Monday, September 22, 2008

Just Who Do We Serve?

In the last few days I've spent some time considering the attitudes of various people towards music ministry, including those who are responsible for it. This came about largely because of a comment that I received on my choir blog that was critical of my "Three Year Plan" to gradually introduce liturgical music at the parish where I serve. The gist of the comment was this: "If you really want to bring people to Jesus with your music rather than have them leave the church, you would be nuts to do this!" I posted a rather rash response at first, but have since deleted it as I thought about it and have now come to this conclusion: We need to have a clear focus on just who we serve as liturgical musicians.

To begin with, the comment posed a false dilemma that we too often accept at face value. Our choice is not between presenting popular-style songs and catchy responses or having people leave the church. I'm not sure that this would even be the case if it were correct that people prefer pop-style liturgy music to authentic liturgical music. But what is wrong with the premise is that the purpose of music at Mass is to "bring people to Jesus", at least in the way that most people think.

What underlies this (false) premise is that the Mass, on it's own, is too distant and incomprehensible, and as such is insufficient to provide people spiritual nourishment. It is up to the music to bring the liturgy down to the level of "the people" and give them something familiar that they can go away humming when they leave. The Mass becomes an excuse for people to gather so that they can be "brought to Jesus" by the liturgical musicians who REALLY understand them in a way that the Priest doesn't. As liturgical musicians in this model, we are like evangelist-advocates for the faithful, interpreting scripture and presenting it to them in a way that they can understand so that Mass is attractive to them and has meaning. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, this is the attitude adopted by many, if not most liturgical musicians. I have come to believe that this attitude is not only misguided, it's destructive to the faith and we are finally realizing the damage that it has done.

Consider the resistance to replacing "lyrics" in pop-style liturgical songs with actual liturgical proper texts. The resistance comes only because the composers of these songs feel that it is their role to "interpret" for the faithful and present the concepts to them in a language that they can understand. They see themselves less as composers and more as preachers, speaking to the faithful and teaching them through their words. If they are required to use approved texts, how are they going to "speak to the people"? Surely their lyrics do this better than the actual texts of the Mass!

Or consider that as this attitude gained foothold, Catholic litugical musicians increasingly took on the title "Music Minister", a term borrowed from the Evangelical Protestant community, where musicians actually are a ministerial position in a church, often co-equal with the Pastor, and preach directly to the faithful through "their music". In many cases, the Pastor is a musician who sings to the faithful during services (picture televangelists). Although this model is completely alien to Catholic liturgy, I think many liturgical musicians actually see themselves in this role.

This perception is further strengthened by a presence at the front of the sanctuary facing the people. It's hard to feel that you're NOT supposed to be preaching to the people when you're up in front of them on a stage. When up in a loft in the back of the church with the Organ, the perception was that the Choir was part of the church itself, unseen and only heard echoing through the arches. But up in front of the people, facing them with microphones, there is a totally different perception and the "American Idol" within takes over and we play to the crowd.

So what can be done? First, we need to have that clear understanding of just who we serve as liturgical musicians. This is the point at which I will part ways with the vast majority of my peers... we serve the liturgy, not the people! We are supposed to be doing what the liturgy wants, not what the people want. We are supposed to present that liturgy to the best of our ability, and allow the liturgy to "bring people to Jesus". The problem is that we have lost faith in the ability of the liturgy to do that, and we feel that we need to step in and give the people what they need, lest they walk out. We need to regain that faith in our liturgy and stop trying to patch it up and fix it.

Secondly, we need to have a clear understanding of what the liturgy requires of us as musicians. This is the subject of myriad books, websites, blogs, workshops and colloquia and is too large of a subject to cover here. It isn't a matter of being "conservative" or "orthodox" or "progressive" or "liberal"... it's a matter of trusting in the liturgy as it is given to us and not interpreting it to acheive our own goals or support our own agenda.

Thirdly, we need to trust "the people" and stop pandering to them out of fear that they won't like us. Many musicians are, by nature, insecure and seek approval. When we see ourselves as presenting "our music", negative comments become an attack on us and we react by becoming defensive. We respond by performing what is popular and safe. Even though we may never have presented a chanted Entrance Antiphon or Latin sanctus, we fear doing so because we are afraid that people will criticize us for doing so, as though this is some decision of ours.

This is where it would be helpful to have some authoritative statement from the Holy See, CDW, Bishop or SOME kind of authority up the chain regarding music at Mass. We need to have some kind of defense for the criticism that may come our way, and we are afraid to take this on with little more than "Gregorian Chant should be given pride of place in the liturgy" to back us up. This is why I continue to say that such a statement is necessary if there is to be any progress on this issue. I am willing to do the work, but I'm not going to risk losing my job over it. Such a statement could be pointed to as a "job description" for liturgical musicians and would give us the needed authority to make changes. Those who don't want to make changes can ignore it, and that would be their choice. But don't deprive me of such an important tool just because some are going to ignore it. It would have been a shame if Paul VI had decided to not pen Humanae Vitae just because he feared that some would ignore it.

Understand that we serve the liturgy. Understand what the liturgy requires. Serve it fearlessly and with passion. You don't have to be a "Traditionalist" liturgical musician, just be a liturgical musician and not a "Music Minister".

I welcome your comments on this.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Chant Group Meets Again Tonight!

