And Now the Work Begins

For those of us interested in Roman Rite liturgy — and the even smaller sector focused on music — the election of Pope Francis was a rather harrowing experience. Here we were losing our beloved Pope Benedict XVI. His replacement had no prior history with liturgical concerns, and his first weeks out indicated that he had other issues in mind.

I’ll admit that my friends and I really sweated this one out for a while. Were we going to see efforts to reverse the progress? Would we fall back into the default mode of the rupture that characterized the previous decades? Would everything unravel?

Those fears some of us had in the those days after the election seem seriously misplaced at this point. And this has reminded those of us who live and breathe liturgy that there are other issues that the Pope must concern himself with. News flash: It’s a pretty big job overall. There is curial reform. Evangelism. Scandals suppression. Doctrinal controversies. Religious orders. Politics. Really, it’s endless. And every Pope has a focus based on the needs of the time.

A story to reflect on here. Back in the middle of the 19th century, we saw the formation of what was later called the Liturgical Movement. They began a new effort to focus on the liturgy as a neglected feature of Catholic life. As part of this, the monks of Solesmes began a focus on repairing the chant from centuries of neglect. It took decades but then they were ready for real influence. They hoped and prayed for reform toward a more authenticate liturgical experience.

But they had to wait. Pius IX had to deal with the loss of the Papal states, the decline of the temporal power, the end of monarchy in Europe, the rise of the socialist menace, the push of democracy in the U.S. and abroad — all of which meant gigantic changes in the way the Church relates to the world. He called a Church council and that led to more upheaval.

The liturgy people had to wait it out.

Then Leo XIII came along and had to deal with global economic upheaval, the rise of communism, the demands of labor, dramatic technological changes, extended lifespans and the demographic craziness that implied, the rise of prosperity and the moral issues thereby, the appearance of atheism and modernism, and the crying need for an expansion of Catholic moral teaching to the social sphere. This is a gigantic number of responsibilities.

The liturgy people had to wait.

A full half century went by from the beginnings of the liturgical movement before election of Pius X in 1903. Finally the moment had arrived. There was peace and many of the above questions had already been addressed. Now there could be focus. Like Benedict XVI, Pius X was a musician who had an intense interest in the liturgy and chant. He issued a Moto Proprio on music — one that generations had waited for. He approved the new chant books. He was the culmination of so much work and for those who cared about this issue, his pontificate was a dream come true.

But he died in 1914. Now there was a world, a ghastly murderous war that consumed the whole of Europe in flames and bloodshed. Benedict XV was there as a proclaimer of peace. He taught and worked toward this. He condemned war against civilians and the new age of industrial murder — a historical first. He was a serious man and did mighty and wonderful things to bring the teachings of the Church to bear on modern life. What had not figured into his outlook: liturgy. It was not part of what he did.

What did the musicians do? How did the liturgists respond? I can imagine that they were initially rather down in the dumps. Their issues were suddenly out of the spotlight. People stopped focussing on them. Probably many people stopped caring anymore. They probably felt a bit like orphans. Where are the controversies? Where is the momentum for change? Where is the life, the action, the energy, the productivity?

At this point, they might have just thrown in the towel and said: well, clearly we aren’t that important to the life of the Church. But that is not what happened. What they did was get to work. They built schools. They started organizations. They published books. They started new conferences. They trained others. They weren’t going to let this moment pass. They took the flame that Pius X had given them and turned it into a raging fire. The pontificate of Pius X turned out to be just the beginning.

So it is in our time. Benedict XVI and his papacy were epic for liturgy and music and for those who care so intensely. But these are not the only issues. We had our Pope and we had our time. But we must not depend on that. The idea here was to give us the push we needed and then send us out to do our work. If we do not do this work, we might as well be rejecting the gift and turning away from our responsibilities. Any cause that is right and true must continue to live and grow. It cannot depend on leadership. It must become self-sustaining.

That is where we are today. We are at the beginning of a long process. Where are nowhere near where we need to be. If you doubt it, drive about 60 miles from your home and attend a liturgy at the closest Catholic Church. See what happens. Observe the decor. Listen to the music. See how people respond. Check the skills and talents of the musicians. See the rubrics. What you will find is that this parish is probably only 10% of where it needs to be.

Consider your own role in this process. Are there things you can do in your own parish? Is there time you can commit? Is there a conference you can attend? Are there financial resources you can donate to the cause? Can you assist as a parent or teacher? If you feel that calling and you care, this is for a reason. You are probably being asked to play a bigger role. Now is the time to do it.

Benedict XVI gave us something spectacular. But there are other concerns in the world too and the Papacy must attend to those. It is up to us to make a difference and carry that Benedictan legacy forward into the future. There is work to be done. We must be the ones to do it. The change toward a brilliant future has just begun.

In Praise of (the Right Kind) of Change

“The Lord be with you.”

“And with your spirit.”

We hear this exchange between the celebrant and the congregation at every Mass now. It happens as a matter of course. Hardly anyone thinks a thing about it. It’s just what Catholics do. Fading into the memory of only those who were intensely interested at the time is the odd fact that these words in Catholic Mass have only been spoken by people in the pews for about 18 months.

Before that time, there were grave warnings that these changes would never stick. They would drive people away. Years of debate and discussion preceded the change. There were warnings that this change would end badly. And yet, the change happened, and, today, hardly anyone thinks a thing about it. I would venture a guess that there is no one in my parish who sits and seethes, thinking “we should bring back the old words ‘and also with you’.”

Why is this? Why were the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council accompanied by grave upheaval, factions, drops in Mass attendance, and widespread frenzy wheres the changes adopted just last year have been generally met with widespread acceptance? The experience of the 1960s and 1970s made Catholics generally fearful of changing anything at all. It drove the Catholic world into a paradoxical state of rigid conservatism. But the recent experience of the new Missal illustrates something very important: change can be wonderful provided it is change in the right direction.

It is true that the new Mass was a much more dramatic change. The liturgical traditions of many centuries were thrown out for something radically unfamiliar. Even so, the changes enacted by the new Missal were not trivial. They changed the whole tenor and linguistic/cultural framework of the liturgical language, taking us away from the “dressed down” feel of 1969 to a much more formal and poetic mode of expression, one that departs from the cultural sensibility of our time.

My own theory is this: if the change is directed toward making the liturgy more true to itself, it will be accepted and even embraced. If it goes the opposite direction of making the liturgy less authentic and more decidedly “with the times” it will be met with opposition and rancor.

This principle has governed the changes we’ve made in our own liturgical experience with music at my parish — and our experience parallels that of hundreds of other parishes.

