I am reminded of spending many additional hours in the loft and parish hall in rehearsal as Choir Director for more than 20 years at two parishes. I am reminded of how tricky it is to plan, prepare and present music for Mass when so many competing interests are poised to interfere with "the best-laid schemes O' mice an' men".
Parish choir directors who really understand the Liturgy are likely to empathize with the thought that one's greatest obstacle to presenting the music "of" the Mass, e.g., chanted propers, Latin ordinary chants and authentic sacred polyphony, typically comes from a pastor who, in a spirit of "pastoral concern", tames into submission the choir director who yearns to present selections from the Church's vast treasure trove of musical gems to adorn Christ's magnificent gift to the Church, the Mass. Sadly, the pastoral concern ploy typically hides a fear that the Mass will become "too Catholic" for said priests and their errant flocks to bear. Internet diaries and everyday conversations are replete with priestly ängst that parish constituents will be alienated by too much "Catholicky" music and ritual. Priests use the tired old chestnut that the congregation is meant to be engaged in "active participation" while ignoring the many documents which qualify the term originally used to guide Catholics into a deeper communion with Christ in the Liturgy. That term, of course, is participatio actuosa, which is perhaps best understood as actual or intentional participation, a heart responding to God's invitation to new life in Christ. The many documents which speak to the definition of that term herald a refinement of the heart, not merely the hands, at worship. That is not to say, of course, that our worship of Almighty God is disembodied. Far from it! The heart is fully engaged and united to the body. Where the body goes, so does our heart.
One of the most poorly understood realities of our day is that the body makes promises that the head cannot keep. People who sleep around and who think themselves immune to the "promises of the body" will discover one way or another the connections or consequences that have been forged by the body even while the head and heart are disengaged. If those same people resist the truth of the story that the body has written, a void will develop in the soul, a disconnect between head, heart and body. In that circumstance, the person is spiralling down a chasm of confusion. Conversely, if the body is shaped by religion, that is to say the discipline of the Faith, the heart will be guided to sublime matters, too. The heart and body pray together.
There is a necessary decorum which reflects our deference to God present in His word and the Holy Eucharist. That deference is reflected in the way our body is engaged. Authentic intention shapes the body and gesture into a living icon of prayer. The Holy Spirit prays in the soul docile to His influence. Immersed in the Holy Spirit, the soul is configured to Christ. Where the soul goes, so too the body.
Din of thieves.
The Ordinary Form of the Mass was never meant to be a cacophony of departures from Tradition. Though, thanks to far too many poorly trained clergy and ignorant lay musicians, that is what it has become. In light of the rending of the Liturgy, can anyone blame tradition-minded Catholics for fleeing the typical Ordinary Form Mass for the Extraordinary Form or fleeing to the Ordinariate? In the refuge provided by the Missal of Pope St. John XXIII, there is no irresponsible bargaining away obedience to the prescribed music of the Mass. Likewise, Divine Worship (The Missal) requires that Mass be celebrated with a mind to the fact we are in the Presence of our Creator, Almighty God, the Lord of Hosts, the Redeemer of mankind—dare we not consider the need for decorum?
Education, education, education!
The priest can himself or with the help of a sub-committee organize concerts or recitals (held in the parish hall, of course!) so that people can be exposed to authentic sacred music. Invite accomplished choirs to give concerts AND THEN offer music in a Mass in the host parish to incite engagement and excite hope in the faithful.
Forget me not.
Regardless of its mode of presentation, the Psalm needs to be composed well. The Gradual Psalm is a sung reading of the Mass. Insisting that the congregation sings it is, if people haven't noticed by now, impractical to say the least. A reading from Scripture is meant to be listened to. Singing a passage of Scripture can help the worshipper to appropriate it and internalize it. However, the melodies to which we are commonly subjected are entirely forgettable, and that is precisely what happens after most Masses. People forget the "lessons" offered them in the first part of the Mass.
Typically, the Psalm is not treated with the respect it is due. It is not just another song, it is the very word of God. One highly laudable development is the creation of the Simple English Propers by Bartlett. These simple chants are by no means simplistic. Their musical merit far outweighs that of the trite ditties one finds in the disposable missalettes in Canada. The SEPs are a quantum leap forward in liturgical music because they go backwards, as it were, to the foundation of all Roman Catholic (and Western classical) music: chant. The SEPs are cuisine in a cafeteria that too often serves nothing but insipid fare.
Let's not force people to sing anything that inhibits or impinges upon the choir's role. Certainly, let's not dumb down the music by lowering the standard so that weak voices are accommodated. That may sound harsh to those who want the congregation to join in every chant, hymn, musical offering, anthem or what have you. However, it's simply not necessary that everyone should try and sing, for one. Secondly, the Propers and Ordinary chants are not meant to be sung by the congregation. The congregation has a role: they are the Church Militant. The choir represents the mystical heavenly choir of angels around God's throne, and the praises of the saints (Church Triumphant). The priest in the sanctuary represents at once the throne of God and the bridge between heaven and earth.
There are three distinct physical or material precincts, too, in every church: the narthex or vestibule (profanum, the world); the nave (the Body of Christ and People of God); and the sanctuary (the Holy of Holies). Likewise, there are three distinct spiritual precincts within the Mass, a threefold pilgrimage toward the Throne of Grace: 1) the approaches and Penitential Rite (purgation, purification from sin); 2) the Liturgy of the Catechumens or Liturgy of the Word (illumination by the Word, Christ present in Sacred Scripture); and union in the Liturgy of the Faith or Liturgy of the Eucharist (beginning with the Offertory—the priest's offering of his and our sacrifice to Christ; Christ offering Himself to us: the Consecration and Holy Communion). The bridge between heaven and earth is found in that moment when Truth transforms: the Creed. The Creed is a prayer, acknowledgment, icon of the Faith (symbolon) that issues forth from the soul being transformed. It is a 'yes' to God's invitation. As much as we pray the Creed, we are united to Christ in His Truth. How perfect is that preparation for the glorious descent of the Holy Spirit and the transformation of the bread and wine (symbols of our sacrifices or offerings) into the Body and Blood of Christ!
Democracy has invaded the nave and clouded people's understanding regarding the nature of the music of the Liturgy. Which is to say, leave the big juicy bits to the choir, the bits for which the choir is responsible and trained. If people want to sing along with the choir, that's fine. They should also consider joining the choir if they feel called to sing at every musical instant in the Mass. Is it any wonder that some parishes—most parishes—have difficulty raising choirs when there is no incentive to leave the pew for the loft? Why sing in the choir when you can sing in the pew? Many good Catholic musicians sing in Anglican communities as paid choral scholars because those communities, while having largely jettisoned orthodoxy, still have the good sense to sing great choral works that give people a sense of orthodox worship. If Catholics offered the music "of" the Mass along with choral scholarships, starting in cathedral parishes, we would see a return of our best singers and the rise of many more fine choirs. As it is, too many Catholics must go outside the Church where their talents are better appreciated and supported. (There are, of course, many fine Catholic choirs. Their winning recipe includes the right kind of support, i.e., allocation of resources: full time music director(s) and organist(s); trained cantors; paid choral scholars; etc.)
Season of Hope