Music for the Masses

picture 20With Pope Benedict XVI in town, the media are running with every angle imaginable on the Catholic Church.

While the playlist for today’s mass at Nationals Park has been looked at in detail, the Washington Post took it a step further by looking at the worship wars being waged in masses across the country. And most notably, the article is good. Particularly considering it’s in the often dreadful and or snarky Style section.

Here’s how the piece by Hank Stuever begins:

Catholics don’t argue about abortion or the death penalty nearly as much as they argue about what music is sung (or not sung, or used to be sung) at their local Sunday Mass. It was ever thus — at least since the 1960s, when Sister first shortened her habit, strummed a G7 chord and, to hear some Catholics tell it, all heck broke loose.

It is true that music can be a hotter topic in Catholic parishes than the hot-button political issues that get reporters all jazzed up.

Stuever says Benedict isn’t a big fan of irreverent music but neither is he married to the 10th century either. The playlist for today’s pre-Mass festivities includes African hymns, something called a “celebratory merengue” and even some Mozart (this pope is a huge, huge Mozart fan). The Mass itself will have the Kyrie in a gospel-style and traditional Latin chants.

Stuever brings the story back to how the worship wars are played out throughout the country:

Imagine a bizarro world where all the 25-year-olds want Mozart and all the 60-year-olds want adult-contemporary. The kids think the adults are too wild. The backlash against “Kumbaya Catholicism” has anyone under 40 allegedly clamoring for the Tridentine Mass in Latin, while the old folks are most sentimental about Casual Sunday (even more rockin’, the Saturday vigil Mass), and still cling to what’s evolved from the lite-rock guitar liturgies of the 1970s. The result, for most parishes, has been decades of Masses in which no one is entirely satisfied, and very few enjoy the music enough to sing along.

CatholicsNoSing 01Like I keep trying to tell my parents, everything is the baby boomers’ fault.

Just kidding. Anyway, the article is funny and very engaging. Because it’s in the Style section, it is not surprising that the article completely shortchanges the substance of the debate — that is the many theological questions underlying discussions about appropriate music and the degree to which the “worship wars” in a Catholic context link in to debates at Vatican II, inclusive language and other hot-button issues. (For an engaging critique of the piece along those lines, go visit Amy Welborn.)

Another problem is its very stark characterizations. You’re either a hippie or you rock the Gregorian chants. The fact is that there are people who are in neither camp.

Another problem is that the piece quotes Jeffrey Tucker (of the New Liturgical Movement) and Thomas Day (of Why Catholics Can’t Sing fame) but doesn’t provide any balance from a contrasting viewpoint.

Still the article provides a fun and engaging look at an important issue. It’s a good sidebar topic to the larger stories that are dominating page one, offering a pew-level look at Catholic life today.

I stole the headline, by the way, from Gene Edward Veith. He stole it from Depeche Mode.

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  • bethany

    nothing gets religious people going like worship wars. Also, readers of this blog might be interested in religion journalist Peter Stienfels on last night’s Daily Show: link

  • Chris Bolinger

    Now I know whom to blame for the worship wars in Protestant churches! :-) Just kidding.

    Hey, Mollie, do they sing “One Bread, One Body” in the LCMS church that you attend? My mom’s ELCA church sings it like it’s a Top 40 hit.

  • Mollie

    That would be a big “no.” Our pastor earned his undergraduate degree from the Berklee College of Music, has an amazing chanting voice and plays a gazillion instruments. So he has exacting standards on what we sing and what music is played. And we don’t have any complaints about it, thank God.

    And I love the Steinfels interview and that the Daily Show had him on!

  • FrGregACCA

    Why does everyone keep trashing “One Bread, One Body”? The lyrics come from the New Testament, and musically, there are far worse contemporary worship pieces out there.

  • Paul B

    I remember as a Catholic boy, before my parents converted to Mormonism and taking me with them, always being interested in the music during mass. In fact my mother used to sing in the choir of her Catholic parish before she was married. I wonder if there is a ‘war’ going on in me as well. For some reason I just purchased on iTunes the whole Chanticleer album “And On Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass” and really enjoy listening to it in order to induce me into a spiritual state of peace.

    This article made me wonder if there has been (or maybe still is) a type of ‘war’ in the minds of some members about the type of music that is ‘allowed’ in LDS (Mormon) worship ‘Sacrament’ meetings (the main worship meeting for the LDS on Sunday). In the church’s official handbook of instruction (I used to serve in administrative positions at the local ward and stake level) it did not allow guitar music. But I have indeed seen that instrument used when visiting another LDS ward (parish) while on vacation. Now I see flutes and violins used more and more in my own ward along with ‘new age’ type of melodies, which is a departure from the old style ‘protestant’ type of music of the 1900’s using only the piano or organ. And now with the LDS church’s rapid growth in African nations, I am really interested to see what will develop there.