Just like week, our choir sang the entrance antiphon from the Simple English Propers plus one verse. We repeated the antiphon, and, by that time, the procession was over and Mass began. We sang Vidi Aquam for the sprinkling rite. We sang the Gloria in Latin (from Mass XV). The Psalm came from the Parish Book of Psalms. The Offertory antiphon came from a chanted English version from Fr. Samuel Weber. The Sanctus and Agnus were in Latin. The Communion antiphon was the authentic Gregorian, and we sang 4 verses of Psalms with it. We also sang a Latin motet by Victoria and an English motet by Tallis. The recessional hymn was in English and the only hymn that day.

We do some version of this lineup every week in my parish. The resources we are using are mostly newly available. There were no readily accessible and comprehensive book of antiphons and Psalms even available five years ago. Ten years ago, hardly any ordinary form parish sang the authentic communion chant from the Gregorian books. Now this is common all over the English-speaking world and the world generally.

What we did last week and what we will do this week seems completely normal and even predictable. It is something people expect as part of their Mass experience. No one is “against” what we are doing. Neither are people jumping up and down with celebration. It is just something natural and normal, the way the liturgy expresses itself in song. The sheer normalcy of it all is something that completely thrills me.

You see, if we had dropped this program on people ten years ago, it would have been a radical undertaking. In fact, we would have been reluctant to do it. Actually, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. The resources were available. The awareness of Mass propers was in its infancy, or maybe it didn’t exist at all outside a small circle. English versions were nowhere in sight. They certainly weren’t accessible. Instead, we spent all our time digging around second-rate hymnbook trying to find material that seemed vaguely acceptable.

A vast experiential chasm separate 10 years ago from what is common today. In fact, there is no comparing the two. What we did 10 years ago was fine and inoffensive but we were not singing the actual liturgy, and that made us uncomfortable, and created the nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right. We worked and worked endless hours to make it right but we ultimately lacked in that crucial thing: a vision for what could and should be.

Once the ideal clicked, we had a plan which we implemented slowly, piece by piece. The final result is really something spectacular. The way we do the propers changes each week. Sometimes we sing them in a choral style. Sometimes we do pure Gregorian. Sometimes we do English, variously choosing to add Psalms or not depending on what other motets we have prepared. There is a glorious stability about the whole thing. Mostly, we can feel like we are making a contribution to the liturgy because our role as singers is beautiful integrated into the liturgy itself.

When you back away and look at it, the swift from ten years ago today is absolutely revolutionary. It amounts to a radical change. But no one feels it. It just seems like the liturgy is doing what it is supposed to do: invite the whole community in a meeting with eternity.

Why did it succeed? The reason it worked is the same reason that the new translation has worked out really well. The liturgy is now permitted to be truer to what it wants to be. This is the kind of change we need — not change for its own sake but change toward truth and beauty. That’s what the the “sense of the faith” emerges from the experience of the people at Mass. It goes with the grain rather than against it. Everyone is happier for it.

Nearly every day, I hear of new projects from major Catholic music publishers for chanted propers or new settings of the actual text of the Mass. This is a great thing. It is happening after nearly 50 years of wandering in the desert but it is still a much-welcome thing. I would expect that as these new editions hit the market, they will proliferate more and more, because choirs and priests will discover what we discovered. If we just stop trying to substitute our own judgement for the judgement of the Church, and instead let the words of the Mass become our liturgical song, wonderful things start happening.

A Teaching Council

Last night I attended a wonderful lecture by the Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia, Justin Cardinal Rigali. He spoke about the Second Vatican Council in a very engaging way, from the point of view of someone who was there to assist the bishops.

Cardinal Rigali pointed several times to a speech by Pope John XXIII that is worth reading in its entirety, and he especially emphasized this paragraph:

What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms…

 The paragraph goes on to speak of the Church’s pastoral approach to the teaching.

The lecture was part of a series for the Year of Faith at the National Shrine in Washington DC.

I think it’s especially helpful to hear about the Council from those who were there, particularly when, as Cardinal Rigali did, they constantly point to the documents as the perpetual record of the Council. The reminiscences help this aspect of our fascinating history come alive, and the documents are the teaching.

Politicizing the Papal Transition: A Retrospective

If I live to see another Papal transition, someone remind me to turn off the television set and not read any news on the topic for two weeks.

This last experience has convinced me that after a fortnight, the subject changes anyway. Just look around and notice that the dogs have been called off. Normalcy is restored. The news cycle is over. The Pope is teaching the faith. The liturgy continues as before. The Catholic Church lives.

In swearing off the press the next time, I also know that this is impossible. Catholics really care about the Pope. A papal transition is a wonderful time for Catholics because our friends who otherwise think nothing of our religion come up to us and say; “congratulations on your new Pope!” And we say “thanks” with an inner feeling of joy that someone noticed something that is really important to us.

We all feel a hint and pride in our faith, and that’s a nice thing every once in awhile.

And then there’s the mass media. They are populated by reporters who normally pay no attention to Catholicism. And they are looking for a story. They must populate their stories with content.

These people are extremely risk averse, and want nothing more than to fit in to the prevailing ethos. So they gravitate to the conventional wisdom.

Without hours Pope Francis’s election, the conventional media wisdom — the tableau they would paint a million times over a two-week period — was ridiculous in retrospect. The idea was that Pope Francis was the anti-Benedict, and, hence, everything the new Pope did was somehow designed to rebuke the previous Pope and maybe every previous Pope. Grab some popcorn and watch as the new Pope dismantles the old-time religion!

Everything was interpreted in this light. If he took the bus instead of the car reserved for him, the media would shout: oh look here, Pope Francis is showing the world that he is against all the Papal pomp that Benedict was throwing around. If Francis said he cares about the poor, the media would go nuts: oh look, unlike Benedict, this Pope is for the poor! If the Pope’s homily said good things about humility, the press would scream: oh look, it is certain death for the legacy of Benedict and the arrogance of the Papal court! If Pope Francis urged curial reform, the press would say: look how he is ridding the Church of the ghastly corruption of his predecessor!

So on it went. Every hour, every day. For a while, I’m sorry to say, I sort of bought into it all in a certain respect. I wondered if the Benedict legacy was coming under fire, if perhaps what he had done in so many areas would be undone by the successor. I worried that maybe not enough time had passed to entrench the shifts the Benedict had made.

The press reports kept coming in. And they grew ever more absurd. If you knew nothing else about the Catholic Church and just watched the television, you would have thought that the new Pope’s agenda was the overthrow of Catholicism as we know it. That was the story line. That was the crazy notion that most every big-media outlet kept pushing.

