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.


Dad29 said...

Good insight.

Adrienne said...

Spot on - as usual!

Scelata said...

Very good. (I know that's not much of a comment, but everyone probably knows not to expect more depth than the verbal equivalent of a smiley emoticon from me...)

I actually know a bit about at least one of your music ministers (:oP)down there, and all I ask is that you be patient with those of us who spent the greater part of our lives cultivating a performer's sensibilities and attitudes.
I'm having some of the same trouble at my parish, dealing with that same desire to use the music at Mass as a kind of pep rally, or at least a warm-up act; but this is from a priest, (who doesn't have the excuse that he has always made a living by getting up in front of an audience and calling attention to himself....)
It is all part of the mind-set that caused the dumbing-down of so many aspects of the Liturgy, as if our most important constituency is the uninitiated, the child, the unchurched or the Protestant.


(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Steve Cavanaugh said...

I doubt that most people base their attendance at Mass on the music. We all have our more or less informed musical preferences, but I would guess that what's really important in keeping people coming to Mass at a parish are decent preaching, a good Sunday school/CCD program if it's a family with kids, and being treated decently. The last can mean anything from explaining what a second collection is for, to transparency in financials, to listening respectfully to concerns.
When I stopped my attendance at the local parish, and moved on to the Anglican Use congregation here in the diocese, it was not primarily because of the music--OCP dreck that it was! But that, with the preaching, lousy CCD program and general mediocrity despite years of efforts at working on things led me to leave.

Mara Joy said...

I know I, for one, can be guilty of taking criticisms too personally...good grief, Mara, it's not your music! it's God's!