CAUTION! These are easily the most insulting series of Articles the Rev. Know it all has yet written.)
The Rev. Know it all’s guide to how to behave in Church Part 5
I am reminded of the old monsignor who hated music. His parishioners told him, “But Monsignor, music bridges every gap. It reaches the untouchable. It speaks the ineffable.”
He shot back “I don’t care if it unscrews the inscrutable. I just don’t like it!”
Perhaps he was thinking of the organist in the parish of my childhood who looked and sounded exactly like Jimmy Durante. I can still remember the white knuckles of old Monsignor O’Brien as he clutched the arms of his chair while the organist slaughtered Gregorian chant. A very traditional priest once told me that he couldn’t bear to hear the Salve Regina sung at gatherings of priests. He said it sounded more like the Notre Dame fight song when the clergy got their mitts on it.
There are a few guiding principles when it come to church music. The first is the guiding principal of all Eucharistic Liturgies. (A fancy-schmantzy edumacated word for “Mass”).
- Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. It ain’t a stage production.
- The only star at Mass is Jesus on the altar.
- Prayer is as much, if not more, about listening than it is about talking. Even congregational singing is about listening, listening to the people around you with whom you are singing. It isn’t my venue, or yours, for self expression. It’s a sacrifice and it’s about God.
There are three groups of people who need to be taken out to the woodshed and reasoned with on these three points: first, the congregation; second, the choir, cantors and music directors; and third priests and deacons.
I will first insult the congregation. It is said that he who sings prays twice. Why? Try an experiment. Say something, and then sing it. (You might want to close the door. Your spouse might think she has grounds to commit you to an asylum. Lord knows, she’s been looking for just such an opportunity for years.) When you say it, it comes out your nose and mouth. Or at least your nose. When you sing it, you can feel it in your chest right near your heart.
C.S. Lewis makes the point that we aren’t souls trapped in flesh, we are incarnate spirits. What we do with our bodies we do with our souls. That’s why gestures and physical things are integral to Catholic worship.
St Paul says. “I will sing with the spirit, I will sing the mind also.”(1Cor. 14:15) Spirit means breath! You worship God with your body, your spirit and your mind when you sing. When you say a prayer, especially if you are half awake because of one of my long, tedious sermons about Greek verbs, you pray only with your mind, and let’s face it, with some of us, our mind is not our strong suit. So I urge you to heed the words of my high school choir director who used to tell us “Sing! @#$%@ Sing!” ( I’m not making this up. He was a bit salty, and a little frightening. We sang for fear of physical violence.)
HOWEVER! Listen as you sing. Don’t outshout the people around you. You may think you sound like Luciano Pavarotti, when in fact you sound like Elmer Fudd. We are trying to express our oneness and harmony in the Lord. By the same token, don’t mumble like some frightened child. Open your mouths! And while I’m on the subject, I can never figure out why some people think that whether speaking or singing, the first person to finish the prayer wins. It’s about breathing, that powerful symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath of God. Breathe, slow down, listen to the people around you. That’s how you participate at Mass.
Next, I will insult choirs and choir directors. I will never forget when we welcomed the new bishop of Frostbite Falls at the Basilica of St. Hyperdoulia. It was a real battle of the bands; two choirs, one director and the children’s kazoo orchestra accompanying the liturgical dancers. The breathless choir director rushed up to me after the service and asked “How was the music?”
I told him that I had thoroughly enjoyed it, and hoped that God had enjoyed it half so much! I remember an old choir director at my theology school, Bathsheba Bible College, who led one of the finest choirs in all of upper lower Minnesota. Someone once asked him why there were no recordings of this truly exceptional 300 voice choir, He simply said, “Madam, this music is meant for the glory of God, not for your entertainment.”
Perhaps he was a bit less pastoral than he should have been, but his point was well taken. I recall attending a day-long seminar for folk choirs. It was titled “How to Avoid Crimes against Humanity and Other Musical Faux Pas.” The competition between folk choirs can get truly vicious, because it seems that every lead singer thinks he or she can make a paying career out of playing four chords on a mail order ukulele. Amazingly, some church musicians have been able to do this, especially immediately following the council.
I digress. I asked a simple question. “How many of you go into an empty church and perform before the tabernacle, just as a gift to the Lord?” I was astonished that out of twenty choirs present, one choir said that they did that regularly. I was astonished because I had expected no one to have done it. Music in church should lift the mind and heart to God. It should have a balance between music that is heard and music that can easily be sung, thus involving the whole congregation. It is never about the performance.Above all, it is the Mass that is sung. Hymns and chants should be integral to the structure of the Mass, and not just a song selection for our morning’s entertainment. The musical low point of every liturgical year usually comes at First Communion when the little dears stand on the sanctuary steps, face the congregation and sing some maudlin thing sweet enough to give you diabetes. Their parents get all misty eyed, crawl over pews, knock down those who are between them and their little thespians and snap pictures. God has nothing to do with it at that point. It is the children who are being worshiped. Perhaps if they faced the tabernacle and altar and sang to the Lord, it would be excusable as merely bad taste instead of idolatry. The proof that it is idolatry is that about 10% of the idolaters who have just presented their children for First Holy Communion will be in church next Sunday. I rest my case!
Now, on to the clergy. I am reminded at this point of a very sad funeral of one of the students back at my old seminary. He died after a long illness and was buried from the seminary chapel. The celebrant who fancied himself a great liturgist, crooned and emoted with arms outstretched and face contorted. It was a performance worthy of Greek tragedy. I was so tempted to sneak up behind the altar, tug on his vestment and remind him that the guest of honor was in the coffin.
Remember, Father, the liturgy is not about you. It is about the Lord. Once again I quote the renowned Fr. Zuhlsdorf, “Say what’s in black, do what’s in red.” To this I would add, “turn off your microphone when there is singing going on. With music, louder is not always better. You may think you are motivating and leading the congregation, when, in fact, you are giving them a migraine. When you sing into a microphone all the congregation can hear is you, Father. As I said above, you may think that you sound like Luciano Pavarotti when in fact you sound like Elmer Fudd, so just back away from the mike, and give other people a chance to sing.
There seems to be an inverse relationship between amplified music and congregational participation. The louder a cantor or priest sings, or an organ plays, the quieter the congregation gets. If the cantor, the celebrant and the organ are blazing away, the less the people are going to have to sing. They hear noise, so people must be singing. When the noise lessens, people realize that no one is actually singing, and they just might try to join in.
Another great obstacle to congregational singing is what C.S. Lewis calls “the fear of the same old thing.” Some priests, cantors, and choir directors, in an effort to shine, constantly look for new material with which to prove their virtuosity. They are tired of singing the same old thing. Catholicism is all about the same old thing, “Christ the same yesterday today and tomorrow” (Heb. 13:8), and by the same old thing I mean Gregorian chant.
Here at St. Dymphna’s We have been singing a lot of Gregorian chant in English. The same dreary old Alleluia, Our Father, Great Amen, and the same tedious melody for the entrance verse and offertory verse. After about a year, people really started to belt it out. Your improvisations may be lovely, but they are obstacles to congregational singing.
To sum it up. It isn’t all one thing or the other. There are moments in Mass for listening, for being uplifted, there are moments for joining together in sung prayer, but Mass is never about performance, and never about the cantor, the choir, the organist, or the celebrant. It is about the Lord and His Bride, which is all of us together.