Bishop Sample and the Future of Catholic Music

There are two errors to correct in the news that Bishop Alexander K. Sample is headed to Portland, Oregon. The first is that it means nothing. The second is that it means everything. As is often the case, the reality will be something in between.

At one level, it is a momentous choice because the Bishop is one of the great voices and minds in our time in favor of the “reform the reform” plus the push for sacred music, about which he is a genuine expert. Portland is the home of the Oregon Catholic Press, which provides music for a plurality of American parishes, and what OCP provides (for the most part) represents an older paradigm (roughty 1968-2010) of musical expression, the reform without the reform. Insofar as OCP’s publication program depends heavily on the approval of the local ordinary, the appointment could be very significant.

But let’s be clear about the Bishop’s temperament and approach. He is an extremely kind and thoughtful person. He is extremely accessible and not puffed up in any way. He is not a “hard liner” by any stretch. He loves beauty and tradition and would like to see this spread through inspiration and example. But he is not the skull-cracking type at all. He is a broad-minded man of genuine conviction but also possesses great pastoral sensitivity. He has a warm heart, a delightful personality, and loves people. If you see someone describe him as Torquemada, know this: that person is utterly clueless about the reality of this shepherd of the faith.

It was my great pleasure to be invited as part of a Church Music Association of America team to Marquette, Michigan, to put on a music seminar for the diocese. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce sacred music and sugn propers and chant to the musicians of the diocese. I gave several lectures and got people singing the ordinary of the Mass in English chant. Arlene Oost-Zinner taught the details of music reading, tonality, rhythm, and singing properly. Attending were most musicians from the area. We used resources such as the Simple English Propers and the Parish Book of Psalms.

Bishop Sample attended the entire event from start to finish. He gave some talks too, and in each, he struck precisely the right chord. His talks were about the rationale and need for gradual change. He explained that what the musicians are doing at liturgy is generally underappreciated. Their job is not just to sing anything but rather to aspire to sing the actual liturgy. This task raises the important of the musical arts to a much higher level.

Now, if you know anything about Catholic musicians, they tend to resist any change. They get invested in what they have done in the past and are happy to do that in the future. They tend to think that any push for change is an insult to their past contribution, even when no insult is intended at all. Even when they feel a sense of internal frustration and confusion about their task, they fear new missions because they worry that they don’t have the skill, that they will alienate people by failing to sing people’s favorite songs, and that they won’t be able to perform the new music in a degree of competence that makes them come across well.

It was absolutely dazzling how Bishop Sample dealt so beautifully with all these fears. He was light and conversational with everyone — plus he is genuinely funny! He assured them all repeatedly how much he values what they have done. He also gave them the confidence that they needed to undertake a new challenge. We could easily see the effects of his presence there.

Everyone was delighted and inspired. He made our job much easier. In the end, the seminar was a rousing success in every way. I would suggest that not even one attendee left those days with a sense of fear. They were all excited about the future. This is the way he works: like Benedict XVI himself, Sample leads not through coercion but through example, inspiration, and frank telling of what is true.

There are many problems besides music in Portland, Oregon, among which bankruptcy and shortages of priests and many other issues. At the same time, it is obviously true that the issues with the Oregon Catholic Press will be on the table.

You might be surprised to learn that the OCP has already undergone many changes in the last five years. It has spent a lot of money and taken a huge financial risk in producing top-of-the-line recordings of the entire sung Mass in authentic Gregorian chant. It has pushed these and distributed them widely. Their advertising for these recordings has pointed out that this music is the music of the Roman Rite. In addition, OCP distributes many books of chant, along with tutorials and otherwise. The “reform the reform” is not utterly foreign to OCP.

In addition, the staff of OCP has some outstanding musicians there, people who sing high-quality music around town. They know their stuff. There are scholars and sacred music enthusiasts all throughout the building. It is by no means barren of high artistic sensibility and expertise in this area. Some employees of OCP listen to chant and polyphony in their cars and homes and even perform this music as part of their musical avocation. They attend concerts in the lively artistic scene in Portland. In their private lives, they revel in their vast knowledge of the repertoire.

