The following comes from a September 24 article on the Crisis magazine website.
Every weekend or so, some name composer of mainstream Catholic music is out and about giving a workshop in a parish somewhere. I’ve been to enough of these to pretty much know what they are going say in advance.
They stand in front of parish musicians and repeatedly tell them that the most important job is to engage the congregation to the point that people feel like singing, and that means catchy tunes and simple words.
And how to decide between the hundreds of such songs in the mainstream pew resources? The answer, we are told, is to look at the theme of the week, which is given by the readings. Flip through the book and find a song that seems to match in some way. Check out the theme index. Then consider and anticipate the congregation’s reactions to the pieces of your choosing and give it your best shot.
Sadly, nearly everything about this is wrong. In this model, the musicians are being charged with making the liturgy happen on a week-to-week basis. The Church struggles with provide liturgical books with deep roots in history, but the musicians show up and put five minutes of thought into making decisions about styles and texts that have a gigantic effect on the overall liturgical ethos. It is too much responsibility to put on their shoulders, and no one is competent to pull it off…
To be sure, it is flattering for the musicians to hear that they have this power. When the workshop leader comes and tell them this, their egos get a boost. Most aren’t paid and most aren’t really trained either, so this kind of responsibility can be welcome in lieu of material reward. It is to accept a job that is almost priestly but without the trouble of six years of training and ordination. But the truth is that no actor in the liturgical world should have this level of power and discretion, and it is wrong to expect this of anyone.
What’s more, from what I can observe from parishes I visit, it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal. What actually happens is that people feel as if the musicians are overreaching and asking something of the congregation that the people don’t feel the need to give. Mandatory enthusiasm for someone else’s project doesn’t go over well in any aspect of life, especially not in music. Many just sit there vaguely and habitually protesting in their minds. So the musicians end up with a feeling of failure and confusion. Or they blame others and end up getting mad about the people and their refusal to go with the program….
It is not our job to discern themes of the day and take over the job from the Church of pushing texts that we find appropriate. The texts for singing at Mass are already given to us. There is an entrance text, a Psalm text, an offertory text, and a communion text. These are in the liturgical books. The counsel to pick and choose whatever you want amounts to a counsel to ignore the liturgy of the Church and substitute something of your own making….
Thanks mostly to the efforts of the Church Music Association of America, we now have the beginnings of a growing repertoire of music that is both accessible to parishes and seeks to do what the Church intends with regard to the liturgy, which is to say that these new resources set the liturgical word to music. There are new books of sung propers appearing every few months, books such as the Simple English Propers (2011) and the Parish Book of Psalms (2012).
The idea is to provide a bridge to the ideal, to re-root the singing at Mass in a coherent framework, to restrain the wandering power of the subjective imagination of musicians, and to unleash a new kind of beauty that comes with following both the letter and spirit of the liturgy itself….
Author’s Note: If you want to know more about the proper role of music in the liturgy, there is no better source than William Mahrt’s The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (CMAA, 2012). Here is the full presentation of the bracing but uplifting reality.
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