(Originally written on June 7, 2001)
The following is a letter to the editor that I submitted to the Providence Visitor, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Providence, in light of an ongoing debate via letters-to-the-editor regarding the use of "Danny Boy" at funeral Masses. The letter got its print in the June 7, 2001 edition of the Visitor.
I can understand something of what Vincent E. Coughlin (The Providence Visitor, May 31) is saying about people grieving in loss of a loved one. However, any liturgist in his right mind will tell you that there is no way a non-sacred text can be allowed at Mass, whether it be a funeral, wedding, Sunday, whatever. To approve "Danny Boy" (or any other secular piece for that matter) at one Mass will open the doors to approving "Perhaps Love" by John Denver at weddings, or "Happy Birthday" for a recessional on Sunday just because the family for whom the Mass is offered may request it. It is just not good liturgy.
Over and above everything, regardless of family and friends involved, a funeral (or even a wedding, for that matter) is a parish liturgy. Liturgical documents back this up. To perform such non-sacred music at a wedding or funeral Mass does a grave injustice to the liturgy, and most especially, the Eucharist.
A "real" compromise to "Danny Boy" was suggested, in fact, by a fellow music director, Stephen A. Romano (The Providence Visitor, May 17). I should re-iterate anyway that just a few years ago, World Library Publications of Chicago, published the "Celtic Song of Farewell." It is a text in English, based on the Latin In Paradisum, set to the tune of "Danny Boy" (known as "Aire of County Derry"). This alternative text is very appropriate for funeral use, and most of the people I've played this for have been satisfied just by hearing the tune. The translation of the In Paradisum for lyrics is just as meaningful, yet much more appropriate. The text is available in the following worship aids by World Library, found in a good number of pews: "Seasonal Missalette," "We Celebrate" and "Word and Song 2001." Thank you, Steve, for beating me to the punch.
For those who still insist on the actual (secular) "Danny Boy" text, may I suggest using it either at the wake or the family reception after the burial. At Mass, let us put ourselves in the presence of the Lord.
The two previous contributors to the Visitor cited above are Stephen A. Romano, who is the music director for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bristol, RI, who wrote an letter for the May 17 edition of the Visitor supporting using only sacred music at Mass (as I also do), and Vincent E. Coughlin, who wrote a letter for the May 31 edition supporting the use of "Danny Boy".
Special thanks to the Providence Visitor for putting this letter in print. In a nutshell to what I stated above, yes, being sensitive and sympathetic is correct, but that does not mean that there isn't a line that has to be drawn when trying to keep a strong sense of the Sacred. That merely has to be approached in a professional, yet very sensitive, manner in the case of the funeral Mass.
(This addendum originally written on August 16, 2001)
From some of the replies I've read in different papers, it appears that my letter to the Providence Visitor is often misunderstood. The Providence Journal, in an article printed one Sunday quoted me as saying "any liturgist or planner in his right mind would refuse 'Danny Boy'". Let's back this up. What I wrote was "any liturgist in his right mind will tell you that there is no way a non-sacred text can be allowed at Mass."
For those who claim that I am offending Irish-Americans, that is NOT my intention. When I mention "no secular music at Mass", that means everyone, whether Irish, Black, Hispanic, French, Polish, White Anglo-Saxon, whatever. I have even heard from a few Irish-American priests over the years who, despite the sentimentality of a song like "Danny Boy", would also forbid it at Mass. My claim here is also highly supported by Fr. Kevin Fisette (my pastor at the time of this letter's original writing), who is also half Irish.
Both Stephen Romano (well-respected music director at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bristol, RI) and I mentioned the "Celtic Song of Farewell" as a suitible alternative. Although it uses the "Danny Boy" tune (Aire of County Derry), it corresponds well with the funeral liturgy. The text is a translation of the Latin "In Paradisum", which, even today, the rubrics of the Funeral Mass call for as a recessional hymn.
Yes, I did read the text of the two verses of "Danny Boy" as printed in the Journal's website. And yes, I do acknowledge the line about "saying an Ave". But that is only one line of text. One line about saying a prayer does not necessarily a sacred song make. Take for example Dionne Warwick's big hit "Say a Little Prayer for You". Count the many times that title line is sung. Is it considered sacred? Of course not. These are secular love songs.
The funeral Mass is not about sentimentality. It is a celebration of life. Not of one's public or private life, but of one's spiritual life, his faith, his devotion to Christ. Adding secular music to Mass is not saying much for one's devotion to Christ. If anything, it is making a mockery of it, and the Blessed Sacrament that we receive as well. And we cannot let prominent politicians and/or actors (with all due respect to them) or anyone of great wealth sway our decisions to make such a mockery.
Yes, this is the 21st Century. That does not mean, however, we can't follow a few simple guidelines in regards to good liturgy. I wholeheartedly agree with those calling for a resting of this issue. The best way to do that is to let us do our jobs, within the prescribed guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church. Secular music was not allowed in the 1950's and 1960's. It is equally disallowed now.
There is plenty of room in the funeral procedures where secular music can be used. There is the wake. There is the burial. There is the reception that follows at the relatives' home (or some veterans' hall or wherever). You can even have a bagpiper play this stuff outside the church before Mass. I've seen that happen and I have no qualms with it. Again, I implore: At Mass, let us put ourselves present in the Lord. Let us focus on our loved one's faith and his devotion to the sacred mysteries of his Catholic faith.