Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Contemporary Liturgical Music will Prevail

As we move forward as Church into the future, a future that will bring us a new translation of the Mass texts and all of the problems that will, no doubt be associated with having to accept new words to express our faith, a faith that has been eloquently expressed for the past 40 years in the cherished and beloved translation that has been used by an entire generation of Catholic faithful…as we move forward as Church into that future, no question is more important than what music will be used to express these new words of our faith, difficult and less eloquent though they be. Will there be a lurch back towards forcing the faithful to rehash the music of the past, in a language that they can’t understand without the accompaniments and instruments that they have come to expect and love? Or will there be a bold move to “sing a new Church into being” with a new music that expresses our aspirations as Church?

I am convinced that it will be the latter, and for strong and demonstrable reasons. Two reasons actually: superior texts and superior music. It’s as simple as that. Because the reason for considering this question at all is the upcoming translation that we will soon be made to accept into our worship, the question of musical texts should be considered as primary.

Although the music that had been used in Catholic worship for nearly 2000 years may seem to have at least some attachment to the liturgy (recall though, that this music was actually Contemporary music in the early Church!), there are some very obvious shortcomings that make it inappropriate for praising God today! Although the authors of many of these texts, even those drawn directly from scripture, are unknown to us, those texts for which there are attributions are most often known to have been composed by one of the so-called “Doctors of the Church” or other “Church Fathers”… men like Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi and Cyprian of Carthage… certainly great men in their own regard, but men with little experience in living the faith as we do. Their Latin words may have a deep meaning for those who were in the Church throughout history, but what about for those who are Church now? For such people as we are today, we need texts that speak to us from our own experiences.

The music of our time, on the other hand, brings a refreshed spirituality and new sense of meaning to our common prayer. As the Fathers of Vatican II removed the barrier of Latin completely from the liturgy* a wealth of new texts were composed and continue to be composed, not by some Church Fathers from long ago who spent their days isolated from real life in a Monastery, but by real people who live the faith daily within our own experience. Text-writers who, like you and I, work for large commercial publishing companies and who experience the aspirations of the faithful in their travels around the country as they host workshops and attend sales conventions which bring this music within our reach.

Many of these text-writers have the added experience of having been Priests or religious Brothers and Sisters at one time, but who have gained the additional experience of living the life of the lay faithful by renouncing their vocations and going on to live lives of humble example, some as owners of their own Catholic publishing companies, others expressing their diversity through collaboration with their life-partners on new texts and music that bring their experiences into our prayer life. The difference that the sum of these experiences makes in the worthiness of texts can be clearly seen by comparison of two texts for the Vigil of Christmas, one an old worship text, the other a new worship text:

Old Worship Text:

Today you will know
that the Lord is coming to save us;
and tomorrow you will see his glory.

O Shepherd of Israel, hear us;
you who lead Joseph like a flock,
and who are enthroned upon the Cherubim;
we beseech you to appear
before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.

Tomorrow the sin of the land will be destroyed,
and the Savior of the world
will establish over us his kingdom.

O Princes! Lift up your gates;
be lifted high, O eternal gates,
and the King of Glory shall make his entry!


New Worship Text:

Who would think that what was needed
to transform and save the earth
might not be a plan or army,
proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision
that a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
coming here on Christmas day.

Centuries of skill and science
span the past from which we move,
yet experience questions whether,
with such progress we improve.
While the human lot we ponder
lest our hopes and humor fray
coming here on Christmas day.


Text: John L. Bell, b.1949
Tune: SCARLET RIBBONS, 8.7 8.7 English traditional arr. John H Bell b. 1949
©1987, Iona Community, GIA Publications Inc. sole agent


The relevance of the new worship text to elements of our lived experience – armies, derision, skill, science, self-doubt, surprise – these speak to us of the coming of Christ in ways that the older text cannot possibly hope to with its older, Latinate images. This is an excellent example of how a contemporary text can enrich our prayer lives and allow us to go forth from our community and “bring the word to all nations” as we are called to by the Spirit of Vatican II.**

But while texts are perhaps primary, it is the musical settings themselves which give voice to Word and make the texts our own. The bold proclamation of the Second Vatican Council to move past the musical constraints of Gregorian Chant have allowed the development of music particularly suited to the depth of contemporary texts.*** So unique and precious are these settings that an elaborate system of legal protections have been developed to avoid any detractions or modifications of them by less experienced but perhaps well meaning parish musicians, and to allow them to serve the additional purpose of recordings, concerts and other entertainment uses.

The old chant settings, of course, had no need for such protection as they were generally confined to Catholic worship and had no entertainment value. This duality of purpose highlights the greater suitability of contemporary music for worship.
A simple comparison of two examples, one of the old fashioned liturgical style and one of a more contemporarily relevant setting can easily demonstrate to the listener which sounds more like a meaningful clothing of God’s Word, or other words as is the case in the second more relevant example.

Old Fashioned Example:

Christe Redemptor

Contemporary Example:

Trading My Sorrows


It’s difficult to imagine how the contemporary ear would even be able to connect the first example to something sacred, let alone worship! The enthusiastic response of the audience that can be heard in the recording of the contemporary example also gives further credence to the argument that this is obviously the music more suited to prayer and reflection.

And so, as I asked at the beginning of this examination; which music is the more likely to remain with our faith into the future? As we approach with some hesitation, and perhaps some mild dread, the abrupt and unprecedented changing of our beloved worship texts, we can at least feel comforted that the musical style that will give voice to our aspirations, that will build our collective spirit as Church, will be contemporary. With demonstrably superior text-writing and clearly audible musical dominance, the contemporary “genre” will prevail…of that we can be sure!




*Many have made the claim that Sacrosanctum Concilium 36.1 – “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” can be somehow interpreted to mean that the Latin language is to be preserved in our worship services. This can be easily shown to be false since no Latin is used in our worship, and as such it is wrong to claim that we celebrate a “Latin Rite”.

** Zeal for this particular mandate of the Council has been so great that many faithful, filled with the Spirit, now fight to get out to the parking lot first so that they may immediately begin living their faith, energized by the powerful message of contemporary texts such as that given in the above example.

***Again, many have made the claim that Sacrosanctum Concilium #116 – “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” as meaning that Chant should be given pride of place in the Mass. This is obviously a misleading directive since there is no chant in the Mass, and so it apparently applies to other liturgical services such as the Sung Divine Office like you might hear at a monastery or other non-church location.

2 comments:

Scelata said...

You are wicked ;o)

(Save the Liturgy, save the World)

Charles said...

The sad irony from this exquisite parody is that this scenario may well play out for all of the reasons Jeff enumerates, tongue-in-cheek, with his effluent Chicago-speak.
I wouldn't be surprised to find it quoted in some NCR-like organ. Then we'll know we're on the other side of the worm hole.