“Jesus on the Dash”
As a professional music teacher, I like to start classes with musical games to get children engaged in whatever activities we are going to do that day. With that said, I would ask that the reader kindly indulge me by answering these questions:
What was the most popular song among your friends as you graduated high school?
What was your favorite song as a child?
What song did you dance to with your wife at your wedding reception?
Chances are, you didn’t take very long at all to answer these questions. Music deeply affects people and leaves an imprint on them, whether they realize it or not. Growing up, my father’s favorite band was an English group named Marillion. My favorite album of theirs was an album from 1995 called Afraid of Sunlight. I would ask my dad to play that album practically on a loop when we would be driving. When I was middle school, my dad got me an iPod Nano for Christmas; I practically ran to his car, grabbed the CD, burned it to the computer, and put it straight on the iPod so I could listen whenever I want
Good music is like sunlight, it nurtures the soul and helps it grow and good church music especially does this, since it points to Him who gives rest to our souls. This is why bad church music is such a problem in all time periods, but especially in today’s day and age. As a school teacher who teaches students from Pre-K all the way 8th grade, I am on the front lines and see the effect of church music on our children every day. That is why I posit that the worst casualty of bad church music is our children. Before we can talk about why that is and how we fix it, we have to discuss how we even got here.
“Scorch Marks on the Road Ahead”
For centuries on end, the church has always been a bastion of great music. Names like Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Guillaume Dufay, and Tomás Luis de Victoria lovingly took the great prayers of the Church and hymns of the Office and set them to music. In Protestant circles as well, great hymn writers wrote works that stand the test of time, such as Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Despite what most people think, even the Second Vatican Council did not do away with the traditional musical patrimony of the Church. In fact, paragraph 112 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated in 1963, has this to say:
“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”
In paragraph 116 it also says this:
“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.
But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”
Yet, since its promulgation in 1963, we have seen the exact opposite happen. Chant and polyphony have been jettisoned in most parishes and many of the hymns that are left are saccharine and do not “accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” In the spirit of the times, many places, trying to be more appealing to outsiders, abandoned the music of their ancestors and introduced all sorts of novelties. Instead of appealing to people outside the church and bringing them in, it drove people already in the churches to leave them. I know a wonderful priest who did not darken the door of a church for over twenty years because, when he was a child, his family stopped going to Mass because, after watching Latin turn to vernacular and after watching altar rails be ripped out, the music minister decided to introduce the congregation to a new song for Mass,
“Friendly Fire in Hostile Waters”
Trying to appeal to others by turning our worship into something more “palatable” for them to grasp is the exact opposite of what we should be doing as Christians. The Church, like Christ, should be a sign of contradiction to the world, and our liturgical worship and the music that is integrally linked to it should be one of the most important signs of contradiction to the modern world. Our children should not be exposed to hymns and music that do not teach sound Christian doctrine, because lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of worship is the law of belief.”
We expect the outside world to try and destroy Christian moral sensibilities; we see that every day through government legislation and media spin. We would also expect institutions in the service of the Church to try and combat that. However, publishing companies, including presumably Catholic ones, have published hymnals and supplements all across the last fifty years that contain hymns that are not only not very good from a strictly musical sense, but are also an affront to right Christian belief. Let’s take a glance at a staple of any hymnal published by GIA Publications, the Marty Haugen song, “Gather Us In,” specifically the fourth verse:
“Not in the dark of buildings confining,/Not in some heaven, light-years away,
But here in this place, the new light is shining,/Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.”
This has been in Catholic hymnals for decades and I see no sign of it being taken out any time soon. It also does not help that publishers are deliberately unclear when it comes to the imprimatur at the front of a hymnal. Most people assume that the imprimatur covers the hymns in the book, but according to the USSCB and the Secretariat of the Bishops’ Conference on the Liturgy, Msgr. Richard Hilgartner:
“I point out that the designation in hymnals “published with the approval of the Conference of Bishops” applies only to liturgical texts per se, and not to hymnody or other paraphrased texts. Those are subject to the approval of local ecclesiastical authority, e.g., an imprimatur or nihil obstat, which assess the content of texts which are not drawn directly from liturgical books.”
Good luck finding that clarification put in by a publisher. Even worse, at least in a Catholic context, there are prescribed antiphons and psalm verses to accompany the Entrance, the Offertory, and Communion. Contrast “Gather Us In,” a song often used for the Entrance with the Entrance Antiphon, as per the Roman Missal, for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the sixth and seventh verse of Psalm 94:
“O come, let us worship God and bow low before the God who made us, for he is the Lord our God.”
Which one of those two do you want your children to hear week in and week out? Our music helps form the minds of our children. Our children will assume the music they would hear at Mass reflects what the Church believes and teaches and will be formed accordingly. The music our children hear should be teaching them according to biblical and Christian truth and nothing less. The music our children hear should teach them that they are made for the worship of their Lord and God.
“Keep the Faith, Don’t Lose Your Head”
As men, fathers, and teachers, what do we do to fix this so our children do not become another casualty of the plague of bad church music? I would like to humbly offer some practical solutions, ones that I do myself.
For Catholics, find copies of the prescribed antiphons and pray them with your children. There are many places online where you can find these for free, including the St. Meinrad Archabbey website, where they are also set to music.
Introduce your children to the great masters of church music and introduce your children to chant. I cannot emphasize enough how important chant is and how children will respond to it. You do not need to be a fantastic singer to sing prayers with your children. Trust me, they will be grateful that their father is praying with them and singing those prayers with them and it will instill in them a love of prayer for the rest of their lives.
Find a good choir to put your children into that focuses on great music. Children, especially boys, need this desperately in today’s day and age. I just started a boys’ choir at my school this year for that very purpose.
If there isn’t a choir like the one described above near you, listen to choirs that do focus on music that is worthy of being part of the liturgy. I would recommend anything sung by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. Do yourself a favor and look them up here.
Approach your parish music minister with your concerns and, a very important note, offer to help in any way you can! That doesn’t necessarily mean singing, as your music minister would be grateful for someone to make all those copies for him so he can focus on other things, like planning great music for liturgy.
I have no doubt that, with current trends in the church, there is much to be hopeful for. We cannot, however, sit on our laurels. We must make the spiritual lives of our families, especially our children, our top priority as men. Banishing the plague of bad church music is vitally important to that goal. As made evident by the reaction to Robert Cardinal Sarah’s recommendation for priests to offer Mass ad orientem, be prepared for the fight of your life. Nothing is more important than the spiritual lives of our children, for it is our duty as men to point them toward their Creator and to fight against all who would do otherwise. We cannot cower and be afraid of this fight, as the music in our liturgical worship is the sunlight that will help grow and refresh the church. As said by Pope Benedict XVI:
“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy, which at times has even come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur: in that it is a matter of indifference whether or not God exists and whether or not He speaks to us and hears us. But when the community of faith, the world-wide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless. And, because the ecclesial community cannot have its origin from itself but emerges as a unity only from the Lord, through faith, such circumstances will inexorably result in a disintegration into sectarian parties of all kinds – partisan opposition within a Church tearing herself apart. This is why we need a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council.”
Or as Father Z puts it: “Save the Liturgy, Save the World.”