    Music is always in flux and no religious denomination, it seems, remains static in regards to it.

  • Aristotle A. Esguerra

    Thanks for linking to my brief commentary on the WaPo story about church music.

    Some readers may be interested in the music and texts that the official liturgical books of the Roman Rite actually prescribed for today’s Mass; I invite those readers to view the answer to that question (plus audio and sheet music examples) on my website.

  • Jerry

    Another problem is its very stark characterizations. You’re either a hippie or you rock the Gregorian chants. The fact is that there are people who are in neither camp.

    And some like me who love Gregorian chants and Kumbaya. But maybe since I’m not a Catholic, it’s easier for me to enjoy both styles including having the heretical thought that any music style that helps worshipers focus on God is a good style and that variety is helpful.

  • Gus Pinero

    At 67, I must be in the minority in my age group because I want and expect Traditional Catholic music at a Roman Catholic Mass. I dropped out of the Church some 45 ago when it became clear that “modernists” had taken over the Roman Catholic Church in America. Guitar-strumming nuns in short skirts, to paraphrase a line in Hank Stuever’s Washington Post article, seemed to epitomize this 1960′s modernity.
    Because of Pope John Paul II and especially His Holiness Benedict XVI, I returned to my church three years ago feeling assured that at the Vatican level at least, the Catholicism of my parents and grandparents, the Catholicism I grew up with was still alive and well.
    Stuever poses the rhetorical question in his article; “In defense of guitar Mass, was it really so bad? It was the soundtrack of a lot of social justice efforts.”
    Was it bad is not the point. Was it suitable for a Catholic Mass? No! Where music is used at a Catholic Mass, it must be respectful of and suited to the liturgy
    It was inappropriate to allow coffee house music to intrude upon the solemnity of a Catholic Mass 45 years ago and it is no more appropriate now.

  • Laura

    Father I agree with you about songs that are far worse. If I hear “Gather Us In,” one more time I’ll put my head through a wall. I’m in the “neither camp” group, but I would really like to see Gregorian chant back. I just can’t stand the drumbs, the base gitars and the vapid, airy songs which not only don’t say much lyricly, but also directly contradict Catholic Theology, I.E “Gather Us In.” I also think, that most Catholics in my generation, twenties to thirties, have never experienced things such as Chant before because of the fluffy stuff which was so popular when we were growing up and I think, at least for me, I’d like to see it. I’m tired of this, “Fuzzy-wazzy was-a-Church,” and I want something more reverant.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I personally don’t mind “One Bread, One Body”, but saying that there are far worse contemporary worship pieces out there is damning it with faint praise.

    I take comfort in the fact that, despite nearly 500 years of major theological differences and ongoing raging debates about the essence of true Christianity, Catholics and Lutherans around the world can come together as one to sing “One Bread, One Body”. Except at Mollie’s church, of course. Must be a bastion of radical right-wingers who are incredibly conservative in their musical selections. How dare they reject this unifying song of simple melody and even more simple lyrics? Such obstructionists!

  • Julia

    As a 63 yr old who remembers well the music before Vatican II, I must say that there is music being written today that is very appropriate. However, most of it is not. Why? Because the Mass is not a prayer meeting. So – if folks want some of this stuff they can have it at gatherings outside of Mass. The high church Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox, both of whom have similar liturgies, understand this. Where did Catholics get off the track?

    That’s what is wrong with the music at the stadium today. It was more suited to a sing-a-long somewhere. I know people in my choir with a former assistant pastor who do that regularly at a local amateur night. I have no prblem with that. But the raucus stuff this morning’s Mass, particularly at the Offertory that ran almost to the Consecration, was disgraceful.

    They even messed up/jazzed up ancient songs like Tantum Ergo. It was written by Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. He would be horrified at what they did with it.

    I’ll bet when they presented their list of music for approval, the Vatican person who reviewed it did not hear what it sounded like. On paper, it probably looked pretty good.

    At least it wasn’t “Ashes”, with lyrics that are totally off the wall and contradict church teaching about what Lent and Ash Wednesday are all about. The folks who like the sound of the song don’t get why it’s inappropriate. Chalk that up to not ever having learned their Faith.

  • Jimmy Mac

    For those hankering for the antidote to “fuzzy wuzzy” Catholic music that they claim to be experiencing today, here’s a taste of what passed for Catholic music in the average parish (not a cathedral, monastery, convent, oratory, etc.):

    Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest
    Mother Dear, O Pray For Me
    On this Day, O Beautiful Mother
    ‘Tis the Month of Our Mother
    Bring Flowers of the Rarest
    Immaculate Mary
    Holy Mary, Mother Mild
    Hail, Queen of Heaven
    O Queen of the Holy Rosary
    Daily, Daily, Sing to Mary
    I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary
    Dear Guardian of Mary

    I think that being subjected to a regular and steady diet of such treacle made me the diabetic that I am today.