I have some vivid childhood memories of going to Mass in the early ‘80s. I recall the smell of incense and candles, and the feel of hard wooden pews and kneelers. I remember seeing folks wearing their Sunday best, priests adorned in fine vestments, and altar boys with neatly combed hair and shoes polished to a mirror shine. And I remember the hymns. We belonged to a smaller parish that didn’t have an organ, and I can’t say that I recall any form of instrumental accompaniment. I just remember holding the hymnal and doing my best to sing along to familiar tunes such as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Hail Holy Queen,” “Come Holy Ghost,” “Salve Regina,” and others. To this day, the melodies and lyrics of these songs are ingrained in my mind.
Fast forward a bit to high school and something interesting happened. A couple of parishoners convinced our pastor to allow them to conduct a weekly “folk Mass” that would include more upbeat music with acoustic guitars, and encourage an overall greater “spirit of participation.” I remember very well that first folk Mass, and the couple with their guitar and tambourine leading the congregation in less familiar songs like “Sing A New Song,” “And The Father Will Dance,” and “Peace Is Flowing Like A River.” I have a very clear memory of going up to receive Communion and being rather distracted by the fellow’s highly emotive rendition of “On Eagle’s Wings.” And perhaps that was the thing that struck me the most about the folk Mass – it took the focus away from the things of Heaven (the vertical) and redirected it to things of earth (the horizontal), namely, ourselves.
The more I thought about it, the more the whole folk Mass thing reminded me of experiences I’d had with other non-Catholic churches. I remembered, for example, attending the wedding of one of my uncles. It was an outdoor event and it had a very hippie vibe to it. I believe there was a protestant minister of some kind, but mostly I remember the guitars and “Kumbaya” kinds of songs. I also recalled as a kid attending a friend’s Pentecostal vacation bible school. There always seemed to be lots of guitars and happy music there. (Lest the reader think I have something against guitars, I don’t. I own and play a guitar, and I believe it’s a beautiful instrument, when played well.)
As the years went by, this shifting musical trend seemed to continue. And it wasn’t just in my parish. I remember attending Mass at a family member’s larger parish, and the first thing I noticed upon entering was a huge drum kit. Seemed they had gone in for the full band approach. Even when the music was played well (which wasn’t terribly often), it just seemed to draw attention toward the performers, and thereby served as a distraction from higher things. This problem was perhaps never better exemplified than one Christmas Eve Mass during which the band gave a rather jazzy rendition of “Silent Night,” featuring a clearly skilled female vocalist. It felt rather like something one might hear in a lounge and, at the end of the performance, the congregation broke out into boisterous applause. That’s the moment I knew things were really bad.
Seeking to escape from what I perceived as generally deteriorating liturgical practices, I found myself going to Mass at a small chapel inhabited by a handful of Vocationist Fathers. Things there were more understated and devout – reception of Communion on tongue and bended knee, homilies with substance, solid Catholic hymns, etc. Interestingly, the place is called “The Sanctuary,” and I felt as if that’s precisely what I had discovered – sanctuary from all the noise and liturgical hodgepodge that had just become all too common.
But then, one day, that guy appeared. I’m referring to that guy with the acoustic guitar. I’m not sure how he got there – whether he’d been invited or just somehow wandered in – but there he was to subject a captive audience to his very limited musical abilities. (I have a theory that many of these guitar-wielding cantors were once frustrated players who couldn’t make it in the secular music industry and saw churches as a place to display their artistry.) I gritted my teeth and bore it as best I could, but when he played and sang “What A Wonderful World” during Holy Communion, I nearly flipped. (There’s a classic scene from the movie, Animal House, in which John Belushi’s character smashes the guitar of some balladeer playing a saccharine love song at a frat party. And that was precisely what I fantasized about doing.)
I realize, of course, that all of these little vignettes are mainly anecdotal. Anyone reading this might think, “Gee, I’ve never perceived any major changes in the music at Mass,” or perhaps even, “Yes, I have perceived changes and I quite like them!” But I would argue that the shift in music selections and styles has, as stated earlier, changed the spiritual trajectory from a vertical to a horizontal one. I’d further argue that music is just one of many liturgical elements that has changed for the worse in like manner.
And the real shame is that it doesn’t have to be this way. When I attended my father’s ordination as a permanent deacon, the music at the cathedral in Philadelphia was magnificent. The regal roar of the organ, accompanied by triumphant trumpets and a choir, brought to mind a royal coronation – something completely appropriate for the space and occasion. At a traditional Requiem Mass (in Latin) I attended just days ago, the only music was acapella Gregorian chant coming from singers in the rear balcony. Being out of plain view, the singers gave no cause for distraction. Quite the opposite, the descending voices made one think of a choir of angels in Heaven. These two examples, while they stand in contrast, yet both reflected a degree of reverence and beauty that lifted the soul to a higher plane.
Given the rich treasure trove of authentically Catholic music at our disposal, why is it that we seem to increasingly gravitate toward tunes that are protestant (Amazing Grace), sound like secular pop songs (The Summons), or just have a kind of nursery school quality (All Are Welcome). One of the many things that came out of the Second Vatican Council was this statement: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” So why is it that this is generally not the case in practice?
Music is a powerful art. Perhaps even more than other forms of art, it wields an immediacy and intensity that moves the human spirit. Good music can elevate the soul of man toward the things of Heaven, while corrupt music can unleash the passions and degrade his dignity. Banal music, while seemingly harmless, may at best fan the flames of our faith to a temperature that is merely lukewarm. And we know what Our Blessed Lord had to say about things that are lukewarm.
Just last weekend, the opening hymn at Mass had a very familiar melody, that of “The Church’s One Foundation.” I began to sing the words I’ve known for years, but immediately realized they had been replaced with an alternate text. Without commentary, I would invite the reader to decide which version has greater merit.
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.
She is His new creation by water and the Word.
From Heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride.
With His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
To love just those who love you is rarely hard to do.
For even unbelievers love those who love them too.
To laugh with those who please you and share a simple joy,
Is different than enduring the people who annoy.
Change for the better?