The Soundtrack of Nothing in Particular

One of the occupational sacrifices of being a parish music director is you rarely get to hear other parish’s music. These last few weeks, now that my weekends are free, I’ve spent my Sundays at different parishes around town. I’ve attended Mass at two different parishes that made me feel quite old. At both Masses I was one of the oldest people in the church at the time, because the whole place was filled, and nearly wall-to-wall with young families. The median age was probably less than 10 years old. One Mass was in the Extraordinary Form, and the other in the Ordinary Form.

At both Masses, the music was sacred.

There were none of those nondescript, musically uncategorizable songs driven by mellow chord progressions and contrived cadences, and meaning absolutely nothing. No cantors raised their arms. The musicians sang from the loft, without drama or show, and with liturgical sensitivity. Propers were sung.

Unfortunately, this was not entirely the case yesterday in St. Peter’s Square. Although most of the music at the Mass was sacred, there was an element of the familiarly inadequate music that has come to characterize Catholic liturgies for the last few decades, the official Hymn of the Year of Faith. (Source: Year of Faith official website.)

It is not surprising that this kind of music affects the Church even in its otherwise most exemplary liturgical expressions. It is pervasive. No longer are we in the phase of liturgical shock treatment of the 70’s and early 80’s. We’re not experimenting with styles anymore. There is no more bluegrass or pseudo-Gospel or Broadway. Instead there is this one bland sound that seems almost consciously designed to avoid meaning anything whatsoever.

Contrast the innocuous, vague mellowness of this music with the vigor and courage that the Christian life demands, and you will realize why parents take their children to Masses with truly sacred music. Music is formative; art is formative–and the Christian life is difficult. What are the melodic arches and rich harmonies of a saintly life? What are the subtleties of its cadences? These must be reflected in our liturgical music.

At the Mass in St. Peter’s Square yesterday, the Holy Father exhorted the young people being confirmed during the Mass to Christian heroism, certainly in strong contrast to the noncommittal mediocrity of the hymn.

Commit yourselves to great ideals, to the most important things. We Christians were not chosen by the Lord for little things; push onwards toward the highest principles. Stake your lives on noble ideals, my dear young people!