Tonight is the second meeting of the group that I have come to call my "Chant Project". It's really fascinating how this group has come to be, and even more interesting will be to see how it plays out. There is a lot of interest, and a lot of enthusiasm. If that is built upon, and given the opportunity to develop into a working schola, the results could be truly miraculous. What is really amazing is how everything came together.... I would like to hear from others who have started up schola groups or offered workshops in Chant and hear about how the process unfolded for them. I have to almost believe that the Holy Spirit is at work, given the obstacles that exist and which should stop any effort before it even gets started.

I am optimistic, both about my project and about Reform (with a big "R")! I have to wonder, what would happen if the reform agenda were supported by Bishops and Priests? There will, in the not-too-distant future, be more Bishops and Priests who are supportive. As momentum builds, what will happen then? If we consider that we are maybe 2 1/2 years into the "Reform", what might it look like 5 years from now? How about 10 years? When more than half of the Priests have been ordained in the "Post-Summorum" Catholic Church? There is great reason for hope and optimism as long as one realizes that there will not be sweeping change NOW, but gradual change over many years.

Our part is to be agents of change at the local level.
-Start a schola
-Organize a Chant workshop for TLM attendees
-Write grateful thank-you letters to Bishops who are supportive of Tradition
-Write polite letters to less-supportive Bishops offering your time to assist with any effort to offer the TLM in your Diocese.
-Seek out Catholics in your area who share your views on traditional liturgy and music and start talking. Even if only to share ideas, groups like this can take on a life of their own.

If anybody has other ideas for how to make things happen at the local level, feel free to post them in the comments.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What is the Pope Saying?

From His Homily at the Mass at the Esplanade des Invalides:

(My emphasis added)

"This appeal to shun idols", he added, "is also pertinent today. ... The
word 'idol' comes from the Greek and means 'image', 'figure',
'representation', but also 'ghost', 'phantom', 'vain appearance'. An idol is
a delusion, for it turns its worshipper away from reality
and places him in
the kingdom of mere appearances".

"Now", the Pope asked, "is this not a temptation in our own day - the only
one we can act upon effectively? The temptation to idolise a past that no
longer exists, forgetting its shortcomings
; the temptation to idolise a
future which does not yet exist, in the belief that, by his efforts alone,
man can bring about the kingdom of eternal joy on earth
!" In the same way,
"have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even for
knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?"

Of course, context is everything in these kinds of statements, but in light of the statements made to the French Bishops concerning Summorum Pontificum there seems to be a call for a reality check, both for Traditionalists and for Progressives.

Also this concerning an address to representatives from the World of Culture:

Going on to consider the importance of song in monastic life, Benedict XVI noted how St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the 'zone of dissimilarity'". This
term was used by St. Augustine "to designate his condition prior to
conversion: man, who is created in God's likeness, falls in his
godforsakenness into the 'zone of dissimilarity', into a remoteness from
God, in which he no longer reflects Him, and so has become dissimilar not
only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is".

For St. Bernard "the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and
the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur
of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty

One of the hallmarks of Benedict's approach to reform is his strong conviction that reform relies heavily on the actions of the clergy. This is eveident in the provisions of Summorum Pontificum, and a similar concept seems to underlie this statement. If there is going to be an eventual acceptance of the use of chant, it will have to begin with the Priests and religious and brought to the faithful by their example. How appropriate for a Pope named Benedict!

Another remarkable feature of this address is how it ties Chant into the overall understanding of God's word.... and that very subject is the main topic of this October's Bishops Synod. Perhaps he will make the connection explicit at that time? We can at least hope so!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Unexpected "Missa Breva"

Arrived for the 7:00AM Mass today to find that the air conditioner unit was totally not working. We are in the process of updating and replacing the 25+ year old system here, but they promised we would at least have one unit working at all times. I guess they were wrong... Temperature in the Church was AT LEAST 88 degrees. It will probably climb into the 90's by the 11:00 Mass.

So we made Mass VERY short... Organ improv for the offertory, chanted psalm response, the Priest skipped the homily (I know... but it was really uncomfortable!)and finished up with an instrumental recessional. Total time: 27 minutes.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chant Project: Our First Meeting

With threats earlier last week that our first Chant Group meeting would be pre-empted by Hurricane Ike, a change in path allowed us to meet this past Wednesday evening. A few of the signed up participants were not able to be there, but they called me ahead of time to let me know that they will be there next week! They are certainly enthusiatic...

The level of the particpants varies... some have previous choir experience and can read music, others have sung in choirs but can't read music, while for others this is their first go at singing in a group. I decided to start at the most basic level, with a little terminology and explanation of the Staff, clef and the simple neumes and what they mean.

The first piece we are tackling is the Mass XVIII Kyrie... simple but a good example since it uses mostly punctum, podatus and clivis and is mostly linear. Also an added bonus was that many of them, even those with no choir experience, knew it well enough to sing along. This made for a good example. By the end of the evening, most of the participants felt that they understood the correlation between the notation and what they were singing. That seemed to be a big step!

I've promised myself to proceed slowly and allow everyone to understand what we're doing before moving on. For those who feel thay are a little more advanced, there is the opportunity to sing with the schola for the EF Mass at the parish that is hosting us.

I will try to keep posting updates to let everyone know how this thing is going. I'm overall rather happy!