What was especially revealing — and this came as a shock to me — was how there was a faction of Catholic opinion that jumped on this whole thing and served as a kind of echo chamber for the regular press. Everything they reported about Pope Francis seemed to have the following subtext: “Pope Francis is giving the ‘what for’ to fans of Benedict and undoing everything from this last Papacy. The bad guys are out. We have taken back power, and now you will suffer for your reactionary ways.”

It was all quite disturbing. Maybe I’m naive but I had no idea that Benedict’s Papacy had apparently been a problem for so many of the Catholic pundit class for so long. It’s like had built up a long-running resentment against him and what he did. They were using the new Papacy as the moment to unleash pent up resentments. It was all pouring out with a fury.

It actually amazes me because in my own view that main legacy of the Benedict Papacy can be summarized in one word: liberalization. He freed the Catholic world of its entrenched bias against the past and opened up new opportunities to embrace our long tradition. He did it all not through imposition but through inspiration. He flung up the door that had been sealed in the mid sixties and invited everyone to explore the treasures and beauty. That is his legacy.

I can’t even imagine how such actions could engender resentment! But there it is. And the resentment was so intense that it actually gave rise to hallucinations. One normally savvy writer actually proclaimed that the new Pope was enacting a fast and furious “liturgical revolution” because he fumbled a few of the rubrics or used the Papal cross of John Paul II (before the following week when the new Pope shifted to using Benedict’s Papal cross). Another said that because the new Pope prefers Italian as the liturgical language, this represents a repudiation of the restoration of Latin.

You can tell so much about a mindset of a person by the things he thinks he sees that aren’t really there. It should be rather obvious by now that the Pope Francis has no interest whatsoever in enacting some kind of liturgical revolution. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have an intense interest in liturgy at all. And you know what? That’s perfectly. Every Pope has gifts that he brings to the Church. What Benedict brought was a particular interest of mine, and that’s great. But that doesn’t mean that Pope Francis’s emphasis on evangelism and service represents some kind of distraction.

The Benedict legacy on liturgy will survive and thrive. So will the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church. Sorry big media: your death wish for Catholicism and the legacy of Benedict XVI is not going to come true. Now that the world media has discovered this reality, they have moved on.

The Pope, the Media, and the Endless Nonsense

It took the election of Pope Francis to remind me of how utterly idiotic press coverage of the Papacy can be, especially in the early days. Unless you have read absolutely nothing about the new Pope — which would not be a bad idea in the balance — you already know the score. Pope Francis is compassionate, simple, humble, and humane, and this stands in contrast to…wait for it…a certain predecessor whose name shall not be mentioned.

I’m thinking in particular about a BBC short on the Francis’s visit to a juvenile prison in Rome. The BBC reported this as some sort of astonishing first. It added that the Pope’s homily the previous day urged priests to focus on compassion to the less fortunate and not get caught up in trappings and vestments, at which point the camera threw in an image of the certain predecessor who, again, shall not be named wearing full regalia. Never mind that Benedict himself made a visit to the same prison in 2007 and the videos of that extraordinary and moving visit are all over the web.

This has been the unrelenting theme of the press: Pope Francis vs. Benedict XVI. They are covering this in an identical fashion to the way they cover presidential politics. Francis is Obama and Benedict is Bush. Us vs. Them. Liberals vs. Conservatives. Progressives vs. Reactionaries. It’s the only model they know and they cram all existing reality into that model, mainly as an effort to sell their newsprint. I have no doubt that Pope Francis would be astonished to discover that this is being done, and even more surprised that people are going along with it.

I’ve had many flashbacks to the election of Benedict XVI. Here is a man who writings I had devoured for years. I had my own mental dossier on him. I knew from his writings that he was an old-fashioned liberal in the great 19th century tradition of that term, like Cardinal Newman and Lord Acton. I knew that he had been steeped in the German theological tradition of that period. I knew that he was utterly and completely dedicated to the proposition of religious liberty as the foundation of how the Church interacts with the world. I knew Benedict would not be about laws and impositions but rather inspiration and liberality. Specifically, I knew for certain, based on his writings, that he would seek to liberate tradition from the chains that the so-called progressives had put around it. I knew that he had a compassionate heart and a broad mind and would fearless engage anyone on crucial topics. I knew that he was more about conversation than excommunication.

So, I was absolutely astonished to see the way the press treated his election. The rap sheet on Ratzinger read: reactionary, pit bull, crack-down man, and even proto-Nazi. Think Torquemada and you have the archetype. It was so unjust and so vicious. And malicious. Everything Benedict did during his papacy was interpreted in that light. He pursued fantastic ecumenical activities that promoted peace and understanding and yet he was derided as a man who set back Catholic-Muslim relations. He was showing compassion to those estranged from the mainline of the Church but his efforts were fobbed off as giving approval to people who denied the Holocaust. It was like he couldn’t escape the label of that worst of all possible things: conservative (boo hiss, goes the press). Then of course there were the scandals, and many journalists even took the ghastly step of implicated Benedict himself because he had somehow approved of someone who approved of someone who approved of someone who had been been accused in the scandals. They would stop at nothing to confirm their biases and harm this great man.

And so, fast forward to the election of Pope Francis. Nearly all the coverage from morning until night has been about how he is the anti-Benedict. This coverage has been enormously harmful not only to the faith but also to Francis himself. For all we knew. Francis might be more temperamentally severe on issues of doctrine and morality that Benedict, but it doesn’t matter because this doesn’t fit the hyper-politicized prototypes that pre-exist in the files of writers at the BBC, New York Times, CNN, and all the rest.

So you really must ask yourself: has your understanding of this new Pope been compromised by taking these press reports too seriously? I’m pretty sure that I had been overly influenced by them in the early days. I had been observing patterns of behavior of this new Pope, mixing them with hopped-up news coveraged, feeling a terrible sense of sadness about the resignation of Benedict my hero, and coming to conclusions that were wildly unjustified. So far the papacy of Francis has been an added value to Benedict’s own and not a displacement.

Also and regrettably, Pope Francis has given the press plenty of fodder to fuel these archetypes. His personal style throughout his priesthood has been to embrace the lifestyle of the people he served. He rode on buses in Argentina. He wore plain and severe clothing. He mixed it up with everyone and encouraged the priest to do the same. This is a country where the faith is under severe strain, and his commitment to evangelism made it imperative that the Church not seem like a branch of the state, isolated and protected and privileged. He is dedicated this, just as Benedict was and is.

