Summary: We must strive for renewal of our liturgical music from within

Monday in the Octave of Easter

25 April 2011

Spirit of the Liturgy

The Gospel today documents a coverup. It was not the first coverup in history, but it certainly is the one with the worst results. The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the simultaneous appearance of a number of dead Hebrews in Jerusalem, should have convinced even the most skeptical member of the Jerusalem crowd. Jesus was proven to be the Messiah. But that would have ruined everything for the Jewish authorities. So they concocted this wild tale that even Tim Leary on LSD wouldn’t have believed. The disciples stole the body from under the noses of a squad of Roman legionaries. It is more logical to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus than in this fairy-tale coverup. So much so that when Peter preached the truth to the crowds at Pentecost, they believed and were baptized, about 3,000 in a matter of a few hours. Still, the tale of the stolen body, and the culture that supports it, has kept millions of Jews over the centuries from accepting their Messiah, and true freedom from sin and life in the Holy Spirit. We should pray for those from whom we have received so much, especially our Blessed Mother and Her Son.

The Resurrection of Christ is, of course, the focal point of our liturgy and of our liturgical music. In the light of the True Passover, the Church continues and perfects both the synagogue service and the Temple worship. This can be seen in the Byzantine chant, the Slavic polyphony, and, of course, “in the West, in the form of Gregorian chant, [where] the inherited tradition of psalm-singing was developed to a new sublimity and purity, which set a permanent standard for sacred music, music for the liturgy of the Church.” In the Renaissance, chant blossomed into polyphony, and instruments, particularly the pipe organ, became part of the musical mix. Something, however, was not quite right. Because composers did not necessarily distinguish between their own wills and tastes and the desires of the Church, artistic freedom began to run rampant. “This is particularly clear in the case of the so-called ‘parody Masses’, in which the text of the Mass was set to a theme or melody that came from secular music, with the result that anyone hearing it might think he was listening to the latest ‘hit.’” The paradigm for this kind of music were the Masses composed on a popular tune called “The Armed Man.” The danger pointed out by our current Holy Father prior to his election is that “music was no longer developing out of prayer, but, with the new demand for artistic autonomy, was now heading away from the liturgy; it was becoming an end in itself.”

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent, and in the 20th, Pope St. Pius X intervened. They made the norm that liturgical music should be “at the service of the Word.” (146) They affirmed the clear difference between sacred and secular music, and, over and over in the 20th century, from Pius X to the Council and its documents and soon-to-be-blessed John Paul II, told us that music is liturgical insofar as it has solidarity with Gregorian chant and the polyphonic tradition.

So why is Catholic church music today so uniformly ugly? I am not exaggerating. It is so ugly that it is warping the aesthetic sense of Catholic churchgoers, convincing them that what they hear at Mass is good liturgical music. We are exactly where we were in the 16th and early 20th centuries, just before the Council and Pope intervened. Composers feel free to do just about anything they want to, particularly changing the Scriptural text to fit the rhythm and melody they concoct in their heads. And they believe that when they “get” a song, it is divinely inspired. I am not making this up. Read their web blogs. Moreover, they believe that the closer they get to the spirit of popular music, the more relevant and accepted it will be, especially by the young. The “parody Mass” is back, but we don’t call it that. In the early 70s, the St. Louis Jesuits took the melody from the Brady Bunch theme song and turned it into a pop religious piece: Here I am Lord. The Holy Father is very direct here. He says that industrially produced “pop” music “ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal.” That describes much of what we see in modern pew hymnals. He says “rock. . .is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship.” Recall the “deadhead” followers of Jerry Garcia waving their lit cigarette lighters in a kind of cultic affirmation. In such an atmosphere, “the participants sink. . .beneath the elemental force of the universe” and become enslaved to their passions.

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