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If it ain’t Baroque, fix it: the problem of Catholic liturgical music

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 08/18/15

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Check this out, from First Things: 

Discussions of liturgical music in many Catholic parishes have become needlessly polemical. The one thing we all agree upon is the poor state of liturgical music in most Catholic parishes. Like silly children taking up their parents’ quarrels, however, it’s not uncommon to see thirty-year-old adults arguing polemically about the “Spirit” of Vatican II and “hidebound” Latin traditions. While this irony may escape some, 2015 marks forty-five years since the Vernacular “Novus Ordo” Mass was introduced. The liturgical revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries are dying out. Priests ordained before the Council are few, and folk groups are quite literally aging out. The sad state of liturgical music in many Catholic parishes today is not the result of Vatican II. It results from poor planning and lack of proper training. The proximate goal at Mass may be the Eucharist, but liturgy on the whole is a sacred curriculum, and most participants are amateurs. Pastors in most parishes are amateurs also, at least as concerns music. This should come as no surprise; it is a healthy basis for tradition and humility. It is certainly not a criticism. We raise our hearts and minds to God using great prayers, great thoughts, great music received from our forebears. …Let’s bury those old arguments about the “spirit” of Vatican II and our “hidebound” Latin Tradition. These quarrels belong to our parents’ generation, not to our future. Good music takes time, planning, and skill. Let’s avoid polemics and teach a new generation how to sing their prayers, using authentic Catholic music from our own tradition as our first source. The third Roman Missal and the Roman Gradual (or Gregorian Missal) ought to be the starting point. Of course chant and sacred polyphony are our richest resource, but we are not museum keepers. Maybe if we become more practical about music in our parishes, we can build something of value. Nonetheless, at forty-five years since the first Novus Ordo Mass, authentic liturgical planning, professional skill, and leadership are the only reasonable basis for discussion of the unsatisfactory state of music in our parishes.

Read it all. Music-lovers, especially, should take time to read it.

Let’s be honest: Most parishes are woefully under-served by their music; every Sunday, someone pounds on a piano while the congregation launches into yet another tortured rendition of “Gather Us In” or “Here I Am, Lord,” while our ears bleed and our synapses snap and our eyes drift longingly toward the exits.

I’m not sure what the solution is. It’s not easy, I know. As the article indicates, good music takes more than talent; it takes time and planning. It needs someone to make it a priority. (Not insignificantly, it often takes an investment of money—to have good equipment, decent sound, and a music director who can do more than plunk or strum.)  My Queens parish is blessed in this regard. Others, I know, aren’t so lucky.

Still, it doesn’t always take much to make a big difference. I remember fondly attending Mass one Sunday some years back in a California parish where the music was provided by a small family—parents and a couple young kids—using guitars and just their own voices. It was lovely, low key, prayerful—and practically perfect.

I only wish more parishes could create that kind of joyful noise instead of just, well, you know…noise.

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