A Plea to Bishops and Pastors

Dear Fathers,

We as Catholics are losing a culture war that we have the means to win.

In every diocese there are wonderful musicians who are talented, prepared, and eagerly awaiting the opportunity to lead. Our parishes, our diocesan celebrations, could easily, quickly, and cheaply bring to life the “soundtrack” of Catholicism that has fostered the faith through centuries of cultural changes: Gregorian chant.

Our children could be learning the faith through singing these stunningly beautiful melodies that foster the interior life and immerse the singer in the liturgical year.

Our Sunday Masses could be sublime, ethereal experiences that sustain the faith life of our people in a way the world cannot give. They could be immersion experiences in the joy of salvation and the beauty of our Catholic faith.

The Church must flourish again, green and youthful. We must return to beauty and truth. The Mass must support prayer rather than distracting from prayer. Our ceremonies must announce the good news of the faith. And our music must become much, much more prayerful than it currently is.

There are several reasons why musicians who think with the mind of the Church do not have the opportunity to help you. One reason is our own fault. We can be impatient and demanding, and for this I for one apologize.

But most of the reasons are systemic. We cannot overcome them without you. They have something to do with the system of music publishing, and with the large pastoral music organizations, and with profit. But most of all, they have to do with a certain pastoral preference for whatever is “mainstream.”

This preference, very Reverend Fathers, is getting us nowhere.

For fifty years, those of us who have advocated for beauty in the liturgy have been marginalized for mostly baseless reasons, the single exception being the Second Vatican Council’s unmistakable call for a greater participation among the faithful, including sung participation. But participation is first of all not excluded by the recovery of chant, and secondly is not currently happening in most parishes. Despite every effort to water down both music and text so our parishioners will find music “uplifting,” many still do not sing. At almost any parochial school Mass, where the music often aims no higher than the Barney level, the choir and youngest children are the only ones singing. By the third grade most of the boys have dropped out. By the fifth grade, all of the girls. This is a defeatist programming model, a straightforward case of planned obsolescence. Where exactly is this sung participation happening–except in the first 10 pews at a Sunday Mass?

One place it is happening is this coming week at Duquesne University where the Church Music Association of America is holding its annual Colloquium. It is probably not like anything most people have ever heard in person, outside a university music school, or on an unusually good day in Rome. The big 80s Chicago sound, with timpani and trumpet, will probably not be there. Some more modern pieces will be. Hundreds of musicians will be singing together. And overwhelmingly, what is heard is a sound highly conducive to prayer.

Anyone who can make it to Pittsburgh will not be disappointed with the music and liturgy. For those of us with other plans, the music of past years may be heard from the comfort of our own homes.

Sacred music, and chant education for children in particular, is the silver bullet for the Catholic faith and culture. All it needs is a chance, a real chance to gain a foothold in our cathedrals and parishes. The current model has had fifty years of ascendancy, with disastrous results.

I truly believe that a strong, well-led movement to recover chant and polyphony would make a beautiful change, a recovery of American Catholicism, in less than five years. Not just the New Evangelization–but the Fast Evangelization, strong and confident and sure.

18 Replies to “A Plea to Bishops and Pastors”

  1. Thank you, Kathleen. I just wrote to Archbishop Alexander Sample in OCP territory that "Bishops should start chanting all the Holy Masses they offer, and they should have the Propers chanted at their Masses as well". This would give their pastors a powerful example for them to follow in their parishes.

    Another problem is that many of the clergy think that only the main, principle Mass in their parishes should be chanted. And maybe only on important Feasts. They have never read Musicam Sacram, 1967, #27, which states: "For the celebration of the Eucharist with the people, a form of sung Mass (Missa in cantu) is to be preferred as much as possible, even several times on the same day." There is nothing that kills the efforts of dedicated musicians like the spoken (Low) Mass.

  2. Well said, Kathleen Pluth! Thank you for raising your voice. I will continue to do the same at my blog.

  3. How is Gregorian chant going to win a culture war? Gregorian chant didn't stop the adoption of a horrible model, nor has Traditional or Conservative Catholicism seemed to have succeeded in providing a powerful alternatives to the changes in the culture.

  4. JV, Kathleen is not advocating chant, per se, as the solution to a cultural crisis or war as stated. She is, with all her heart, imploring this generation of shepherds to awaken from their decades' long nap under the apple tree and start using their staff with few words (imagine Teddy Roosevelt in St. Francis' habit) to realize that the HRCC is decidedly, to the nucleus of her last cell, "counter-cultural." In practical terms, the USCCB has hardly ever given two whits worth of attention to what is really their primary calling, keeping the Sabbath HOLY! And she's right, dedicated musicians in lifelong service to the Church are demanding and impatient, because a great many of us have 20/20 vision and can think two moves ahead of the secular culture. There have been enough prophets from within the American church, from Sheen to Hildenbrand to Mahrt to realize that a parish whose lifeblood doesn't primarily flow from the Holy Altar on the Lord's Day, is forlorn and lost. Brick by brick restoration is not a mere cliché and thus doomed. I've seen it at work in my own parish. It involves risk, dedication, practice, true collegiality between lay and cleric, but it can redeem souls. Chant is a meme for that reality. The Holy Mass is a pure offering. It's vessels, all of them, need to be subjected to ongoing and unending purification until time ends.