He has brought that sensibility with him to the Papacy. It could end up being a great gift to the cause of evangelism. And there is a sense in which I do not even slightly regret the hugely positive coverage that his papacy has so far elicited. We really do need this right now. There is no question that this Pope has certain gifts that can help in many ways. Benedict had great gifts too as a theologian, liturgist, and as a teacher in every way. There is no reason to set one against the other.

And yet there is one area in which it is all too easy to set Francis against Benedict and that concerns liturgy, the subject I feel an intense passion about. Francis — sadly in my view — seems very much uninterested in the topic. He doesn’t sing. He doesn’t follow rubrics from the Missal or the GIRM. He used Holy Thursday to establish a dramatic new demographic precedent in the foot washing ceremony. People have explained this by pointing out that he is, after all, a Jesuit, and every Catholic knows what that means, hint hint nudge nudge. Others who have worked with him over the years point out that his non-interest in liturgy stems from his personal style. Quite frankly, one associate told me, “he is a slob.” It was an affectionate comment but still: ouch. This is indeed a contrast from Benedict. It is never a good thing to have the Pope himself flout rubrics even if inadvertently. And yet we are most likely going to have to get used to this. It is going to be commonplace.

Consider the Holy Thursday event when Pope Francis presided over liturgy at the kids’ prison. He washed the feet of young women. This is significant because the liturgy’s purpose is to recreate the time when Christ’s humbled himself to wash his apostle’s feet. It is repeated in liturgy as a sign of the priesthood with the celebrant taking on the person of Christ. The washing of women’s feet might be seen as a foreshadowing of a women’s priesthood — or so the “progressives” might suggest. But actually, if you consider this from the point of view of the Pope, he was there and not exactly in a position to separate boys and girls in their liturgical roles. Such an endeavor would probably have struck him as pointless or even cruel. Given that he tends to see the liturgy as less a veritical symbol and more a horizontal form of human service — a seeming position I deeply regret, to be sure, because it seems less than fully informed — his choice here makes perfect sense.

The big question is whether the new Pope is going to continue chipping away at the rubrics and the liturgical traditions in a way that damages Benedict’s legacy. I seriously doubt that, but even if it does happen, it would again seem to be an inadvertent result. It does strike me as irresponsible that the Pope is not more attentive to these matters, and I do wish that he could have spent more time during the last ten years in a deeper study of Benedict’s own writings on liturgy. And perhaps that time will come. But whether he does or not is irrelevant for the continuing veracity, wisdom, and influence of Benedict’s own writings.

Regarding one of the Pope’s messages that priests should be more willing to sacrifice, let me add one final regret on one possible interpretation of this position. I’ve never known a priest who has not known intense sacrifice in their daily lives. They are called upon to do service to others at a level of intensity unknown by the rest of us. They are poor. They are pulled and tugged on at every turn. They exhaust themselves in service, and even get burned out as a result. Most of what they hear from the faithful consists of complaints that they aren’t doing more. Follow a priest around for a day or two and you will be astonished. It is awe inspiring.

This is also true of other servants of the faith such as musicians and teachers. They all sacrifice income and prestige, and suffer deeply for their choice. This is the current reality. The idea that the Church consists of big shots in ermine robes living it up at the expense of the faithful, luxuriating in finery and comfort, is absurd and insulting and even plays to anti-Catholic stereotypes. I don’t believe that Pope Francis has intended to leave the impression that he agrees with the caricature but it would still be wise to see that this is a way his words can be taken and twisted by the press that doesn’t understand or appreciate the extent to which any Church work is undertaken with deep humility in our uncomprehending world.

I’ll offer one final example concerning the chasm between press coverage and reality. The blogs were filling up with announcements that the new Pope had already enacted a “liturgical revolution.” Startling, right? Well, I watched the Palm Sunday services at the Vatican. All the chants of the Grauale Romanum were there, including the real Graduale as a replacement for the Responsorial Psalm. In the scheme of history, this is an amazing restoration, already a precedent in Vatican liturgy. You might say: oh that was already planned. Maybe. But what matters here is whether the Pope has the incentive or the desire to change the precedent. I see no evidence that he does. What I do see is a serious and dedicated servant of the faith who hopes to bring his unique gifts to the institution in a time of great need.

To be sure, we might face some harrowing days ahead. It is crucial that observers keep on eye on the reality, not the spin.

The Return of Catholic Song

Sing a Te Deum, goes the expression you sometimes hear in the Catholic world. Just one thing: one hardly ever hears a Te Deum. I’ve heard it probably six times in real life but that’s because I attend Catholic music events that actually teach this music and encourage people to sing it. But the people singing are experiencing it for the first time. Most Catholics have no idea what a Te Deum sounds like.

There is a huge body of work out there which we can call the Gregorian hymn. No, these were not written by St. Gregory the Great. But they are part of the spirit of the tradition of Gregorian chant: vigorous and evocative music on one note that are structured to convey the truths of the scripture and the Catholic faith.

These tunes are not part of the Mass liturgy proper in the sense that they are not usually drawn from the text of the liturgy itself (which is to say they are not part of the ordinary or the propers of the Mass). Many of them are taken from the Divine Office, which, believe it or not, was a common liturgical experience for Catholic in the middle ages. These days most all Catholics experience the Mass only so many of the forms of singing that began with the Office gradually moved over to become occasional music for Mass. Others pieces might have served particular purposes in Mass and then entered into general use. Still others are just pretty pieces. Solesmes has called these pieces Gregorian melodies. They are the people’s music.

Some examples might include: the four Marian antiphons, Adoro te devote, Ave verum Corpus, Christus vincit, Da pacem Domine, Jesu dulcis memoria, Panis angelicus, Oremus pro Pontifice, Ven Creator Spiritus, Ave maris stella, Tota pulchra es, Conditor alme siderum, Veni veni Emmanuel, Resonet in laudibus, Te Deum, Dies Irae, among many others. They constitute popular Catholic song as it has been known through the ages. Today, not one in a thousand Catholics know of them at all.

After World War II, with the chant tradition in serious decline, some publishers worked to salvage what they could of the chant tradition and settled on these pieces on a way to preserve and inspire. They put out books with this music. It was a noble effort. But of course it failed. After the Second Vatican Council, there was a widespread perception that lasted for 40 years that anything in Latin was outmoded and therefore discouraged and therefore not to be used at all. It was not suitable to the new age of vernacular.

That situated persisted. The books went out of print. The chant conferences ended. No one really cared anymore. There were some pockets of exceptions, a few Latin Masses here and there. But for the mainstream of Catholic life, there was virtually no circulation of this music, editions of this music with English translations, instructions on how to sing, and even the ability to read the notes nearly vanished.

