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.