If you are shocked to hear these things, it is understandable. This is not part of OCP’s reputation. This is because its bread and butter is the distribution of pop music to parish in fly-away resources. They have many resources they distribute, from resources for the pews, organ accompaniments, many different types and styles of hymnals, choral resources, and more. When a parish signs up for their subscription services, the materials arrive like a tsunami. People in the music world speak of this or that parish as an “OCP parish,” and everyone knows what that means. It’s not good.

I would rank the quality of their main product to be inferior to anything you will see or hear in the Protestant world. My own parish is an “OCP parish,” and the frustrations that musicians feel with their product is unrelenting. The choral books don’t match the hymn books. The hymns are in different keys, sometimes different rhythms, and sometimes even different words. There will be verses in the hymnbooks that are not replicated in the choir books — and attempting to use both without a thorough pre-Mass check can be enormously frustrating.

The sheer volume of week and predictable pop music in these resources, even those claiming to represent the Catholic heritage, is overwhelming. And the absence of core traditional repertoire is just as notable. One might expect that “Sleepers Awake” would be there for advent. Nope. One might think that the the Marian antiphons would be there. Nope. One might expect more than one Latin setting of the ordinary chants. Nope. Sung propers of the Mass for entrance, offertory, or communion? Nothing. For a musician who sets out to use music that is part of the long tradition of the Catholic world, and attempts to use OCPs main publications to do, he or she will find a desert.

This is a problem. But it is not a problem without easy and fairly painless solutions. If those solutions exist, I have every confidence that Bishop Sample will find them. And he will manage to do this in a way that does not create enemies but rather makes new friends. This is his way.

In addition, I know for a fact that there are many within OCP who are ready for a change. They have grumbled quietly for years but deferred to the marketing managers at OCP who are convinced that they have to keep doing what they doing or else they lose money. Sometimes it takes a real pastor to show up and say: there is another way and I believe you can thrive by pursuing it. And no matter what you hear to the contrary, many people within OCP will be celebrating this change.

And here’s the thing: everyone knows that things must change. The problem with Catholic music is famous. I’ve never spoken to a group of Catholics where the problems are not well known and understood widely. You only need to raise a slight eyebrow on the subject to garner laughter. Everyone knows. More importantly, everyone at OCP knows too.

The change won’t happen immediately. It might not even be detectable by anyone but the closest observers. It might takes several years. But it will come. And the Church and her liturgy will be much better off as a result. Making this change in Portland will spread change to the whole of the American Church and then to the whole of the English speaking world and then to the whole rest of the world. This is the center, the core, the spot from which a major problem that exists in the Catholic world can be rectified.

2 Replies to “Bishop Sample and the Future of Catholic Music”

  1. How does one define Catholic music. As you have rightly commented much of the music in our liturgical books date way back even to the 1500's. Inspirational music is as much in the melody and the interpretation relevant to the participating congregation's demographics as it is in the words and to the moment. And in a multicultural congregation in N.America even the English music varies from the Philippines to Mumbai to Ireland to Charismatic. Added to this is Catholic Music's disdain for Hillsong, Gaither, Jon Stemkoski's Celebrants and other beautiful music that touches the core of your Christian Spritual being compared to the musically inanimate music which fills 90% of the CBW. Our catholic hymns rarely evoke PRAISE and let your spirits soar. I sincerely hope that Bishop Sample is looking to finding this lost sheep.


  2. There is one other element of importance; the COPYRIGHT issue and cost to even pass out words of a bunch of hymns for an evening of praise.

    Churches incur exhorbitant to maintaing hymn books like CBW and others. Western Capitalism has invaded the church. Lyrics and music INSPIRED by the Gospels and a faith experience is not worthy of Lifelong copyrights just as a pharmacutical invention does not have that liberty..A commercial liturgist is an oxymoron. Publishers are reeling in profits of hymns composed upto 5 centuries ago. IT IS The DUTY of composers with the gifts the Lord has given to share these hymns with the faithful; Michaelangelo did. God will Provide bountifully.

    Publishers should take the initiative to release such hymnsI am willing to join a group of Catholic or Christian Composers of hymns/liturgical music that will offer their works (inspired by the Holy Spirit) FREE to congregations concerned. I am sure that Pope Francis would concur with such a movement.

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