Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gather Us In... and we'll do all the rest!

Returning to the August –September Pastoral Music magazine as a rich source of commentary… and this particular issue is indeed rich, I’d like to say a few words about the article from Roc O’Connor - SJ, titled Gather Us In: Songs About The Assembly. The article is too long to completely reproduce here, and if you would like to read the entire article, it will be necessary to obtain a copy of Pastoral Music magazine on your own as the article is not reproduced online anywhere that I have found yet.

The opening paragraph of the article sets the tone for this “reflection”:

I want to reflect with you about disputes that have arisen concerning the theological adequacy of some of the song/ hymn texts that U.S Catholics sing at Mass. Some criticize a number of contemporary liturgical lyrics for focusing too much on the assembly rather than directing attention to the praise of God. In this way, and possibly in other ways, some lyrics allegedly fail the test of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. So let us consider the following questions: Is it appropriate for the assembly to sing about itself, that is, for liturgical songs or hymns to be self-referential? If so, when or under what circumstances? If not, then is any self-reference appropriate at all in liturgy?

To begin, with all due respect to Fr. O’Connor, this brief opening statement sends up some “red flags” and creates several dubious “red herrings” (I’m not sure if there is really a plural of “red herring”, but bear with me). The red flags are easy to identify: The omnipresent enemy identified by the word “some”, as in “some criticize a number of contemporary lyrics…”. The phrase “test of Roman Catholic Orthodoxy” begs the question… what is that test, and how does it differ from a “test of Roman Catholic belief”? Even the use of the word “disputes” in the opening sentence sets up the argument as one between two equally valid opinions, which it is not.

Then there are two questions asked which guide the reader into a convoluted and eventually false argument. The first question, “Is it appropriate for the assembly to sing about itself, that is, for liturgical songs or hymns to be self-referential?” sets up an untrue definition of identity between “sing about itself” and “self-referential”… a sense of identity which is used later to defend horizontal lyrics on the basis that they are as equally valid as other “self-referential” texts in the liturgy. The second question, “Is any self-reference appropriate at all in liturgy” leads the reader to either accept the specific horizontal lyrics as part of a larger group of “self-referential” texts, or to engage in a wholesale criticism of the liturgy as self-referential.

And so Fr. O’Connor continues:

To the extent that self-reference seems to be the sticking point in criticism of song and hymn texts, several other aspects of Mass should also appear somewhat “awkward” in this regard. The way that some presiders choose to implement the penitential act should be up for scrutiny as well as some of the official texts for this introductory rite – notably the Confiteor. So, too, if self-reference is an issue, should we take a look at the texts of some responsorial psalms as well as at some approaches to preaching, which would seem to offend the standard of avoiding self-reference. It does not seem completely honest to single out some liturgical lyrics that are self-referential and classify them as unsuitable without taking a more thorough inventory of our entire liturgy. The question remains, however, as to whether or not self-reference establishes a valid “stance” in liturgical lyrics.

Well… It likewise doesn’t seem completely honest to continue to use self-referential as a term that is interchangeable with in first person. While I certainly agree that the way in which some presiders conduct the Gathering Rites and later, the homily, are certainly something that should be looked at, it is just plain weird to try and claim that the Confiteor and the Psalms, examples of liturgical texts written in first person, are “self-referential” in the same way that Gather Us In, Anthem and Sing A New Church are self-referential. The issue isn’t whether they contain the words “I” or “We” or “You” or “Us”…. The issue is to whom is the text addressed… in the case of the Confiteor (at least in the actual Confiteor rather than the truncated version which currently appears in our liturgy) the text is clearly addressed to God and is a prayer asking Him for His forgiveness through the intercession of Mary and all the Saints. As for the Psalms, they too are addressed to God by the Psalmist, albeit in a very personal way.

Compare this to the texts being defended in this article, correctly termed “horizontal” insofar as they are both spoken by and addressed to the assembly. While they may indeed be about God, it is only insofar as God is made present through OUR coming together. We are, through these lyrics, truly “singing to ourselves”. Compare the Confiteor, for instance, to the text of Anthem, one of the songs mentioned by name in this article.