A book that attempted to bring it all back, and also provide other music for the people from the Mass itself (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus) was the Parish Book of Chant. It was published by the Church Music Association of America. It was the largest collection of Gregorian hymns published in the post-Council period and probably ever, and it included enough actual service music to be a great book for the pews too. Well, it was published by an organization with no money at all and no staff, and done on the fly, just because no one else seemed to be doing.

It seems incredible to me that this was only 5 years ago. Most of the growth of the Gregorian chant movement has occurred since that time. This has been an essential resource, the basis of so much else. Since that time the CMAA has published new books of scholarship, English propers, Pslamody, choral propers, and so much else. Looking back at it, I suspect that I too had begun to feel that this book was less necessary. I became newly convicted of the new for sung propers and ordinary in the Mass, and was drawn to a more strict rendering of the liturgical text that had been entirely dropped. It became unclear to me (or at least less clear) what the role of this popular chant really was in Catholic life.

But then several strange things happened. After several printings and a total distribution of about 12,000, the Parish Book of Chant fell out of print. Richard Rice began to work on a much-expanded edition. The prices of used copies on Amazon began to soar to as much as $100 and more. Then I was teaching at a conference on chant, with an intention to focus on propers, and someone had a copy with her. I asked to borrow and flipped through the pages. It was love all over again. I love these songs. They so beautiful and so accessible, truly the people’s music. I realized all over again that this is a dazzling collection.

It wasn’t long before Richard finished his second edition. He chose to put in the full verses to the hymns. He added the Sequences. He added the full Requiem Mass. He included the fully 18 Mass settings from the Gregorian Kyriale. The edition included even the five communion chants that are commonly used in the ordinary form. It keep the full ordo for the extraordinary and ordinary forms of Mass, plus much else. The entire book came in at 325 pages. I worried about the thickness so we thinned out the paper to make it easier to handle. Then we changed the cover and added two pretty ribbons. Truly, this is the  book that it should have been all along.

So who is using this book? Well, the natural market is the new scholars that have been formed over the last few years. They need to begin singing the parts of the Mass and this is a great resource for that. In addition, new scholas need to revive the Gregorian tradition of hymnody. The addition of the Requiem Mass is a brilliant stroke since this is a good place for parish scholas to sing in the early stages. The end result is absolutely spectacular in every way.

In addition, every period in history must absolutely have a book like this in print. This is the only one today. It is not an official book of the liturgy but it can and does play an essential role. In the perfect world, it would be in the pews in every parish. Also, for a parish that uses both forms of Mass, this is the only book to include both in an easy-to-use format for the pew.

Must this tradition of singing be kept alive and must it thrive? Absolutely it must. But it cannot happen unless there are beautiful resources — with English translations — to make it happen. This is the might contribution of this book. It is newly available on Amazon. Look for the Parish Book of Chant with the blue cover. And let’s sing and sing to the glory of God, together as a Catholic people.

Bishop Sample and the Future of Catholic Music

There are two errors to correct in the news that Bishop Alexander K. Sample is headed to Portland, Oregon. The first is that it means nothing. The second is that it means everything. As is often the case, the reality will be something in between.

At one level, it is a momentous choice because the Bishop is one of the great voices and minds in our time in favor of the “reform the reform” plus the push for sacred music, about which he is a genuine expert. Portland is the home of the Oregon Catholic Press, which provides music for a plurality of American parishes, and what OCP provides (for the most part) represents an older paradigm (roughty 1968-2010) of musical expression, the reform without the reform. Insofar as OCP’s publication program depends heavily on the approval of the local ordinary, the appointment could be very significant.

But let’s be clear about the Bishop’s temperament and approach. He is an extremely kind and thoughtful person. He is extremely accessible and not puffed up in any way. He is not a “hard liner” by any stretch. He loves beauty and tradition and would like to see this spread through inspiration and example. But he is not the skull-cracking type at all. He is a broad-minded man of genuine conviction but also possesses great pastoral sensitivity. He has a warm heart, a delightful personality, and loves people. If you see someone describe him as Torquemada, know this: that person is utterly clueless about the reality of this shepherd of the faith.

It was my great pleasure to be invited as part of a Church Music Association of America team to Marquette, Michigan, to put on a music seminar for the diocese. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce sacred music and sugn propers and chant to the musicians of the diocese. I gave several lectures and got people singing the ordinary of the Mass in English chant. Arlene Oost-Zinner taught the details of music reading, tonality, rhythm, and singing properly. Attending were most musicians from the area. We used resources such as the Simple English Propers and the Parish Book of Psalms.

Bishop Sample attended the entire event from start to finish. He gave some talks too, and in each, he struck precisely the right chord. His talks were about the rationale and need for gradual change. He explained that what the musicians are doing at liturgy is generally underappreciated. Their job is not just to sing anything but rather to aspire to sing the actual liturgy. This task raises the important of the musical arts to a much higher level.

Now, if you know anything about Catholic musicians, they tend to resist any change. They get invested in what they have done in the past and are happy to do that in the future. They tend to think that any push for change is an insult to their past contribution, even when no insult is intended at all. Even when they feel a sense of internal frustration and confusion about their task, they fear new missions because they worry that they don’t have the skill, that they will alienate people by failing to sing people’s favorite songs, and that they won’t be able to perform the new music in a degree of competence that makes them come across well.

It was absolutely dazzling how Bishop Sample dealt so beautifully with all these fears. He was light and conversational with everyone — plus he is genuinely funny! He assured them all repeatedly how much he values what they have done. He also gave them the confidence that they needed to undertake a new challenge. We could easily see the effects of his presence there.

Everyone was delighted and inspired. He made our job much easier. In the end, the seminar was a rousing success in every way. I would suggest that not even one attendee left those days with a sense of fear. They were all excited about the future. This is the way he works: like Benedict XVI himself, Sample leads not through coercion but through example, inspiration, and frank telling of what is true.

There are many problems besides music in Portland, Oregon, among which bankruptcy and shortages of priests and many other issues. At the same time, it is obviously true that the issues with the Oregon Catholic Press will be on the table.

You might be surprised to learn that the OCP has already undergone many changes in the last five years. It has spent a lot of money and taken a huge financial risk in producing top-of-the-line recordings of the entire sung Mass in authentic Gregorian chant. It has pushed these and distributed them widely. Their advertising for these recordings has pointed out that this music is the music of the Roman Rite. In addition, OCP distributes many books of chant, along with tutorials and otherwise. The “reform the reform” is not utterly foreign to OCP.

