Most Catholics—including, perhaps, many directors of music, priests, deacons, and religious—seem to see the selection of music for the sacred liturgy as a private matter, determined by personal preferences and what are “our favorite songs.” Certainly the culture of American Catholicism fosters that impression. A recent issue of a diocesan newspaper included an article explaining the U.S. bishops’ new advisory document Sing to the Lord. The article correctly notes that STTL “places a special emphasis on the use of the organ and the singing of Gregorian chants in Catholic Liturgies.” It continues,
But the music directors at three [diocesan] parishes don’t see the document as signaling a return to traditional music and a phasing out of popular contemporary music. A balance of music styles is needed, the directors said, to give participants the music they find spiritually moving.
The diocesan newspaper in question is an especially good one, and I’m not slamming the editors or writers.
Here are the points I find curious: 1. This “special emphasis” on chant is nothing new. The Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, promulgated in late 1963, says this: “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” (No. 116).
In how many parishes does this actually occur? I’m grateful that chant is promoted in STTL, but if Magisterial documents on sacred liturgy are ignored, who will attend to advisories?
Perhaps the newness of STTL will ensure that it gets a reading—and maybe music directors will be inspired to look more closely at the church’s musical heritage.
2. What do music directors mean by “spiritually moving”? Are we to believe that anything that possesses this quality for any person is worthy of the temple? If I find a paint-by-numbers version of The Last Supper beautiful, is it therefore just as good as Da Vinci’s? Is it equally worthy of exhibition?
Certainly not. There is excellent contemporary sacred music—and much that is far from excellent. What I like to hear, what I find “moving” is hardly a criterion for judgment.
Our standards for the Mass have to be higher than that. Our tastes may need purification. And if I find odious what the church recommends, I had better set about attempting to orient myself toward the church’s preference and away from my natural tendencies.
Bottom line: If we are in a position to select music for Mass, let us begin by making sure we have read the appropriate documents, and let us be formed by what the church teaches.