getting the short end of the stick!
Damian Thompson is not alone in his rant about Catholic music in England. We have an American priest who lived in England for quite some time, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who not only calls the Catholic Church in England a wasteland when it comes to liturgical music, but states that the Catholic Church in America is not much better. Truthfully, it's NO better here in the states. Same banal species of ditties, just different "composers" writing them. (World Champion Red Sox cap tip to the Curt Jester)
Fr. Longenecker writes:
Surely a hymn is first, and foremost part of our worship. That means the words are words that we use to address our praise, adoration and worship of God. So much of the stuff I come across isn't that at all. Instead it is sentimental language in which God talks to us to reassure us, make us feel better and comfort or inspire us. So..."Be not afraid...for I am always with you...Come follow me.. etc" This may be a pleasant enough devotional song to remind us of God's promises, and there may be times when it is appropriate to sing such songs, but Mass is not one of those times. We're not really at Mass to sing God's comforting words to ourselves. We're there to worship Him.
Yep... the old "Christ our Buddy" network of banal ditties. That's about right.
Another problem are hymns that simply put Scripture verses to music. "I am the bread of life...he who comes to me shall not hunger...etc" Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true, but it simply isn't a hymn. The words are the words of Jesus about himself. They are not words of praise, worship and adoration addressed to God.
And let's not forget the old I myself am the bread of life; you and I are the bread of life - not only singing the direct words of Christ in the first line, but giving the false impression in the second line that Christ said that we are too.
The final problem is that too many hymn writers seem to have little understanding of either Scripture, the symbols and types of the faith or the theology of the faith. The great old hymns that have stood the test of time were written from the authors' deep immersion in the great themes of Scripture, the great stories of the Old Testament and the great theological concepts that inspire and instruct us as we sing. The newer stuff tends to be dumbed down, sentimental and weak.
Living proof: All are welcome. Any song that dumbs down a church to a banquet hall on holy ground is the perfect candidate to meet a book of matches. It's no wonder where people get this "worship space" bull$&!+ from. I've turned down jobs from parishes whose pastors or "pastoral assistants" (read: "pastor wannabes") who actually used that term in the job description.
So what's a poor old convert priest like me to do? One experiences some pressure to 'give them what they like.' My inclination is to 'give them what they need.'
These three sentences remind us of our snark brother Jason's famed post: The Pastoral Musician: A True Shepherd of the Thief at the Gate? Jason concludes with:
Using the metaphorical rod and staff from the Psalm (23), balanced with timing and education, the flock will get what they need, and come to know that what they need is really what they want, too.
The true definition of "pastoral" - giving his sheep what they NEED, not merely what they WANT. Back to Fr. Longenecker's post, we read:
In other words, to select hymns on the correct criteria and not bother whether they are 'new' or 'old'. I'm sure there are some worthy modern hymns just as there are some awful old hymns. Then we have to educate those in our charge to understand what a hymn is for and what makes a good hymn--and it's not just the ones we happen to like.
No doubt at all. Sure, I'll program Lord, who at thy first Eucharist didst pray over One Bread, one Body anytime. But at that same token, I won't touch Mother, at your feet is kneeling or Good night, sweet Jesus with a 39-1/2 foot pole either. All one has to do is refer back to my nine-part post series, reviewing the 2008 OCP Music Issue (select "September 2007" in our drop-down archives on our sidebar), and you'll find that "yes, there ARE some good new hymns out there".
Finally, it seems to me that the underlying problem with the contemporary hymns is an almost universal lack of understanding in the modern American Catholic Church about what Mass is in the first place. If it is a gathering of friendly Christian people around the table of fellowship in order to get strength and encouragement from one another as we all think about Jesus, why then the contemporary hymns fit the bill very nicely, but then, so would quite a few snippets of music I can think of like--"My favorite things" from The Sound of Music.
Yeah, that mere "gathering" intelligence, oh, and "unity" too. I see a big problem, often with hymns selected at the Entrance and the Communion. You see, the GIRM says that these songs should "foster unity" among those gathered. It didn't say anything about bragging about it, like many of these newer songs seem to do.
Father finishes up:
But, it can be protested, not all parishes can manage to have a grand organ, a paid organist and a fine choir. True, and that's why the church recommends Gregorian Chant. With a little effort and just a little expense a small group of singers can learn Gregorian Chant which beatifies the liturgy simply and give is the transcendental glory that our worship deserves, and to tell you the truth, once you develop a taste for Gregorian chant--it's pretty comforting too.
Again, "what they need will be what they want too."
And, back to the thing about the English-speaking church getting the short end of the stick when it comes to liturgy: I recall stories being told not long ago about a church in Medugorje where the German Mass was beautifully done, as was the Croatian Mass, and the Polish Mass, etc., but sadly, the same could not be said about the English Mass (it was typical American fare with little, if any, sense of the sacred, from the stories I got).
Finally, check out Fr. Longenecker's sequel on the above mentioned post, regarding youth and informal liturgies. Excellent!
And now: the "Thank You" Section
I'll finish here with a big thank you to Damian Thompson, who gave us this plug in his hat tip for our post on that hideous Our Father video:
Hat tip to a fantastic American blog, Christus Vincit, devoted to exposing bad liturgical music. It’s run by three Catholic parish musicians who don’t mince their words.
That's the best one I've heard since Anthony at Jumping without a Chute referred to us in his sidebar when I first saw it a couple of years ago (and it's still there) as "music ministers who get it!!!!!!" (yes, he did use SIX exclamation points).