In addition, the staff of OCP has some outstanding musicians there, people who sing high-quality music around town. They know their stuff. There are scholars and sacred music enthusiasts all throughout the building. It is by no means barren of high artistic sensibility and expertise in this area. Some employees of OCP listen to chant and polyphony in their cars and homes and even perform this music as part of their musical avocation. They attend concerts in the lively artistic scene in Portland. In their private lives, they revel in their vast knowledge of the repertoire.

If you are shocked to hear these things, it is understandable. This is not part of OCP’s reputation. This is because its bread and butter is the distribution of pop music to parish in fly-away resources. They have many resources they distribute, from resources for the pews, organ accompaniments, many different types and styles of hymnals, choral resources, and more. When a parish signs up for their subscription services, the materials arrive like a tsunami. People in the music world speak of this or that parish as an “OCP parish,” and everyone knows what that means. It’s not good.

I would rank the quality of their main product to be inferior to anything you will see or hear in the Protestant world. My own parish is an “OCP parish,” and the frustrations that musicians feel with their product is unrelenting. The choral books don’t match the hymn books. The hymns are in different keys, sometimes different rhythms, and sometimes even different words. There will be verses in the hymnbooks that are not replicated in the choir books — and attempting to use both without a thorough pre-Mass check can be enormously frustrating.

The sheer volume of week and predictable pop music in these resources, even those claiming to represent the Catholic heritage, is overwhelming. And the absence of core traditional repertoire is just as notable. One might expect that “Sleepers Awake” would be there for advent. Nope. One might think that the the Marian antiphons would be there. Nope. One might expect more than one Latin setting of the ordinary chants. Nope. Sung propers of the Mass for entrance, offertory, or communion? Nothing. For a musician who sets out to use music that is part of the long tradition of the Catholic world, and attempts to use OCPs main publications to do, he or she will find a desert.

This is a problem. But it is not a problem without easy and fairly painless solutions. If those solutions exist, I have every confidence that Bishop Sample will find them. And he will manage to do this in a way that does not create enemies but rather makes new friends. This is his way.

In addition, I know for a fact that there are many within OCP who are ready for a change. They have grumbled quietly for years but deferred to the marketing managers at OCP who are convinced that they have to keep doing what they doing or else they lose money. Sometimes it takes a real pastor to show up and say: there is another way and I believe you can thrive by pursuing it. And no matter what you hear to the contrary, many people within OCP will be celebrating this change.

And here’s the thing: everyone knows that things must change. The problem with Catholic music is famous. I’ve never spoken to a group of Catholics where the problems are not well known and understood widely. You only need to raise a slight eyebrow on the subject to garner laughter. Everyone knows. More importantly, everyone at OCP knows too.

The change won’t happen immediately. It might not even be detectable by anyone but the closest observers. It might takes several years. But it will come. And the Church and her liturgy will be much better off as a result. Making this change in Portland will spread change to the whole of the American Church and then to the whole of the English speaking world and then to the whole rest of the world. This is the center, the core, the spot from which a major problem that exists in the Catholic world can be rectified.

Out of the Desert and Into the Promised Land

The children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years, the Hebrew scriptures tell us, and during this time they lost faith, built nutty statues out of their own stuff, complained bitterly about everything, and failed to notice that hand of God looking after them the entire time. I often think about these years and imagine all the people who died and were also born during this period of confusion. It was probably the only reality many of them new. And how glorious it must have been to have finally found their home.

This is a pretty good description of the situation for musicians in the postconcilar era. We wandered aimlessly looking for that answer. We built idols out of our own stuff and held them up for the people to worship. We ignored the gifts that God was trying to give us the entire time. Mostly we complained.

I’m reminded of this period after this morning’s liturgy, because the situation has changed so dramatically from the first to the last. Ironically, our period of exile started to end in just about forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. Now today we have the music we need. It is no longer confusing, no longer a weekly trial, no longer a game of chance to know what to sing. With some basic singing skills, one cantor or 50 singers, and not even an organist, the liturgy can be proclaimed in a manner imagined by the fathers of the Council — and this can happen in every parish every single week and without that much fuss.

It only took forty years. Many people left. Many people came. Many parishes are sadly still lost, even though the resources are right there.

So each week I find myself so happy to walk over to the bookshelf and pick up the three books that I unfailingly depend on to sing and sing what the Church is asking us to sing: the actual text of the liturgy itself.

I hold these books in my hand and look at them. I am conscious all over again of the time when they didn’t exist. It was only a few years ago. How well I remember the struggle and the arguments and the sense of something missing. We didn’t know what was missing but we knew that something wasn’t right. Surely there is more to this than just leafing through this floppy annual and pointing at some hymns and wondering: “is this good enough for this week?”

Yes, that’s what we did. That’s what everyone did — for decades and decades. It seems incredible in retrospect. But what choice did we have? Where were the resources that made the sung liturgy available to us so that we could sing in a dignified and solemn way that didn’t smack of some pop performance or pander to one or another style preference? Where were these books?

Before someone corrects me, I’m aware that there were some resources out there. In fact, I obsessively looked for them in far-flung places and worked hard to get them online. They were like drops of rain in the desert. An antiphon here, a chant there, a snippet of scripture here, and a fragment of a chant there. There was the full Graduale in English with the Anglican Use Gradual but here were issues with language and even with a slight ongoing tension with the cultural sensibility with the ordinary form.

Of course the whole time there was the big scary book of the perfect solution: the Graduale Romanum. That is the wonderful thing, of course, but in no parish was it even conceivable that these chants could all be sung in their proper place. Neither the talent nor the tolerance existed for that. It took years to finally come to terms with that reality.

We were closer about six years ago than we ever were. We had an idea — not a perfect idea but a growing clarity — about what we need. But the resources we really needed were not yet on hand. We still didn’t have the ability to walk over to the shelf, take out the resource, turn to the right page, and sing!

That is what has changed, and it has changed absolutely everything. This morning was a good reminder. With these books in hand, with two singers and no instruments, the entire liturgy came across as magnificent. We sang the right thing at the right time in the right way, exactly as the liturgical books suggest we should. It’s all come together in the most beautiful way.

It’s so good that I can hardly even recall the endless frustrations of the past, the hours of scraping around, the time and annoyance of not finding the thing that really worked, the planning time and the sense of confusion. It all seems like a bad dream in retrospect.

