Another Young Voice Heard From

The following is a guest post from Richard Skirpan, young choirmaster and organist in Pennsylvania, written in response to Ben Yanke’s post here. I think it is wonderful to have a chance to hear how young people are thinking about sacred music.

A few weeks ago in some comments here I was working out my thoughts on why so many younger people seem to express at least some preference for liturgy that is received rather than invented. I’m becoming more and more convinced of my theory as to why that might be so. I’m sure other wiser people have already said most of this, but here it is from my point of view.

My grandparents lived in a world where secular culture more or less supported Christianity. That’s fine, and if that’s how the world worked it sure would make it comfortable to be a Christian. (But I’m not sure comfortable is where Jesus wanted us to set out sights.) And while many look at it with nostalgia as a simpler time, it seems to me there were still plenty of real problems, but mostly they were swept under the rug.

My parents’ generation lived through the great cultural revolution. A lot of those wrongs were righted. I’m sure it seemed like the humanity’s great next step, and the Catholic Church seemed to being coming along with it. I’m sure it was exciting to live through and hard for many people of good will to imagine that the gaining momentum would ever subside, or contemplate why it even should.

But by now, all those torn-down cultural walls that kept my grandparents “safe” (and also kept a lot of wrongs unrighted) are gone, and in the West, culture and Christianity are less entwined than ever before in modern history. Maybe for some that’s great. For others it may be a terrible loss. But it occurs to me that for a Christian it shouldn’t matter much. After all, Christianity was at its founding countercultural, and perhaps we can acknowledge that some aspects of it work better that way.

As a result, it seems a lot of my generation don’t want to think of church as a meeting or a convention or going to hear a speaker (even though all of those are part of it) – we want church to feel like church. As a Catholic, I want to call it the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass – maybe not exclusively, but at least more often. It never stopped being that, even if other aspects gained emphasis.

And a lot of us don’t want church music to always feel like a Disney soundtrack or what we hear on the radio or the muzak in the mall (even though there are sacred texts set to all of those) – we want church to sound like church. As a Catholic, I think it should not be an unreasonable expectation to hear some chant at every Sunday Mass. When any media outlet does a package on the Catholic Church, you hear chant in the background. About the only place you don’t hear chant in association with the Catholic Church… is most Catholic churches.

I find when those of my grandparents’ generation see this movement, they love it, because they think we’re trying to turn back the clock, so to speak. It makes them *comfortable.* But that couldn’t be further from the truth for many of us. And a lot of things, both good and bad, have happened in between.

Many of my parents’ generation are completely confused. They think we’re trying to undo what they worked so hard to accomplish. But one can’t undo time. We’re not doing it because of nostalgia, or to promote any human political idea that traditional elements may happen to represent. In fact, there are many people who promote tradition for terrible reasons. But I hope I’m not one of them.

So… that’s the problem. Now other than just making my case as lovingly as I can, I don’t know what the solution is.

7 Replies to “Another Young Voice Heard From”

  1. "When any media outlet does a package on the Catholic Church, you hear chant in the background. About the only place you don't hear chant in association with the Catholic Church… is most Catholic churches."

    THIS. I have had numerous conversations about this exact issue. For anyone whose only experience with Catholicism is through mainstream culture, walking into a Catholic Church for the first time would be utterly confusing and would not resemble what they expected from movies and television. As a Catholic, I find that embarrassing and a shame.

  2. Richard,

    Thanks so much for your post. I think you have some great insights into the cultural differences between the world in which our grandparents came of age and the much altered world in which our parents grew up and which more or less persists today.

    My suggestion for a solution to the problem regarding sacred music is to delve into the writings of the church on the subject of music from St. Pius X's 1903 "Tra le sollecitudini" to the present. Particularly insightful are the chapter on sacred music in "Sacrosanctum concilium" (Vatican II), "Musicam sacram" (1967), and the current version of the GIRM. Each of these either say directly or imply that chant has the pride of place in the liturgy, while at the same time each document does not neglect music composed in the last 600 years or contemporary music that possess qualities that align themselves well with the chant. Focusing on these aspects of the documents might help explain what it is that we are trying to accomplish. Of course, we have to remind ourselves that we do not cause anything to happen of our own accord, but the Holy Spirit working through us. Hope this helps!

