by Rev. Fr. Christopher Smith
The first time I ever went to a Life Teen Mass I was sixteen years old. It was New Years’ Eve and I thought, instead of going downtown with my pagan friends, I should be a good Catholic boy and ring in the New Year with Jesus. The parish that had the Life Teen Mass was not mine, but I went anyway. Everyone had been telling me that there were lots of people my age, who were serious about their faith, and that it would be a Spirit-filled time. Some of my friends were going to be there, too, so what could be better?
But as soon as the Mass started, I felt like I had stepped into a no-man’s land suspended between Catholicism and some vague form of Protestantism that I as a convert had never seen before. It wasn’t that the music was strange to me. I grew up with contemporary Christian music around the house and listened to it on the radio (when I wasn’t listening to classical music or Latin dance music). So I knew the songs. The church was full of high schoolers and Baby Boomers and they all seemed to know and love each other.
But as the Mass unfolded, I kept noticing things that I knew very well were not in the rubrics, those pesky little red directions in the Missal that tell us how to celebrate the Mass properly. The Life Teen coordinators had decided that they would modify the Mass to make it fit whatever they deemed necessary to get the kids involved. And so there was dancing, hand-holding, and music that had nothing to do with the actual texts of the Mass.
But then, it was time for the Eucharistic Prayer. The celebrant invited all the kids to come around the altar. As the church was quite full, this was rather cumbersome and also pointless. But everyone stood up and made their way as through a mosh pit (I am showing my age, now!) to get closer to the altar. I stayed behind in the last pew. And of course, the celebrant thought that I was too shy to come up and so he encouraged me, from the altar, to join the kids. I had had enough, and so I yelled from the back pew, “No, sorry, Father, I’m a Catholic, I don’t do that kind of thing,” and pulled out a rosary and knelt to pray it as I watched the Eucharistic Prayer degenerate into something eerily similar to the ecstatic cults we had studied about in Ancient Greek History.
Not only did I never go back to a Life Teen Mass, I started the next Sunday to go to the Orthodox Church. There I felt like I was worshipping God and not having earnest adults try and fail to make religion relevant to me by assuming I was too young or stupid to understand real worship. It was fifteen years before I ever had to participate in anything similar ever again. By this time, I was a priest and I had been asked to preside over a Holy Hour for young people. The youth minister in this particular parish was very sensitive to the fact that Praise and Worship was not my thing, and she warned me ahead of time.
As I knelt there in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I realized something. The same people were doing the music who were doing it fifteen years before. It was the same music, the same songs that I made fun of when I was the age of the kids who were in the pews behind me. How relevant is that? But this time the kids who were there just seemed bored. I asked them afterwards what they thought of it, and one young man said, “Well, that was ok, I guess. When are we having another Latin Mass, Father?”
Of all of my friends from high school who were Life Teeners, not one of them is a practicing Catholic anymore. Will the kids today who are raised on a diet of Praise and Worship continue to practice the Faith when they are no longer of that age middle-aged people in the Church want to cater to? I don’t know. But my experience has brought me to reflect on why Praise and Worship Music is not appropriate for the liturgy:
1. P&W music assumes that praise is worship.
All of us are called to lift our hearts, minds and voices to God in prayer. A particular type of prayer is praise, when we recognize God’s goodness, holiness and mercy by our own actions of praise. Praise has always been accompanied by music. Praise has always been something that takes place on an individual or small group level. It is often spontaneous and takes the form of culturally relevant symbols and forms. Praise is something common to all Christians and to many other religions.
Worship is indeed a type of praise, and music is an integral part of it. But the sacred liturgy is the public prayer of the Church, a corporate worship by which baptized Catholics enter into a Mystery which is not of their making. Being a corporate action, it is governed by law and tradition so as to preserve its unity throughout the world and its fidelity to the Message revealed by God. Worship is a Christian act of the baptized gathered by bonds of communion with the visible institutional Church.
P&W music actually identifies worship with praise, by grafting the freer and more individualistic nature of praise onto the communal prayer of the Church’s worship.
2. P&W music assumes that worship is principally something we do.
Martin Luther defined the Mass as a sacrifice of praise. It is something we render to God. The Council of Trent solemnly defined against Luther that the Mass is a true sacrifice. The Mass is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ to His Father on Calvary in the Holy Spirit. The Mass is something that Jesus does, the Redemption, the fruits of which are shared with us in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Worship is not Praise, but Sacrifice and Sacrament. Worship is something that Jesus Christ brings about in us through His self-offering to the Father.
P&W music reduces the Mass to a sacrifice of praise that we offer to God. Even when P&W proponents assent to the teaching of the Church on the Mass, it is as an abstract truth of faith. In the concrete, our sacrifice of praise is grafted onto that Sacrifice of Redemption. It overlooks the fact that it is the Sacrifice of Redemption that is the highest Praise to the Trinity, and that our participation in it is not by what we do, but by who we are as baptized Christians in the life of grace.
3. P&W music assumes as its first principle relevance.
P&W recognizes that music is important in the Church’s worship. But it also posits that music must “reach people where they are.” It must be relevant to those who hear it. Relevance, however, is an ambiguous notion. What is relevant to me may not be relevant to someone else, and so P&W introduces into the liturgy an element of subjectivism based on human concerns.
