Over on the Musica Sacra site, I promised to write something about a recent experience that I had while attending Mass at another parish. It was a strange experience but I ended up feeling very optimistic.
I had reason to attend another parish’s mid-morning Sunday Mass a couple of weeks ago. I glanced at the music schedule and noticed that the Contemporary Ensemble would be serving, but my reasons for going outweighed any reticence I might have about the music. I arrived a few minutes early and noticed that this Mass was packed to rafters (I found out that all of them are. It’s a huge parish). I also noticed the drums and amplifiers and a few young singers checking microphones. Nothing new to me. I expected the usual OCP-style fare, but as the musicians set up, the director announced that they were going to teach the Responsorial Psalm. It was an original composition (I think) and very funky, something like you might hear on Bourbon St in New Orleans (I know this style very well, mind you). The director played piano and sang and the choir was mostly used for backup vocals. On the other hand, I will admit that it was played very well. These guys really had their act together and were fine popular-style musicians. The balance was good, the time was on and they were tight. The singers were good, too, but in an American Idol sort of way. I’m afraid that I am quite incapable now of actually praying the Psalm with music like this. It is just too distracting for me. Another aside… I find that most of the assembly at any Mass kind of dreads the Responsorial Psalm. There are many and varied reasons for this.
The preparations over, the Mass commenced with a Contemporary Christian classic that extolled how awesome God was and how we were going to praise him all the time. No real problem there. Many entrance songs and hymns have this sentiment, BUT no one sang. Again, for me the style of music really seemed out of sync with the liturgical action. The Kyrie was spoken and the Gloria was by Matt Maher, I think… I think some folks sang, but I really couldn’t tell. There was one woman behind me that must have been in that “choir” at some point. She knew it well, but the exception proved the rule here. The next musical item was the Responsorial Psalm that, even with the practice, no one sang along. The Alleluia was another great rocker that I did not know (and neither did the congregation from the sound of them). Offertory was another “You’re a great God and I’m gonna praise you all the time” CC song. No one sang along. The other Mass parts were again some contemporary setting I’ve not heard. Communion featured a new-age-style piano solo and then a ballad about, you guessed it, how awesome God is and how much much I’m praise him. The concluding song that the group played and sang was on the very same topic and true to Catholic form, most of the folks were headed for the parking lot, long before it was over (at least they don’t discriminate). By the way, did I mention this was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. One would never know from the music selected.
By the time Mass was over, I felt like I needed to go to Confession, so I stayed for a bit to pray and calm down. While doing so, it hit me. I recalled that no one was singing. I’ll bet they really liked the musical style and many may have actually made the trip just for it, but by and large they didn’t sing. In fact, I notice that folks will sing more at Masses that use the usual old-school popular style. For those of us who truly believe that there IS a “church music,” the OCP and GIA material is the biggest barrier to reclaiming a higher level of musical worship. The music I heard at this Mass was so much better than most of that stuff, but no one sang along. My friends, I believe that this might provide the necessary opening needed to reintroduce chanted prayer in the Catholic Church. At some point priests are going to notice that this new music is not accomplishing what music is supposed to do. They will be receptive if shown how a congregation can really fill a room with very simple chant (like the Snow Lord’s Prayer setting). This move to “real” contemporary music might just be a blessing in disguise. I have hope.