Church Music

April 17, 2011

Last week I went to Mass and it was frustrating. I wanted to share why.

I went with my wife and her family to Mass in a different Diocese. There were many other frustrations with this particular Mass, most especially the tape-recorded voice of the Bishop making his Annual Appeal in place of a homily. But that’s not the main point I wanted to discuss.

The main thing is: the music was alternatively atrocious and boring.

We sang the typical hymns you’re probably used to. The entire Mass lasted a little over an hour, of which perhaps 15-20 minutes were devoted to singing. A good cantor led, and a good choir backed her up. So why was it so abysmally bad?

Let me offer an alternative Mass experience. The prior week my wife and I went to daily Mass at our local church. They offer 7pm Mass during the week for Lent. This time, the entire service lasted 25 minutes, there was no singing - rather spoken responses - and the homily was perhaps 5 minutes and to the point.

These 7pm services during Lent are like a huge breath of fresh air. The entire thing is focused, and it turned our attitudes directly towards prayer. They make the normal Sunday services remarkably frustrating.

Why? The Second Vatican Council reformed the Mass and allowed the vernacular language to be used for the entire thing. This is a good thing. In America at least, moving to the vernacular language has also meant moving to some form of the vernacular music as well. So it’s not uncommon to see guitars, drums, piano, etc. and sing along with popular music or rock music rhythms and structures.

I want to make sure to say that I don’t have a problem with “Praise & Worship” music. It’s just not for me. I don’t get anything out of it. I have friends that try to lend me Christian music CDs all the time. Usually they say “oh this is different, you’ll like this one.” I never do. It’s all the same and it seems to me to be - forgive me - sterile. I very much prefer Chant, classical music, or even the religious undertones of Johnny Cash or Mumford & Sons to any of this type of Christian Rock.

The problem I have is that every single Mass at every single church in America uses this kind of music. It’s not possible - so far as I know - to go to a Sunday Mass that’s under an hour and includes either only chant or spoken responses. That is a problem. It goes against the “catholic” in Catholic Church.

A friend of mine recently sent me a glorious article by John Zmirak, in which he says

People don't usually lose their faith because they've slogged through 600-page 
books by Protestant fundamentalists, or even by Richard McBrien. Many more just 
slip-slide away after watching a hundred monologues by George Carlin or Ricky 
Gervais that make the Church seem silly. Not false -- calling the Church's 
teachings false raises the squirmy question of Truth, which Screwtape rightly 
warned his tempters to stay away from. Just silly.

Christian Rock or Praise & Worship Music to me seems largely silly. If it doesn’t to you, that’s awesome. That’s one of the wonders of the catholic Church - different forms of worship, language, and culture can all point different people in the same direction. It’s possible to get the ring of truth from all sorts of music, for all sorts of people. Pigeonholing the American Mass into one form seems silly, and helps many “slip-side away”. Just go to any Sunday Mass and look around at their slack and bored faces during the songs.

We need a better experience. I need a better experience. We need the Mass, desperately. Mass should be a delight - contemplative, solemn, or joyful, as the case may be, to remind us of our humanity and to bring us to God. One of the keys to this experience is sacred music, done right.

Sacred Music

There are other more theological reasons for understanding sacred music in context. I found a couple of articles describing the connection of Liturgy to Sacred Music and what it means. They even suggest that contemporary worship music isn’t fit for the Liturgy at all. I won’t go that far for the same reason I want the option of chant or spoken Mass. It is interesting to note that contemporary worship music is but a minor footnote at the bottom of the Church Music Wikipedia page.

Links: Benedict XVI on Music What’s So Sacred About Sacred Music?

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