These are the three books that have led us out of the desert and into the Promised Land:

1. Communio, compiled and typeset by Richard Rice. This book allows for the singing of the authentic chants of the Roman Gradual during communion, a time which allows the choir more flexibility than anywhere else in the liturgy. The brilliant stroke of this book is to add all the Psalms in a fully notated way so as to permit the singer or singers to use music proper to the rite for the entire liturgical action. This is what made the difference. This is where choirs tend to begin with the singing of the chant. This is the book that also trains singers. It is so practical and yet so much the embodiment of the ideal.

2. Simple English Propers, by Adam Bartlett. This is the book, the one we’ve wait for all these years. With this book, the entrance, offertory, and communion can be sung in English, with verses, for every Sunday in the liturgical year. Yes, it should have come out in 1963 when the vernacular was first introduced. It had to wait. Regardless, we now have it. The more you sing from it, the better you get at doing so. The melodies are simple and formulaic but they work with the text. In all my time singing from it, I’ve never encountered even one chant that didn’t work musically and liturgically. Moreover, people love it in the following sense: it seems like the right thing. It might not be the final answer in vernacular chant but it is a massive upgrade from the status quo. I’m so grateful for this book!

3. The Parish Book of Psalms, by Arlene Oost-Zinner. Even in the old days when we started inching toward solutions, the Psalm has been a problem. It is supposed to be dignified and beautiful but the conventions were always lacking in both. It just didn’t seem to match the chanted liturgy otherwise. This book makes it all work. The composer uses Gregorian tones and a simple melody that takes all stress out of standing and singing the Psalm every week. It is such an indescribable relief to have this book.

The Beautiful Persistence of Chant

In some way, it’s all a miracle.

I can stand right here where I am and quickly sing a melody that is roughly the same as the first melody cooked up by an anonymous monk in the 7th century. That melody was committed to memory by others around that monk and then transmitted from place to place through constant repetition. It lived further through the generations, passed from old to young, and then again as the young became old and it was passed on again, cascading through time and place, and all long before anyone had thought up a way to write it down.

Then in the 11th century, the means became available to take this series of sounds and put them into paper form, so that the melody could be transmitted from place to place and from generation to generation even if it weren’t heard. The melody took on a new form, a form that made immortalization even more technologically possible.

Then printing came and made the process even easier. For the first time, the entire body of work could be easily reproduced and distributed all over the world.

Five hundred years went by until something even more spectacular happened. The chant took on a new digital form. Once the chant became digits, the limits of physical transmission were entirely overcome. The same chant, again without actually being heard, could be distribute billions and trillions of times unto infinity and never degrade with each passing use. One click to put the chant on digital networks and it enters into a new status of universal reach, capable of serving all of humanity so long as this world exists.

But there was even one more stage in this long evolution. Digital media made it possible to transmit not just the physical music but also a real recording of monks singing the chant. Right now we can hear a version that was sung perhaps back in the 1950s. Every singer is probably dead by now but that one version they sang that one time way back then can be resurrected and live, as alive right now as it was when it was first sung.

We can copy their vocal inflections and their careful interpretations and make them out own, and then turn around and make our own versions, which can be listened to by people 100 years from now. It’s like a time capsule that is never buried but continues to be added to even as it serves the living and the dead.

And to think that it all began with one voice, one person singing one thing some 1,400 years ago.

To enjoy such access is a unique privilege of our generation. This is the music of the Roman Rite. It came of age with the ritual itself as a means of making it more beautiful, more worthy, more compelling, more wonderful as a means of praising God in our public worship.

Why are we attracted by making our own bodies instruments to make this happen in our time? Because in this music we find truth and meaning. This means transcends the lifespans of all all existing things. It is evidence of the capacity of truth to extend beyond one generation, any existing political arrangement, any existing business firm or man-made institution. It is a manifestation of the persistence of the faith in all times and places, its miraculous capacity for outliving every attempt to kill it. It is immutable. It is strong. It is mighty. It gives us a glimpse of eternal truth.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about this claim that the reason we are drawn to chant is that our deconstructionist age has made us fearful of change. The claim is that we cling to chant as an arbitrary source of stability.

What is meant by this idea of deconstruction? The movement is a 20th century idea. It began with legal studies. The deconstructionists observed that the law does not necessary embed robust truth. It is essentially made up by self-interested politicians. It is the product of interest groups, designed to help them at other’s expense. The law was revealed to be a kind of hoax.

The method of analytics spread to literature. What does a novel mean? The author might have one idea, but we can’t necessarily known what he or she intended. And maybe the author himself or herself was not fully aware aware of its meaning. In any case, we are the readers. We are the interpreters. Our own cultural conditioning heavily influences our own reading, and we cannot escape this. The dominant meaning for us is entirely subjective and it is pointless and fallacious to somehow insist that our subjective meaning be imposed on others.

So it is with language. It is just words and words change. They serve an instrumental value of enabling communication between people. We use them as a way of groping through the dark, working together to find ways to cooperate with each other. The means of words extends from their use only and is never embedded in the words themselves. It is all arbitrary and changing, never fixed. In this way, language too evades any claim to permanent meaning. Meaning is dictated by culture and does not descend from on high.

So too with the interpretation of philosophy, politics, art, theology — really everything. Nothing really means anything in a fundamental sense. Everything is conditioned on society and on our subjective minds. This is why we cannot speak of truth with a capital letter but only what is true for me and what is true for you, and this is forever evolving.

So goes the deconstructionist way of thinking.

Let’s grant that this is entirely correct. None of what we once thought to be true really is. What is left for us to hang on to? What in our universe can be counted on to last and persist and actually embed something valuable in the ultimate sense.

Liturgy is the great exception. It does not exist in time. It extends out of time into eternity. It touches a real outside of time and the material world. It points up and out of time. Through it we receive communication from God and find ourselves transported out of the limits of the physical and into communication to God to give praise. In sense this, and if this is true, the deconstructionist critique of the realm of time cannot touch it. We did not make up liturgy. The liturgy is a gift from all eternity to us.

No matter how much we might decided to accept the deconstructionist idea — and maybe even the more we accept the idea — the more impressive the liturgy truly is. It is the great exception, a means that we have to access truth with a capital T. Within liturgy we are rescued from a world that is otherwise invented, manufactured, and arbitrary.

This is one reason that the liturgical spirit that imagines ourselves to be making the liturgy rather than accepting it is so dangerous. It threatens to reduce liturgy to the status of law, literature, language, and politics. It cannot be so! The liturgy is the one thing in our world that evades the imperfections of all the things we create ourselves.

Now back to the chant. Here is the music of the liturgy, a thing transported through the ages by repeated singing, blessed by God to achieve immortality across all ages and places. It is the musical corollary to the liturgical text and integral to the liturgical action itself. We are not drawn to it out of fear but because we long for things that the permanently true, for sounds that are not arbitrary, for art that points to the Creator of all art.