Often P&W is directed at an ostensibly missionary effort. The idea is that, if people find the music at Mass attractive or relevant, they might be brought into a deeper relationship with God. Yet, faith is a gift that comes from God, not from us. P&W attempts to clear the way for divine action, as if relevance could accomplish that.
4. P&W music assumes as its second principle the active participation of a certain age group
P&W essentially views active participation as everyone doing, singing and feeling a certain way about God when at Mass. The music is a means to produce an end. It also sees the absence of young people at church, and argues that, if the music at Mass were more like what young people like in their normal lives, they might be opened up to a more abundant life. Thus, P&W is designed often by middle-aged people with little or no theological, liturgical or musical background to coax teenagers and college-age kids with a similar background into a theological, liturgical and musical milieu. That milieu reduces the liturgy to a man-made act of praise engineered to produce an apostolic result.
5. P&W music self-consciously divides the Church into age and taste groups
P&W music is principally designed based on an abstract idea of what young people like. It often reflects more the trends of the past that were germane to P&W participants’ adolescence than it does the actual relevant trends of current adolescents.
It also tends to disparage the Church’s musical tradition by claiming that it is too difficult, elegant, or irrelevant to teens. For them, P&W is a grassroots, democratic, egalitarian, music relevant to youth. In contrast, the Church’s musical tradition is often painted as theatrical, aristocratic music for old people in concert halls.
By selectively choosing the abstract notion of youth and what is relevant to it as a criterion for liturgical music, P&W effectively divides the Church according to what is arbitrarily considered to be youthful and not youthful. It also argues that different “styles” are fine for the liturgy. This introduces into the liturgy the ambiguous notion of style and taste as a principle by which the liturgy and its music should be conducted.
6. P&W music subverts Biblical and liturgical texts during the Mass
The Roman Missal contains antiphons for the Entrance and Communion which are normally biblical texts. The Roman Gradual, which is still the Church’s only official source of music for Mass, contains antiphons for the Offertory as well as for the Interlectionary Chants. These together are known as the Proper of the Mass. The Missal and Gradual also contain official texts for the Ordinary of the Mass, for the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.
P&W bypasses the first and preferred option that the Church’s liturgical law mandates for music at Mass, namely the Proper and Ordinary of the Mass as contained in the Church’s liturgical and musical books. It substitutes hymns, which have never been part of the Roman Mass, or paraphrases or re-workings of the Ordinary. If a biblical text is used, it often has little or nothing to do with the texts appointed by the Church in the Missal or Gradual.
In doing so, P&W sets up a situation in which people do not sing the Mass (i.e., the texts contained in the Missal and Gradual), but they sing at Mass songs chosen by the impoverished criterion that those songs “kind of go along with the readings or the theme of the day.” P&W divorces the music of the Mass from the Mass and substitutes in its place texts that are not or only barely Biblical or liturgical.
7. P&W music assumes that there can be a core of orthodox Catholic teaching independent of the Church’s liturgical law and tradition
Many P&W proponents assume that, as long as they continue to believe in what the Church teaches in the Catechism about faith and morals, that the liturgy can be adapted to how they think such a teaching should be incarnate in song. There are some who would never think of denying an article of the Creed or promoting immoral actions condemned by the Magisterium. But the same proponents see the liturgy as another sphere. Any appeal to liturgical law or tradition is rejected according to the principles of relevance and active participation of youth.
Orthodoxy is then separated from Orthopraxis, right belief is separated from right worship. The Church’s power to speak on faith and morals is upheld even as the Church’s power to safeguard the liturgy through rubrics, laws and traditions is dismissed as man-made legalism. In doing so, P&W promotes an attitude of passive, or even sometimes active, resistance to the hierarchy’s duty to safeguard the sacral character of the rites of the Church. The impression is created that there is such a thing as right belief, but that the idea of right worship is contrary to the Spirit of the Gospel.
This creates problems of communion between priests and their people when a priest attempts to reform the liturgy in any given place to bring it into line with the Church’s liturgical law and tradition.
8. P&W music consciously manipulates the emotions so as to produce a catharsis seen as necessary for spiritual conversion
Conversion is seen principally as a dramatic emotional event accompanied by strong feelings. Recognizing that music can stimulate feelings, P&W seeks to produce liturgical events which will bring out the feelings that could in turn bring about the emotional catharsis seen as necessary to conversion. The way the liturgy is planned and the music developed is done so with an eye to aiding this conversion process.
Yet, this is not what conversion really is. Conversion is the formation of the conscience under the grace of the Holy Spirit to inform the intellect and strengthen the will to live the supernatural life of the virtues in union with Christ. Although emotions are involved in the life-long pilgrimage of conversion, their deliberate manipulation, even for an ostensible good end, is abusive. It sees the human subject not as ready for the response to a divine call, but as something to be primed for an experience. In reality, the life of grace brought about by conversion is not an experience at the level of the emotions, but a movement of the soul over and above those emotions.
