Dr. Mahrt Interview on October Conference in Saint Paul

The registration deadline is drawing near for the conference “The Renewal of Sacred Music and the Liturgy in the Catholic Church: Movements Old and New” to be held in Saint Paul, Minnesota October 13-15.


The speaker and performer line-up is fantastic, and the liturgies will be beautiful. We hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an excellent conference and immersion in the riches of the Church’s liturgy and intellectual life.

The registration deadline is Friday, September 13th!

Recently, Dr. Mahrt gave an interview about the conference, Msgr. Schuler, and the work of the CMAA to The Catholic Servant, an evangelization, catechetics, and apologetics newsletter based in Minneapolis. It is with their kind permission that we reprint it here.

Dr. William Mahrt: renewal of sacred liturgy and music

By Patrick G. Shannon

           The Catholic Music Association of America (CMAA) is planning an ambitious conference: “The Renewal of Sacred Music and Liturgy in the Catholic Church: Movements Old and New” in collaboration with the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, the Church of Saint Agnes, the Cathedral of Saint Paul, and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis this fall, October 13-15, 2013 (see www.musicasacra.com/st-agnes for details). The conference marks the 40th anniversary of the residence of the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, founded by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler, at the Church of Saint Agnes in Saint Paul. The conference seeks to explore, through critical analysis, former and present efforts to revive the Church’s sacred liturgy and music, particularly as exemplified by Msgr. Schuler’s work. The current state of liturgical music will be examined as well as the Church’s rich musical history and how we have come to our current situation, particularly since the Second Vatican Council.
            Msgr. Schuler was among the CMAA founding officers in 1964. The current president, Dr. William Mahrt, Associate Professor of Mu-sic at Stanford University, observes that “Msgr. Schuler really held the early organization together at a time when the vernacular liturgy and folk-inspired music was emerging as the dominant genre. The annual colloquium in the early years drew as few as 30 participants, but Msgr. Schuler plugged along, maintaining the quarterly journal Sacred Music. He felt strongly that the CMAA was needed for the future.” Dr. Mahrt feels that the time is now.
Indeed, this year’s Colloquium in June drew over 250 participants. One presenter, Archbishop Sample from Portland, strongly asserted: “The renewal and the reform of the sacred liturgy is absolutely key and essential to the work of the new evangelization.” Dr. Mahrt will be presenting one of the keynote addresses at the conference: “The Treasury of Sacred Music at Saint Agnes: From Chant to Mozart.”
The CMAA is particularly dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Gregorian chant and early polyphonic sacred music. Dr. Mahrt was asked about the virtual absence of Latin for most Catholics, including younger priests, as being a barrier to the return of chant. “The Latin for the ordinary parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) is not completely foreign to most congregations, he said. “There are many simple chants available which can be learned rather easily as well. Especially with side-by-side translations, the people can become acquainted with the true beauty of Gregorian chant, which the Church has  consistently taught as being most conducive to a spiritually meaningful liturgical experience.
“More complicated chants will be for the choir, for a while, especially for the Proper (changeable) parts of the Mass. It will take some time and effort for everyone to arrive at liturgical reform, but the people need something better than the often stale hymns we are used to now, songs which are not directly connected to the liturgy. Gather Us In is not the same as the prescribed Entrance Antiphon, whether it’s in English or Latin.”
One problem Dr. Mahrt sees with current liturgical music is that the songs are anthropocentric, focused on the people, rather than theocentric, with the focus on our relationship with God. “The purpose of the sacred liturgy,” he maintains, “is to participate in the sacred mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice to the Father. Let There be Peace on Earth is filled with I and me and my brother—anthropocentric to be sure. Besides, that style is more like a Broadway musical, more like entertainment. Now, I like Broadway musicals, but they are not liturgies. With chant there is no question that it is sacred music in style, especially when we understand that it is tied directly to the parts of the Mass during which it is sung. So should the people be singing a song on the way up to Communion or internally preparing their hearts and minds for reception of the Eucharist? Or singing rather than making a personal thanksgiving after reception? Perhaps we could leave that singing to the choir.”
The Church has emphasized “active participation” on the part of the people. Even before the Second Vatican Council, such liturgical reform was underway. “We must realize, however, that listening is very much a part of active participation,” Dr. Mahrt points out. “We listen to the readings and the homily. We listen to the prayers of the Offertory and Consecration. Pope John Paul II pointed out that the listening active participation makes the liturgy a countercultural activity. We can actively listen to the beauty of sophisticated Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonies in the same way. I know that some will come to an orchestrated Haydn or Mozart Mass only for the music, but just maybe the true significance of the Sacrifice of the Mass will slowly have an influence.”
Many Catholics today are expressing a weariness with the usual hymn selection and its impact on the Sunday Mass experience. Dr. Mahrt and the CMAA hope to provide the best of the Church’s liturgical music tradition and the guidance for new music which will elevate the Mass from a routine obligation to a profound spiritual encounter with the divine.
Patrick G. Shannon is a member of the Board of Directors for “The Catholic Servant” and a medical writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This article was funded by the St. Benedict Chair of Writing sponsored by an anonymous patron.
This article reprinted with kind permission of The Catholic Servant, Minneapolis Minnesota. It was originally printed in Vol. XIX, No. VIII (August 2013) of the periodical.