Yes, the chant was made at some point by one human person but a human person who worked to discover a musical sound of eternity. And when this happened, it became part of the liturgical experience and it took on a new form, blessed and blessed again by its use in the eternal project. We stand here a millenium and half later and sing it in the same way. It is our means of accessing the longest possible human experience in our insatiable desire to find and touch the truth of God.

One simple song can do this when it is part of liturgy. It is not arbitrary. It is a rare and impenetrable well from which our generation can drink something pure and true in a time when everything else seems to be crumbling. This is a true act of love. To sing the chant is to find authenticity and purpose, to be part of something that is not only larger than our own time but larger than time itself.

How to Have a Good and Stable Choir

Many pastors I know are extremely frustrated by the lack of singing talent in their parishes. They have high ambitions to sing the propers, to revive polyphony, to have authentic Gregorian chant. They want to have this weekly, not just on special occasions. They want to be part of the answer and not perpetuate the existing problem.

But they are stymied because of a lack of willing talent in the parish. Both “willing” and “talented” are important here. There are often singers in the parish who are unwilling to commit to weekly rehearsals plus showing up consistently for Mass at a certain hour. Most Catholics like to choose week-to-week which Mass they will attend. Committing to a choir means restricting that life choice.

The Baptist church I grew up in had a culture of singing. Anyone who could do it absolutely did do it. They considered it their vocation, their contribution to the life of the religious community. My church I grew up in had only 500 families but we had 40-plus people in the choir. It was just something that musicians did. There were more musicians then and they were all committed.

That is no longer true in the Catholic Church — if it ever was true. I received notes often from singers in my own parish who say how much they love what our schola does but then apologize for not joining. There are always good reasons: kids, rides, school, work. They are all valid but they come down to the fact that they are unwilling to make parish music a priority. They have decided to be consumers rather than producers.

Then there is the problem of real talent. Actual music readers are ever rarer these days. Good voices that hit the notes and don’t draw attention to their own glories are rarer still. It takes time to develop such skills. Singing without accompaniment is harder than it might seem. Sometimes you can have a seemingly great singer who turns helpless without accompaniment and microphones. People who can handle the task of starting a Sanctus without any cues, breaking the sacred silence with confidence and without error, are hard to find.

Making matters more complicated, choral music requires four parts at least: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. What are the chances that four such strong voices exist in every parish? They are extremely small actually. Priests are often confused why their music programs are so bad and do not seem to improve but they haven’t thought through all these factors. You need four strong singers who are committed. If you do not have that, you will not have a consistent provision of liturgical music. That’s just the way it is.

One answer is recorded music. But that is prohibited by Church legislation. The Church seems to expect that all music in each parish be produced entirely within the parish. By tradition, this is mostly done by unpaid volunteers.

I would submit that this is the real core of the problem. People with this skill set are not willing to sing consistently without any pay whatsoever. They might do so for a while but they burn out, feel used, and eventually give up. It is all the more annoying that the priest and others look down on them when they throw in the towel, completely forgetting about the countless hours they have spent in the past without pay.

If you talk to any professional or just experienced music who knows the world of churches, you will find one consistent complaint about the Catholic Church: it does not pay its musicians. Parishes will sometimes pay an organist (not often a full-time salary) and sometimes pay a nominal fee to a director of music (many parishes even expect this to be done by volunteers). But very few pay singers.

I’m not arguing the point on grounds of social justice. I’m not carrying water for the hoards of musicians out there who imagine that they are constantly wronged by a world that doesn’t fully appreciate their greatness. My point is purely practical. If you want a good choir with members that are genuinely committed, and you want cantors who can substitute for each other and are willing to change their plans to come to sing, the parish has to start paying singers.

It is not necessary to pay ever singer. What every choir needs — and here I’m only reporting what every musician knows but very few priests understand — is four solid singers who can lead each sector. These solid singers are called “ringers” or just “section leaders.”

These people also make good solo cantors. These can lead the other singers. This doesn’t mean getting rid of volunteers. The amateurs can be great. In fact, I’m constantly amazed at how good non-readers are at mimicking the sound of those they stand next to. They can’t sing a note alone but sound great as part of a section. They desperately need strong singers around them to give lift to their talents.

How does this work in practice? Let’s get down to specifics. The parish should employ four singers to play this role, chosen mostly by the director. Each singer can be paid $50 per Mass plus rehearsal once per week. This is terrible pay, to be sure. But it takes the sting out the time commitment. It makes people feel valued. It allows the parish to expect things from the singer. Everyone is happy. The music problem goes away — or perhaps the biggest problems in the music area go away.

Look at the overall expense. We are talking about $200 per week for a total of $10,400 per year plus special Masses. In total, a great program can cost a parish $12,000-$15,000 per year. Keep in mind: this is the difference between a program that is unstable and mostly bad to one that is excellent and consistent. The singers themselves can be asked to cantor other Masses. They can serve to train the volunteers to become better become cantors too. (Ideally, we would double those numbers but I’m just using these as an example.)

And, by the way, the payments do not have to be open and known to all people. There is nothing wrong with using discretion in this regard. One might think that jealousies would quickly appear but that is not the case. The weaker singers sincerely appreciate having better singers around. If the weaker singers discover that the stronger ones are paid, it is not a problem. I’ve known many cases where a mix of paid and unpaid is perfectly peaceful, with no jealousies.

Here is an issue: what if the paid singers are not Catholic? What if they are students at the local university with no preexisting interest in liturgy? Let’s face it: this is more-than-likely going to be the case. Think of it as an opportunity for evangelization in two directions: the non-Catholic gains exposure to the faith and the Catholics gain exposure to good musicians. This is a win/win situation for everyone.

Morale will vastly improve among musicians in the parish. This is guaranteed. It will increase the respect that the local musicians have for the Catholic church. It will vastly improve the parish music and the liturgy. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The liturgy is the main experience people have of the parish. It has to be good. It has to be compelling. It has to be right. It has to conform to the high expectations that the Church legislation has for music.

As for the choir not being a priority, I’m always impressed how a small and even token payment can cause a complete rearrangement of priorities.

I’ve gone into such detail here mainly because pastors are rarely if ever told these things in seminary. They too often fear the music issue. They are annoyed by the whining and the demands from musicians. And sometimes it seems like no matter how much money they spend on materials, the music never improves. Eventually they reconcile themselves to mediocrity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Paid ringers can make the difference. It runs against the practice is most American parishes but this needs to change if we are going to get serious about music again.