So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ghosts of Christmas past and present and hoping for a brighter future.

A Reflection on Things Past and Present

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.

Body Irony

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.

What most people fail to appreciate is that the Ordinary Form does not permit the waving of norms that require the Mass to be celebrated with dignity, reverence and its constituent parts intact. The current GIRM, flawed as it may be, contains specific directions that are routinely ignored.

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?

A few parishes—emphasis on the word few—are blessed to have pastors who recognize that the bona fide music of the Mass requires no apology, and so they permit great works to be sung because those enlightened pastors harbour no argument against the music which truly belongs in and around the sanctuary of the Lord.

Education, education, education!

A large part of the problem concerning the music presented at Mass is the attitude of priests who are so poorly formed in the Liturgy that they cannot nor will not appreciate that the integrity of the Mass necessarily requires the music prescribed for the Liturgy. Because they lack the knowledge to discriminate, and relying on the advice of "leaders of song" who routinely inject compositions into the Mass which reflect their own limited abilities and limited appreciation of authentic sacred music, they proscribe the good and prescribe the bad. It would appear, if practice means anything, that they, like most lay folk, cannot or simply do not distinguish between well composed music and some tragically conceived composition that pretends to be music. Sadly, a concern for music is frequently tossed aside as the last thing a pastor needs to care about.

Is it any wonder, given the threat from pushy laity that some pastors feel, that well trained choir directors and informed members of the congregation are routinely swatted away like flies for raising the issue of the necessity of quality music? Is it any wonder that parishes suffer from a loss of beauty in every respect because priests have been subjected to a pervasive ideology of utility in their seminary formation, which is reinforced by the limited views of narrow minded congregants, that does direct or indirect violence to the cultivation of the fine arts? At best, most seminarians trained exclusively in the Ordinary Form have a highly truncated formation in the musical arts and are deficient in the art of cantillation.

Perfect practice makes perfect.

Seminarians should sing every day. That is, especially in their senior years of seminary formation, they should practice every day the chants they will be expected to know as deacons and priests, especially the chant formulas for prayers and readings. A one semester class on chanting (cantillation of) the diaconal and presbyteral chants should be required in every seminary. Furthermore, exposure to online resources is helping young tech-savvy priests to develop confidence: Corpus Christi Watershed; International Committee On English In The Liturgy; National Association of Pastoral Musicians (chant section). The advent of personal audiovisual technologies (cell phones, MP3 players, etc.) has put in the hands of a younger generation access to a personal karaoke device that, for better or worse, emboldens people to sing.

To build a culture of musical excellence, a priest has to know the resources available, the official resources that—contrary to what the ill-informed historical revisionists might say—reinforce the correct chants that are meant to be presented in the Ordinary Form of Holy Mass.

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.

Fidei Defensor, Défenseur de la Foi, Defender of the Faith

Catholics cannot allow anyone to discard the musical heritage of the Church by allowing the music of the Mass to be treated as an afterthought. It's up to all of us to inform our brothers and sisters in Christ that the Mass requires our bettering effort. Music is the vehicle for the sacred text, the word of God. The music of the Mass should be like the gold which lines the inside of the chalice. When impertinent priests and people show disdain toward authentic sacred music by promoting heterodox texts and compositions with shabby melodies set with crass harmonies, then confront them by simply stating in polite terms that the music of the Mass is meant to be cuisine, not junk food. Only a seriously corrupt palate would prefer Gather Us In to Palestrina's Magnum Mysterium.

That music of the highest quality is integral to the proper celebration of the Mass is a thought that should transcend differences in musical tastes. Taste in music should not be reduced to mere utility, by the way. I.e., musical offerings should not be reduced to the stuff the congregation can chirp out, as if we are all meant to be brought down to the lowest common denominator with regards to musical excellence. Much of the "congregational music", e.g., stuff that pretends to be a Responsorial Psalm, is not singable by the congregation. The Psalm does not need to be sung responsorially nor does its presentation require the involvement of the congregation.

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.

People should have their imaginations stretched and taste buds purified for and by real cuisine, and not allowed to remain bloated on the pablum of trite ear-worms that linger in the soul like heretical cotton candy. Nor should the congregation get to vote on what constitutes viable music for the Liturgy. The Church, through many papal documents and the received musical heritage contained in many authoritative collections, has stated what is acceptable in the Sacred Liturgy. It's time that choir directors and pastors show allegiance to the Tradition of sacred music of the Church and stop pandering to ill-informed consumers with ill-formed preferences.


The congregation is not required to sing every chant in the Mass. That notion, i.e., that the congregation must sing everything but the priest's parts of the Mass, which typically leads to an unfortunate misappropriation of the choir's role by the congregation, persists in most parishes. The choir has a distinct role to play, and it is not limited to the role of leader of song, as much as some directors might want it to be out of some egalitarian sensibility that has little place in Catholic liturgy. The congregation is invited to sing the acclamations and responses, not necessarily the great hymns of the Mass: the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus and Benedictus, etc.

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!

Clouded Vision

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

Thankfully, many younger priests who are exposed to Catholic resources on the internet and who are hungry for authenticity (and who are quietly supplementing their seminary formation behind the scenes) are learning for themselves the teaching of the Church with regards to her musical heritage. Despite the many dangerous corridors, sordid chambers and dead end alleyways one encounters in and around the world wide web, young priests are discovering the tools they need to raise up their Catholic flocks in truth, goodness and beauty.

If the New Evangelization is anything, it must be true to the promotion of good music which elevates the senses and guides worshippers into the Truth and a deeper communion with the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.

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"A multitude of wise men is the salvation of the world(.)—Wisdom 6:24. Readers are welcome to make rational and responsible comments. Any comment that 1) offends human dignity and/or 2) which constitutes an irrational attack on the Catholic Faith will not go unchallenged. If deemed completely stupid, such a comment will most assuredly not see the light of day. Them's the rules. Don't like 'em? Move on.

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