no particular affection for old-time devotional music vs. new-time devotional music since neither choice represents the kind of thing that ought to be going on at Mass.
The Church has given us the music we need and it is found in the Graduale Romanum. Every piece is scripted for each part of Mass for the full liturgical year. Plus, we have new resources that enable people to sing this music in English, in much easier settings. This is what we ought to be shooting for.
This is not so much a revival of recent past but a getting on the right track after many years of drifting. We don’t need to pick better hymns, or, rather, that is not the main goal. The goal is to sing the texts of the Mass that have been assigned to singers and do so in a form that is consistent with the long tradition of the Roman rite. Only this path makes for a lasting peace.
This was my message. I had a strong feeling, however, that I was not getting it across. My message about the Mass propers was mostly lost on the listeners. That was my sense anyway. It is extremely difficult to get people think about this whole problem in a new way: not us vs. them but rather liturgical music vs. its replacements that come in all styles.
Why was this message not coming across? Because the whole subject remains incredibly contentious and divisive. People have been hurt. They do not understand why the problem persists. It amazes them why everyone doesn’t just fly into revolt. And they do not understand why the musicians do not see what they see. And, by the way, where is the pastor on all of this?
There are a number of issues. Pastors fears this subject and mostly do not intervene. The musicians mostly do not know better. They are entertainers and that’s what they are seeking to do within the best range of their abilities. They are using the musical editions that are put out by reputable publishers. They are picking hymns that are recommended in large-circulation publications. They are with the program as they understand it. They believe they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
What is missing? Enlightenment. They just do not know. They need education. They need training. They need new materials. They need to develop new skills. They need to acquire the practical knowledge to integrate what they are doing with what is taking place on the altar. They need practical ways to get from here to there. None of these musicians are truly beyond hope. They need guidance and tools.
As much as I understand the anger that is out there, it actually doesn’t contribute to making the necessary change happen. We all need to calm down and think through how to bring musical peace to our parish. It will not happen by continuing to plays Catholic favorites from the seventies or eighties, but neither will it happen by pushing Catholic favorites from the 1870s and 1880s.
The path to peace is the one recommended by the Second Vatican Council. The third way is to sing the texts that the Church has assigned in a manner that it is fitting for the liturgy. Ultimately, the only solution to the problem of liturgical music comes through the path that authentic liturgical music itself offers. Any solution other than this one will forever feel and sound out of out place.
Nathan Knutson, cathedral and diocesan director of sacred music, performing artist, father, lecturer on sacred music