It’s a New World for Catholic Music

For years I’ve been teaching economics at the Acton University, an ecumenical conference that focuses on finance, economics, economic development and the intersection with morality and theology. I usually teach money and banking, interest and inflation, and the history of economic thought in the middle ages. There were 800-plus attendees this year. It was an absolutely thrilling event in every way.

It’s not just about economics. Every year, there are people who know me from my Wanderer columns and the, which focuses on music (of course). And so of course there are plenty of music conversations with both protestants and Catholics (and others too). This event has served as an interesting test case for the status of music in the Catholic world because people are very open about their parish experiences and issues.

This year, I noticed a very strong difference with the past. My summary take away is that we are making actual progress in every area. It’s no longer just a few special cases; sacred music is making inroads across a very broad spectrum in the English-speaking Catholic world.

Among the younger clergy, of course, there is a near universal desire for change from the 4-hymn model that excludes the liturgical text from the parish music experience. But they are now working toward doing something about the problem. And also I met many people who are now singing in liturgy though they had no prior experience in singing. Many people reported ongoing transitions taking place from pop music to liturgical music, fully supported by the people in the parish.

The book that has made the huge difference, the one that finally broke through a half century of stasis in Catholic music, is the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett. It was only one year ago this month that the book was released. In typing those words, I actually had to go back and check to make sure that this is correct. It seems incredible that in only one year, any book of Catholic music could have made such inroads into the mainstream of Catholic life.

I’m probably just too close to the whole event and don’t step back to see the big picture. Talking to hundreds of people over the course of the week, I was able to refocus and see the big picture. What I saw was a sea change in not only attitudes but also in the actual practices of parishes.

At the Acton University, I spoke to so many, many people who use this source in their own parishes. This was true of parishes large and small and especially of Cathedrals. In surveying the way people use it, I heard many different models. Many are supplementing the standard hymn with the proper antiphon from SEP, usually inserting before the hymn. Others have replaced the hymn completely at entrance and communion.

The music is of course beautiful and accessible. But there is another benefit here. It changes the way we think of the music at Mass. This is probably the most lasting contribution of this book. It underscores the point that what we should be singing is the Mass itself and not something else. This seems like a simple message but it was not possible to get it across so long as we did not have a printed resource to make liturgical singing viable. Now we finally do, and this has changed everything.

Many people spoke to me about the unusual method that the CMAA used to distribute the book. We have given the whole thing away for free online, and imposed absolutely no copyright restrictions on the use of the book. Who has time for all that legal blah blah when there is so much important work to do? We also made practice videos available that help people come to read the square notes each week. Then we also printed the same book and sold it (I’m estimating that some 6000 copies are now in circulation, and this is a book for the schola!).

Once the method and goal shifts, a whole world opens up. The resources of Richard Rice such as Choral Communio and his Simple Choral Gradual are also being used, in addition to traditional polyphonic motets that feature the proper for entrance, communion, or offertory.

The SEP has also inspired composers to get to work on setting the propers of the Mass. The forums at are filling up, sometimes daily, with settings of the propers. We have plans to put other books into print too, such as a book of chanted propers by Fr. Weber. And just a few days ago, the CMAA went to print with a fantastic book of Responsorial Psalms in the Gregorian style. Look for the Parish Book of Psalms by Arlene Oost-Zinner.

As I look at all these resources and the energy behind them, and the difference they are making, I find it most remarkable that the responsible organization, the Church Music Association of America, has no full-time staff at all and no real central office. It is fueled mostly by the energy of volunteers. And yet this model seems to be doing what none of the mainstream publishers, with all their money and staff, were able to do for many decades.

It is also a sign that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is finally, so long after its promulgation, becoming a settled, stable, and beautiful part of the long Catholic tradition, rather than merely a dramatic break from all that came before.

I had so many comments along the lines of the following. Why did it take 40 years to finally have a viable collection of music to sing at Mass in the ordinary for? How could we have gone from the introduction of vernacular liturgy in 1965 all the way to 2011 without an accessible collection of antiphons and Psalms to actually use at Mass? There is no one easy answer to that question. It does seem absolutely astounding in retrospect.

For all those years, we lived with this gigantic gap. Either we could sing songs with non-liturgical words or we could sing the Latin from the Graduale Romanum. The leap between the two is far too vast for any parish, not only for reasons of technical competence but also for social and cultural reasons. So long as this situation existed, we could make no progress beyond the niche that was already singing the Gradual.

What matters now is that the dam has broken and the water is flowing fast. So many people deserve credit and recognition for what has happened, too many to even list. It’s a change that has been brought about through faith, hard work, and total dedication to the cause. It is a rare thing that any of us can really look at our actions and say: what I did made a huge difference in this world in our time. But people at work in the movement for sacred music really can say that today.