  3. Richard,

    A very interesting piece. I would like to "flesh out" one of the generations to which you refer. Though I don't know your age, I would assume that you are still in your 20's, and that at 51 I would be a part of what you refer to as your parents' generation.

    We were the generation that was born during or right after Vatican II and thus were the first generation of Catholics who were "experimented upon." I don't have statistics, but based upon anecdotal evidence, I could easily imagine that two thirds of my generation left the Church or, more likely, just lapsed. Also, as part of that 75% might be Catholics who do go to Mass most (if not all) Sundays, but basically lead secular lives – partly because they are never challenged otherwise. At any rate, going to church is something to do on a Sunday morning but not as part of any sort of a creedal commitment. You go to church, then you go out to Old Country Buffet for breakfast, etc.

    20% are those who actually made a decision to stay Catholic because they believe – of which I am one. I would divide this group into three parts: charismatics (and this would include good Catholics who like Glory and Praise, but don't speak in tongues), "traditionalists" (this includes "reform of the reform" people, too), and "plain vanilla" – for lack of a better term. The "plain vanilla" are solid, believing Catholics who just don't have strong opinions either way on the liturgy. They tend to be happy with a simple OF low Mass. They don't understand what the fuss is about.

    I would only posit that 5% are actual card carrying activist liberals types. However, they do tend to be diocesan and youth ministry apparatchiks and have had a disproportionate influence (along with some of the sincerely, believing charismatic/Glory and Praise Catholics) upon what a ministry to the youth should involve.

    As I said, I haven't done any surveys, but this is based upon experience and I wanted to put this out for discussion.

  4. I think much of the "Youth like XYZ" from adults, in and out of the Church, (I'm 26, btw) can be summed up in the following transcript from 'Absolutely Fabulous' (an irreverent BBC sit-com I personally love). It is a dialogue between a mother, Edina (a fashion-designer, hipster, aged flower-child) and her very conservative daughter, Saffy.

    Edina: Why can't you just rebel for God's sake?
    Saffy: I thought I was?
    E: I mean you and your little gremlin generation here, honestly. I mean what are you going to leave to the world? It won't be anything original, darling, not like us!
    S: Oh, and what did you leave? The lava lamp and the bean bag?

    Needless to say, much of what adults think is really 'hip' is really passe to today's youth, especially in Catholic circles. And, after having survived the non-disciplinary, 'do-what-you-want' parenting that many of us had had, often with broken families and whatnot, many young people today are really searching for some kind of stability and tradition; and turning to the Church and our Heavenly Father and Blessed Mother to provide us with what our earthly parents did not impart.

  5. I lived through the liturgical "reforms" (destruction would be more accurate). I was a young teen then and found that people in their 50s and 60s were far more enthusiastic about the "reforms" than younger folks. Being better trained than that age group, I could chant 5 different Latin Ordinaries by the time I was 10. Our parish's Sunday Mass was a Missa Cantata in which most all participated. I believe to this day the reform mandated by Sacrosanctum Concilium was to make our parish's experience the norm. Unfortunately, the banal and trite was the almost universal response..

  6. Yesterday's radicals have become today's reactionaries. I've been having a discussion with a parish priest about parts of Vatican II: the role of Latin, chant, Propers, etc. (He is in his mid-50s, therefore a 'child of the reform.') He was making great arguments for the current 'norm' in Mass, until the dreaded line: …the spirit of Vatican II/ the Council." I, for one, see that idea as an excuse to put forth a personal agenda.

    You are correct about the vanilla Catholics. In retrospect, my attempts to incorporate more chant, Latin, polyphony, and Propers have only been decried by my priests (!). Other comments are
    "beautiful," "it transports me," I love the Latin." Small steps, my friends.

  7. Well, if people want to wring their hands about how bad the old days were, let them wring away. But the bottom line is that the things done in the name of "reform" were wrong and destructive. If saying "I'm not a reactionary" makes being a reactionary more comfortable for you, that's great. The task is sufficiently enormous that we can't really push a co-belligerent off the barricades because he wants to conceptualize the task or the problem in a different way. But let's be clear: this is a movement to reclaim a patrimony that our parents and grandparents did not have the right to take from us.

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