9. P&W music confuses transcendence with feeling.
The deliberate manipulation of the emotions by P&W often produces an excess of sentiment. The very strength of that feeling can induce some to think that such an event is the work of the transcendent God in them. Musical forms which truly are transcendent, in that they disengage from the emotional and bring the person above their emotions, such as Gregorian chant, are rejected because they do not necessarily cause an emotional event, which is seen as proof of divine action.
The constant spiritual tradition of the Church has taught to distrust feelings and to prize the transcendent holiness of God. It also teaches that human manipulation of other people’s intellects and wills is a violation against the freedom of the human person. When done in the name of God, it is also a violation of God’s sovereignty over the intellect and will of man, as it replaces the free action of God in the soul with a gimmick to make that action in theory possible.
10. P&W music denies the force of liturgical and musical law in the Church in favour of arbitrary and individualist interpretations of worship
P&W, in making relevance and a reduced notion of participation the fundamental principles for engineering liturgical/emotional events geared towards emotional catharsis taken for conversion, ignores liturgical and musical law in the Church when it contradicts its goal. Often the greatest proponents of P&W have never read the pertinent documents of the Church’s Magisterium about liturgy and music, or they read them within a hermeneutic of rupture.
Liturgical and musical law seeks to safeguard the unity, purity and clarity of the Church’s corporate worship. P&W offers other criteria for how the Church should worship. First, it subsumes true liturgical worship under the rubric of praise. Second, those who are in charge of the praise often engineer the rites and music according to principles alien to those that govern the Church’s liturgical and musical law. Third, the opinion of individuals, small groups and committees, often uninformed by a wider theological, liturgical and musical education, is preferred to the Church’s theological, liturgical and musical heritage which is found in the Church’s documents and the Missal and Gradual.
11. P&W music prizes immediacy of comprehension and artistic ease over the many-layered meaning of the liturgy and artistic excellence.
P&W prefers simple music that anyone can understand or participate in easily. It also prefers what can be sung or played with a minimum of practice, instruction, or talent. Its levels out the many-layered meaning of the liturgy to that which is most readily accessible, and denies access to the infinite riches in the Church’s liturgical life.
A constant diet of P&W throughout the liturgical year separates people from the Church’s actual liturgical prayer as found in the Missal and Gradual. It also denies them access to the art form produced by the Church herself, Gregorian chant, and to the transcendence to which it points. It also gives the impression that the Church is not serious about serious music. The idea of excellence in liturgical motion, sound, and sight and that the Church is a patron of the highest forms of such expression, is dismissed in favour of what is easiest. In doing so, P&W does not inspire youth and older people to plumb the riches of the Roman liturgy and music.
That is a lot to take in, I know. I am also sure that many of my P&W loving friends will take issue with some of what I have written here. But it is important that those involved in the Church’s ministry remember the following:
1. The Church’s musical and liturgical tradition is an integral part of worship, and not a fancy addition.
2. While Praise is a high form of individual and small group prayer, it is not Worship as the Church understands the corporate public prayer of the Liturgy.
3. Worship is not principally something that we do: it is the self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit, the fruits of which are received in Holy Communion. Worship is Sacrifice and Sacrament, not Praise.
4. Relevance is irrelevant to a liturgy which seeks to bring man outside of space and time to the Eternal.
5. Participation in the liturgy is principally interior, by the union of the soul with the Christ who celebrates the liturgy. Any externalizations of that interior participation are meaningless unless that interior participation is there.
6. The Church’s treasury of sacred music is not the province of one social-economic, age, cultural, or even religious group. It is the common patrimony of humanity and history.
7. The Church must sing the Mass, i.e., the biblical and liturgical texts contained in the Missal and Gradual, and not sing at Mass man-made songs, if it is to be the corporate Worship of the Church and not just Praise designed by a select group of people.
8. Orthodox Catholic teaching on faith and morals must always be accompanied by respect for the Church’s liturgical and musical teaching and laws.
9. The deliberate intention to manipulate human emotions to produce a religious effect is abusive, insincere, and disrespectful of God’s power to bring about conversion in the hearts of man.
10. While music does affect the emotions, sacred music must always be careful to prefer the transcendent holiness of God over the immanent emotional needs of man.
11. The Church’s treasury of sacred music inspires and requires the highest attention to artistic excellence. It is also an unfathomable gift to the Church, and must be presented to the faithful so that they may enjoy that rich gift.
Do I think that P&W has a place in the life of the Church? Of course I do. It is praise, it is prayer, it does get people lifting their minds and hearts to God. There is obviously a place for that in the Church. But that is not Worship, and the communal prayer of the liturgy, by which God unites Himself with us, must be allowed to be itself. We should not be so cynical as to think that our Catholic people are too young (or old), too stupid (or overly-educated), and too spiritually weak (or indifferent) to pray the Church’s liturgy as it is indicated in the Missal and Gradual. The music of the Church’s tradition is the Church’s own gift to mankind. Let’s pray the Mass, let’s sing the Mass as worship. Then our praise will be worthy of the Spirit’s breath, because Christ through His Mystical Body will sing the Father’s praise in us.