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promise to tomorrow,
while we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder,
we are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

Theological problems aside (we are creed?)… the song is clearly addressed not to God, but to each other, a fact made obvious by the phrase “We are Christ for one another”. The rest of the song continues as a litany of us telling each other what we are. How is this at all like the Confiteor, other than the Confiteor at one point proclaiming to one another that we are sinful? Or the Psalms? Or compare another song mentioned by title in this article, “Sing A New Church” to other liturgical texts within the Mass:

Summoned by the God who made us
rich in our diversity,
gathered in the name of Jesus,
richer still in unity

Let us bring the gifts that differ
and in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.

Radiant risen from the water,
robed in holiness and light,
male and female in God's image,
male and female, God's delight.

Trust the goodness of creation;
trust the Spirit strong within.
Dare to dream the vision promised,
sprung from seed of what has been.

Bring the hopes of every nation;
bring the art of every race.
Weave a song of peace and justice;
let it sound through time and space.

Draw together at one table,
all the human family;
shape a circle ever wider
and a people ever free.

Again, casting aside the purely theological criticism concerning a greater richness coming from our own unity as opposed to God’s grace given us from being gathered in Christ’s name (Summoned by the God who made us rich in our diversity, gathered in the name of Jesus, richer still in unity.), and the claim that we can sing a new church into being through our own individual “gifts”, it is undeniable that this text is sung by the assembly and is addressed to the other members of the assembly so as to espouse our own virtue and goodness. Is there any other text in the liturgy (official text, to use Fr. O’Connor’s own term) that can even approach the kind of arrogance in these words? The answer is NO, whether they are in first person or not!

The tactic being taken by Fr. O’Connor is more than slightly transparent but much less than even slightly effective. First, group the clearly horizontal lyrics in with other non-horizontal lyrics in first person, and reclassify them all as self-referential. Then create an argument comparing all of these self-referential lyrics to liturgical texts in the first person, and claim that if first person liturgical texts are acceptable, then all first-person song lyrics must also be acceptable, including those that are also specifically horizontal.

I find it even more curious that Fr. O’Connor tackles this subject without ever addressing the specific texts being criticized. Purists aside, few would claim to have any problem with many of the hymns cited in the article as being “self-referential”: We gather Together, Ubi Caritas, The Magnificat, I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, Lift High The Cross… the list goes on. These are among the hymns that he groups into the “Self-referential” category. Also placed in this category though, are the actual few texts deserving of being criticized as horizontal: Gather Us In, Here We Are, Anthem and Sing A New Church.

The impression this leaves with a reader not familiar with the “dispute” is that all of these songs are being criticized because they in some way are songs about us, or songs in which we personally address God as opposed to texts of purely scriptural derivation. If Fr. O’Connor really wants an example of something “not completely honest” perhaps he should look more closely at the way he has presented this issue to those not familiar with it.

In the end, this all comes back to the proposed “Directory for Music and the Liturgy” which is sitting in Benedict’s inbox still awaiting a recognitio. All of the articles in this edition of Pastoral Music seem to be saying “See, we don’t need a list of approved texts! We know exactly what Sacred Music should be now. Ok, we’ve tried to get away with using song texts at Mass to promote our own theological views and advance our own liturgical agenda, but we understand now that we have to have beautiful music, so we will do that without any guidance from Rome. Really. Trust us…”.

In the same way that so many tried to influence the Motu Proprio with hit-pieces demonstrating why it was unnecessary, the defenders of progressive liturgical music are now trying to influence the Holy See’s response to the Bishops proposed Directory in the same way. We should pray that, as was the case with the Motu Proprio, Benedict listens to all sides and then does what is right.


Dad29 said...

Excellent stuff.

Scelata said...

Do you think Fr O'Connor would like this?
(To the tune of "We Come To Your Feast")

1.Let's lay down a nice rhythm
A samba would be swell.
For praying or for dancing?
It's kinda hard to tell.
A hook that's really catchy,
And bouncy would be nice
Some cheery syncopation 'Cause it's a celebration
And not a sacrifice

Refrain: We sing of ourselves
We sing about us
To give You Your due,
Sing too much of You
Would seem too big a fuss
So humble and meek,
We doubt that You'd seek
To make Your worth and glory the center of the story,
So we'll sing of ourselves

The rest at

Thanks for posting about this, I'd heard only a little bit about the article and had misunderstood that he actully thought we DID sing too much of ourselves.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)