  5. I agree chant needs to be restored as most of what passes for AmChurch music is trivializing mush that, coupled with a liturgy and manners that obscure the Real Presence and turn the whole into a secular therapeutic excercise, renders the faithful morally feeble. But as far as it being a means to win a culture war, I am reminded of last week's Gospel reading where the Apostle's are in a boat with Our Lord in a storm. Faithful praying with chant is simply the right thing to do. Whether Our Lord muzzles the evil storm of perversion currently smashing the boat is up to Him and on His schedule, not us and on ours.

  6. Stuck my foot in it again, sorry. I hope you know I was supportive. I reacted with this last quote rather than your opening paragraph: "I truly believe that a strong, well-led movement to recover chant and polyphony would make a beautiful change, a recovery of American Catholicism, in less than five years." Mea culpa.

    What I took away in the larger sense is summed up by this quote from Geo.Weigel-

    The New Normal will not leave the Catholic Church alone. Like everyone else who contests the New Normal’s ideology of Anything Goes, the Catholic Church will be aggressively attacked for daring to oppose that ideology. So the Church must learn, fast, how to play good defense, defending the right of our people and our institutions to be themselves; it will do a service to America in the process.

  7. One reason the folk music group is placed in the sanctuary is that it gives the false impression that "the people" are singing. Go beyond the 5th row, and you hardly see anyone holding the hymnal, let alone singing. But this Potemkin Village makes the "progressives" feel all warm and fuzzy about their alleged "success."

  8. Thank you for your article, Kathleen. With your permission I would like to share it with our Cluster Liturgy Committee and with our musicians. Thank you.

  9. I mean for my comments to resonate with this from Weigel:

    From the Catholic point of view, the only possible response to the New Normal is a robustly evangelical Catholicism: one that displays true happiness in lives of solidarity with others; one that links that happiness and solidarity to friendship with Jesus Christ and the truths his Church teaches, inviting others to consider “a still more excellent way” [1 Corinthians 12.31].

    (7) And that means a thorough catechesis of the Catholic people of the United States, not least through preaching: preaching that forthrightly challenges the too-often-typical Catholic shrug at the New Normal; preaching that calls Catholics to deeper friendship with Christ, meaning deeper conversion to his truth.

  10. Since I was not called upon to sing this Sunday (incidentally in England there are more priests wanting to offer the older Rite than there are singers and servers to accompany it) I repaired to the Oxford Oratory. The music included the Missa Solemnis by Nicola Montani (1880-1948). Not having heard of this composer I googled him to find that he was a leading American composer and arranger who devoted his life to the strict interpretation of the 1903 motu proprio. I was intrigued. The music was in late-romantic idiom (organ and choir) but not over-complex, despite a fugal finale to the Gloria. Is his music still performed in his native country? Or is he just remembered as an arranger of hymns?

    This being the Oratory, one of the Communion motets was Mozart's 'Exultate, jubilate' . It's coloratura display epitomized everything that Montani hated. Now that he has met Mozart he might perhaps have changed his mind.

  11. As usual, I appear to have entered late to the party, or more to the point, the Cafe.

    That said, I would agree with you that we are losing the culture wars. I would have to say that the last verb in that sentence should be adjusted from the present progressive to the past perfect: we have lost the culture wars.

    And while I would agree with you that it would be necessary to introduce chant in order to change the odds of the present battles, chant is by no means sufficient.

    What we would need would be bishops and priests who knew the fountains of our faith, and knew how to teach them to their flocks. But then, they would have to know the languages of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium fluently in order even to begin to do so. Those languages, by the bye, are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (for Scripture); Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and possibly Coptic (for tradition) and Latin and Greek (for the magisterium of the Councils and the Pontiffs). Then, they would have to use those languages to read those sources, absorb them, maybe even believe them, and then teach them.

    Then, in addition to the saving truths of the faith, they would have to teach Latin to their flocks, so that they would understand the meaning of the chants which they sing.

    Anything else would be, in the literal meaning of the word, preposterous. It would be putting the cart before the horse. Or, in the obvious spoonerism, the heart before the course.

  12. Well written, Kathy! Why should we settle for the mediocre when we may easily obtain the sublime??? There seems to be a sense among some bishops and clergy that chant won't be relevant to the average pewsitter, especially those of the younger generation. This old canard continues to resonate in parishes with older music directors of the "Haas" generation. They need to move over for those who embrace your approach. Their is a reason that the Benedictine monks of Norcia and the Benedictine Sisters of Ephasus have bestselling CDs on the charts these days. They are not singing "greatest hits of Haas" but they certainly have brought back traditional chant and traditional sacred poliphony.

  13. I am 65 years old and I wish we would go back to the Tridentine Mass with no singing whatsoever. In my parish it always seems as though singing is half-hearted and weak. I do not like to sing. I do love the Mass and Eucharist, and I prefer the Mass as a solemn event and not a festival. Peace and God bless.

  14. You can get the NO with no music early in the morning on Sunday, or on most weekdays. As often as not, the TLM is offered with no music (though this depends on the resources of the parish where it is offered).

  15. Very thought provoking. It does indeed seem that losing the battles of the culture war go hand in hand with losing the battles to restore Latin or chant or both to the Mass. Cause and effect? Or just correlation?

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